I think often of tikkun olam—repairing the world. There are some big, sweeping, important ideas related to this Jewish precept. Such as social justice and caring for the earth, as just a couple examples. My personal commitment to tikkun olam, however, is on a smaller scale: a daily, analytical decision-making approach to the options that face us each day, whether discreet or far-reaching. I suppose that I can measure success in my personal pursuit of tikkun olam by the frequency with which I consciously go through this process when the opportunity arises. As I recently said to some colleagues, deciding on the right thing isn’t just about whether our reputation is at stake, or whether others ever will know the ramifications of our choices. What defines me is what I know about myself and the decisions I’ve made.
In Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, Arthur Greene points out in his chapter on tikkun olam: “The account of creation in Genesis reaches its climax when God sanctifies the Sabbath. That passage ends with a verse that says, if read literally, ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for in it God rested from all the labor that God created to do’ (Gen. 2:3).” This suggests to me that God’s work was not simply to create the world, but to create a world in which we would have a creative role. For that creative role to have meaning, the world as “finished” by God must be imperfect. Hanging out there is the notion of the future messianic era, but it is not for us to await such perfection—rather, it is our responsibility to move the world ever closer with our restorative contributions. This is tikkun olam.
In a discussion about Greene’s chapter, a member of my congregation talked about tikkun olam in connection with the legacy each of us passes down and leaves behind. This put me in mind of a recent dialogue on Facebook. My daughter Audrey wrote:
While I'm so thrilled by the news in NY re: fracking ban and what it might mean as a precedent for environmental justice, my emotions are conflicted. It is hard to reconcile the joys of local sustainability victories with the sorrows of far-off tragedies... to care about future generations close to home without equal care for distant populations. I realize nobody can tend to the whole world or place it all on his shoulders, but I can't help thinking of the mothers of those young children in Pakistan when I see all the celebratory talk about the fracking decision, since they're both bombarding my digital world at the same moment in time.
Audrey is pregnant, her due date just nine days from when I am writing this. She was recognizing the tension between joy and sorrow, the chasm that often yawns between our personal priorities and the world condition, and the questions tragedies raise about the world into which we choose to bring a new generation. I responded to her:
It is an extraordinary blessing to be able to find joy in our lives even while we feel and cry for the deep sadness that may be at the same time in our own lives and in others'. Last night, I wanted joyfully to watch the news over and over to see the images of … Alan [Gross, my good friend Estelle’s cousin] finally being released from captivity in Cuba, and yet that interspersed with the excruciating news and images--from which we cannot and should not hide--in Pakistan. When we are expectant parents, we can't help but ask ourselves: what kind of world are we bringing this child into? The answer is--has always been--both kinds, and we have the opportunity to raise one more child to add to the vast majority of people who are so very good and, we can only hope and teach, to do his part to make it better.
Yesterday, my daughter told me of the exhaustingly busy day she’d had making the final preparations for the baby. Cleaning, organizing, putting the car seat into place, packing the hospital bag, buying the last basics. The next day, she said, she would rest. How very much that sounds like “God rested from all the labor that God created to do.” Just substitute “parent” for “God.” She was finishing with the act of creation that would come before the ongoing creation there will be to do, in the birth and raising of this new human being. And all day, Audrey told me, as she accomplished these things she could not get out of her head the traditional tune of Adon Olam, the closing prayer of the Shabbat morning service.
Audrey did not have the words in mind, but these are the first stanzas of Adon Olam:
Before creation shaped the world, eternally God reigned alone;
but only with creation done could God as sovereign be known.
When all is ended, God alone will reign in awesome majesty.
(Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom, The Rabbinical Assembly, fourth printing, 1999)
Adon Olam (sovereign of the world) defines, by calling attention to them, the gap that falls between these states of God's singular existence, which we collectively must fill with tikkun olam (repair of the world). This is how we ensure that “God… [is] known.” I can think of no better tune for Audrey to have had running through her mind as she took care of the last details before that ultimate moment of legacy—bringing one more person into an imperfect world to help with the work of making it better.
This essay was inspired by a discussion and learning session, led by Rabbi David Finkelstein, at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA.
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