Rosh Hashanah 5775: Tikkun Olam: A New Year’s Resolution
Did you hear the one about the guy on his first Federation mission to Israel. He turns to his Israeli tour guide and asks, “how do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew? Tikkun Olam is a term that is used a lot in the Jewish world to encourage support for a variety of social causes. The origin of the term is found in today’s Mussaf. In the Chazan’s repetition, the Malchuyot section opens with the paragraph Aleinu and, soon after, we read the paragraph of Al Kein Nekaveh Lecha. We recite these two paragraphs at the conclusion of every davening: three times a day. Its original spot though is here, front and center at the beginning of the most important section of the Mussaf Amidah. According to tradition, both of these paragraphs date back over 3300 years. Yehoshua wrote the Aleynu paragraph. Achan, a contemporary of Yehoshua, wrote Al Kein (in fact the first letters of the first three word- Al Kein Nekaveh- spell the author’s name Achan).
The Aleinu paragraph is particularistic: it focuses on the unique role and mission of the Jewish People in contrast to the rest of humanity. The Al Kein paragraph has a more universal tone. It speaks of the future when the entire world will recognize Hashem as the one and only God. Towards the beginning of the paragraph we ask Hashem, “letaken olam” to repair the world. We live in a fractured world, one full of hurt and confusion. One in which God’s presence and one’s ultimate purpose are deceptively hidden. We understand that repairing the world is a huge task that requires God’s assistance
Yet we are not exempt from taking an active role in Tikkun Olam. This is one of the ways that we emulate Hashem and walk in His ways. Many social action causes can legitimately be viewed through a Jewish lens. For instance action on behalf of the environment is not only rooted in Jewish values, but has a wonderful tie-in to Rosh Hashana. For Today, Hayom Harat Olam- is the day on which God finished creating the world. It is therefore also the anniversary of the day on which Hashem charged Adam and Eve l’avdah Ul’shamra, to protect and serve the environment.
However Tikkun Olam is not a phrase that we hear so often within the Orthodox community This is due to a number of factors. Rav Ahron Lichtenstein points out that today’s causes in the name of Tikkun Olam must be weighed against other priorities. As he writes, “we cannot do everything concurrently, and, even as we internalize concern about the broader world, our primary responsibility, for the foreseeable future, is to our own.”
For me, the real problem with Tikkun Olam as it is colloquially used is that it only quotes half of the phrase, and therefore is misleading. The full phrase is L’taken Olam- B’malchut Shadai. To repair the world under the Kingship of God. Partnering with Hashem L’taken Olam b’malchut Shaddai is different than what we might generally associate with Tikkun Olam. It is an ideal that we as Orthodox Jews should embrace, and be in the forefront of its implementation.
So what does Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai look like? Let me share with you three usages of the term Olam, corresponding to three subjects that we should resolve to repair in the new year:
First, let us resolve in this New Year to repair God’s image and influence on society. God Himself is referred to as the Borei Olam and Adon Olam. Tikkun Olam b’malchut Shaddai means putting God, His Torah and Mitzvot front and center when it comes to our values, our decisions and our actions. Many of us would like to believe that Western ideals are consistent with Jewish tradition, when that is not always the case. After all, modernity is about individual rights and freedoms while Judaism is about obligations — collective and personal. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, noted author and ethicist, has written, “liberals and conservatives should ask themselves if there is anything in Judaism that challenges their political beliefs. If the answer is no,” he says, “then their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, not Judaism.” The great issues and debates of the 21st century would greatly benefit from exposure to pertinent ideas from Jewish law and philosophy that could enhance these conversations.
Second, let us resolve in this New Year to repair ourselves. The Mishna tells us that each person should say to him/herself, “Bishvili nivra Ha’Olam- the world was created just for me. Each of us should view ourselves as an entire world. In this light, Tikkun Olam B’Malchut Shaddai calls on each of us to repair ourselves in a manner that is consistent with recognizing God’s Kingship. This requires deep personal reflection and introspection. We must struggle to answer the questions: who am I? What are my unique talents? What is my mission in life? This can be a rigorous if not uncomfortable endeavor.
For many of us, it’s intolerable. A recent study conducted by a University of Virginia psychologist (published in Science Journal) showed that when people were placed in a room with no distractions (ie no music, no internet, no mobile devices) and tasked with just thinking for 15 minutes, 25% of women and 67% of men chose to shock themselves with a 9 volt battery for the momentary distraction (even though it meant hurting themselves) rather than be stuck alone with their thoughts the entire 15 minutes. We live in a world full of distractions that impede both our ability to reach our goals, and also our ability to think deeply about what those goals should be.
Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai means repairing the world that is contained within each and every one of us. It means reflecting on the big life questions, to engage in what is called Cheshbon Hanefesh. It may mean sitting down and drafting a personal mission statement: Putting pen to paper (or characters to the screen) answering the questions: What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of parent, spouse, child, neighbor, citizen, Jew? And what attitudes and actions am I willing to commit to in furtherance of my personal mission? Our commitments should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound.
Lastly, in addition to repairing God’s image in the world and repairing the world encapsulated in each one of us, let us resolve to repair our Jewish community. Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai means repairing the Jewish community by sharing the beauty of our heritage with those less Jewishly affiliated. The Talmud states, “Kol haMekayem Nefesh Achat, Maaleh Alav haKatuv k'Ilu Kiyem Olam Male” Maintaining just one fellow Jew is like restoring the entire world. This is especially true when we find ways to spiritually restore other Jews.
The Jewish community is at a cross roads. As a whole, we are becoming less affiliated and less engaged. It is sometimes difficult to remember this, as our synagogue grows by dozens of families each year. But the non-Orthodox Jewish community is shrinking. Those of us committed to both Torah and engagement with the broader world have a unique responsibility today to share with our neighbors and friends and relatives the joys of Jewish living. The days of Orthodoxy’s “circling the wagons” should be behind us. No longer should we fear the potential assimilating influence of other Jewish denominations. Rather, we need to think about the ways in which we can influence others and bring them closer to their heritage. It is time for us to make a more concerted effort to reach out to family members, co-workers and neighbors in Emerald Hills and beyond who are certainly familiar with Orthodox practices, but have not had enough chances to be exposed to the beauty of this lifestyle.
This opportunity and responsibility we have towards non-affiliated Jewish brethren is perhaps the most important expression of Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai today- because it in fact incorporates the other two Tikkun Olam tasks described earlier. By exposing other Jews to the beauty of Torah Judaism we will be repairing God’s image in this world and reinvigorating our own values in the process.
This is the basis upon which the Shabbat Project is predicated. Inaugurated last year in South Africa, the idea is to leverage Shabbat as a platform for a grassroots movement that exposes all Jews to meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and Jewish living. Here’s an idea that I’d like each of us to consider adopting: sometime between now and Chanukah, invite a non-observant neighbor or friend to your home for a Shabbat meal (or other Jewish experience). It can make a world of difference not only for your guest but for you as well. In the coming days you will receive information via e-mail about how you can sign up to participate in this project and I urge everyone to do so.
Tikkun Olam B’Malchut Shaddai is a critical component of our mission today as Jews who proudly carry the banner of Torah and Mitzvot in the 21st century. By partnering with Hashem in these three Tikkun Olam projects (repairing God’s image, repairing ourselves and repairing the Jewish community) may we merit to see the day promised at the end of the Al Kein paragraph:
Bayom Hahu Yihyeh Hashem Echad Ushmo Echad: when Hashem will be one and the world will be repaired.