An Approach to Tikkun Olam

An Approach to Tikkun Olam at Shira, Feb 2011

The literal meaning of tikkun olam is mending the world, as in the Aleinu prayer; l'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai, to repair the world under God's sovereignty. How do we do this; perfect the world, when we fall so far short of perfection ourselves?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,1 in his 1997 address before the Orthodox Union Convention at the Institute for Public Affairs on the topic of Tikkun Olam; Orthodoxy’s Responsibility to Perfect G-d’s World, takes it to be that part which we should “take as Jews, specifically what part should we play as Orthodox Jews, in the wider concerns of the society in which we live.”

God tells Abram to go within himself, away from his lands and birthright and his father’s house, to the land that God would show him.2 He tells him that He would make Avram into a great people, “and I will bless you and grow your name, and you shall be a blessing”. So, teasing this famous promise apart a little, yields the promise of the land, the promise of offspring, and the promise of being a blessing — as opposed to (merely) being blessed.

And herein lies, I believe, the secret of tikkun olam; when we, the offspring of Avraham can succeed in being a blessing to all the families of the earth and concern ourselves with the world’s distress, beyond our own personal blessings, then we can make tikkun olam.

But of course, as Rabbi Tarfon put it;3 “the day is short, the work is huge, the workers are lazy, the wage is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

We see in Avram’s blessings, the concentric circles from his innermost self to the outermost stranger — all the families of the earth will be blessed. And this we try to emulate by concerning ourselves with those who need our support both close at hand and also further away. After all, Hillel said not only:4 “if I am not for myself, who shall be for me?” He also said; “if I am for myself (alone), what am I?”

Here, then, is the answer to how we do it: we perfect the world one little Sisyphean bit at a time; to the best of our abilities; acknowledging that we are far from perfect, but that we are blessed, and that we can be a blessing for others. We do not each, individually, have to build utopia, but each of us must lift our bit of the sky - and lift it again when it drops.

The world has so many urgent needs begging to be fixed; natural disasters, asylum seekers, famines, diseases, we can’t name them all. Then there are the causes, small and large, from the whales to the ecology. And that’s without getting involved with any political “isms”. So how do we decide which part of the sky we will try to hold up as the Shira community, as opposed to Ms Ploni, the individual, or the Almoni Corporation?

There are tasks for each of us to take on individually, as families as good corporate citizens, but as the Shira community, we have decided to focus on three main streams of endeavour. In no particular order, we will offer support to members of own community who feel they need it; we will work to help disabled Jewish people and their families; and we will work to help Indigenous Australians towards their goal of true equality. Additionally, if anyone comes to us requesting help with something, we will do our best to help. Not everything involves money. But all things take time and heart and effort.

We are presently looking at interacting with existing organisations in Jewish disability and Indigenous disadvantage, since we have something of an aversion to reinventing wheels. One project we definitely want to look at is making the name and story of William Cooper better known. (Do you know about him?)

So, if you feel you have something to offer our communal effort, grab your piece of sky and get in touch.

Magdi Bar-Zeev
Tikkun Olam committee

2: Bereishit 12:1-3
3: Pirkei Avot 2:20-21
4: Pirkei Avot 1:14

Posted on February 20, 2011 .