Repairing the world, in a whisper

To make the world a better place, we must first attend to our individual sphere.

October 11, 2016 10:03
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting ‘Spread the Light’ by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)

On the acclaimed American TV crime series Ray Donovan, Elliot Gould portrays Ezra Goldman, a good friend and business partner of Liev Schreiber’s Ray. They share an unethical history that weaves a recurring web throughout the gripping story.

The newly widowed Ezra provides much of the show’s spotty Jewish content: he pronounces the arrival of an uninvited shiva guest a “shonda”; emits staccato-like bursts of Yiddish as his grief escalates; and cites “pikuah nefesh” (the value of saving a life over all other aspects of Jewish observance) as his reason for curtailing the mourning period.

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His selective concern is over a client in despair and violates Halacha – but, hey, this is Hollywood, and accuracy is subjective. All’s well that ends well in Tinseltown’s homage to Yiddishkeit, as at the end of the episode Ezra leads a resounding Kaddish to the spiritual enlightenment of all.

Topping off the ick factor, however, is his oft-cited defense of his various nefarious deeds with the rallying cry “Tikkun olam, Ray! Tikkun olam!” This alone registers at least 40 points on the Jewish cringe scale.

Tikkun olam has come to connote social action and the pursuit of social justice. The phrase first appeared in classical rabbinic literature, originating with the work of 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria. Surprisingly, the term is not found anywhere in the Torah nor is it counted by any commentator as one of the 613 mitzvot.

In the Song of Songs, King Solomon says, “They [the nations of the world] have made me the guardian of their vineyards. In so doing, I have not given sufficient care to my vineyard.” Therein lies the Jewish rub. A great many Jews worry about the welfare of others, becoming deeply immersed in the heart-wrenching troubles of others while remaining woefully ignorant and even repelled by the concerns of their own family, the Jewish People.

Hillel said, “If I am not for me, then who will be for me?” followed by “I cannot be for me alone.” Any assistance we offer others in the name of Judaism will be, at best, anemic if we are not spiritually viable and historically informed. The goal of fixing the world screams of arrogance if our own home is disorderly.

It is recorded that the Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) observed at the end of his life: “When I was young, I was convinced that I would be able to change the world for the better. As I grew older, I realized that it was too great a task for me. But I was convinced that I would certainly change my town – my community – for the better. Yet as I grew still older, I realized that this too was beyond my abilities. So I decided that I would attempt to change my household, my family members for the better. Sadly, I came to realize that this, too, was not within my powers and control, so finally I decided I would attempt to change myself for the better. If I did that, then my family, my community, the entire world would also be subtly changed for the better.”

Our primary task in tikkun olam lies in tikkun atzmi – self-improvement – and the strengthening of tradition and Jewish values in Jewish society. It requires that our ministrations and resources be spent first in our world, “safeguarding our own vineyard,” before engaging in attempting to change the world. By way of analogy, Rabbi Berel Wein points out that safety directions on commercial airline flights instruct the passenger to place an oxygen mask over his/her face first before attempting to help others with theirs.

Tourism is big business in Israel, and if the plethora of tikkun olam missions and bar/bat mitzva trips is any indication, this humble element of Jewish continuity seems to have cornered an unattractive commercialism.

Tikkun olam, when plastered on billboards and bus banners, loudly proclaims heartfelt concern with the big-ticket items of life: global warming, world hunger, gender equality and more. No Torah scholar worth his/ her salt would claim that Moses’s Five Books do not address these issues. But Jewish life is not comprised of Greenpeace protests in lieu of the little things that have always defined us on the grand scale of history. Blessings on food, laws of kashrut, times of prayer, the seemingly nit-picking preparation of Passover, laws of family purity and other such rituals and laws are not part of some Jewish grand buffet where we choose the fun things or the topics that garner more media coverage. Judaism teaches that big things are only lasting if communicated through small, everyday behaviors. Understanding the commandments is beside the point; enveloping ourselves in the values of our forefathers ensures that we will endure as a people and, ultimately, exist in order to address public policy.

Without the small things, the great things fade and disappear. It is the small things in life that carry along the great things and transmit them over time and place. Ideal goals such as peace, charity, human perfection and a just society lie at the end of the path of individual holiness and singularity. They do not occupy space at the starting gate.

So when did the term “tikkun olam” morph into a call for social justice and usurp the definition of Judaism into performing good works in the larger universe? The current convenience- store usage of what was originally introduced into our Torah-centric mesora is well expressed in this excerpt from an essay by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: “In its current incarnation, tikkun olam can refer to anything from a direct service project such as working in a soup kitchen or shelter to political action and philanthropy. While once regarded as the property of the Left, the term is now widely used by mainstream groups such as synagogues, camps, schools and federations, as well as by more right-wing groups wishing to cast their own political agendas within the framework of tikkun olam.”

Contemporary usage of the term has rendered it almost meaningless. In direct contraindication to a modern interpretation that maintains that we are charged with changing the world at large, traditional Judaism has always understood it to be a personal mission of changing oneself. With apologies to both the chicken and the egg, the question remains: Is our quest for universal improvement better served by concentrating on the individual or on humanity as a whole? Tikkun olam demands that we not accept the world as it is but that we view it as it might become. Without a doubt, it is an insurmountable task, but opting out is not an option. And whether or not we are permitted in this lifetime to personally witness a narrowing of the gap between the world as it is and the world as it could be is immaterial. Small, humble, one step at a time, we are exhorted to stay the course. With or without orchestral accompaniment.

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