This week we launched our Tikkun Olam initiative to encourage social action, both local and global, at the synagogue.
Tikkun Olam literally means ‘repair of the world’. But the phrase is ancient and its implications have changed over the ages. Its most familiar usage comes in the Alenu prayer, attributed to the second to third century scholar called Rav, but research may suggest that it dates as far back asTemple times. In it we ask that ‘the world be perfected [letakken olam] beneath the sovereignty of God’. The prayer sees this as God’s task; today’s usage views it as our own: we are co-responsible with God for the world.
In the Talmud, the phrase mipnei tikkun olam means ‘for the better functioning of society’, like the instrument created by Hillel to stop the rich from refusing to give the poor interest-free loans. But the society referred to was basically Jewish society. Though Jews did have much contact, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with Romans and Persians, they mainly lived parallel but separate lives. Today Tikkun Olam refers to the entire world, from India to Israel, and from the Horn of Africa to Alaska. Today, almost for the first time in history, we as Jews have the privilege, and challenge, of being able to participate as equals in a multi-ethnic global society. For many the chance to express our values by teaching in rural India or taking medical skills learnt at the Hebrew University into the most impoverished regions of Africa is not an escape from, but a profound fulfilment of, Jewish identity. For many young people it’s a chance to take their Judaism away from what can seem like too great a focus on petty squabbling, materialistic concerns and anti-Semitism, out into the issues which really matter: poverty, illness, racism and the protection of the earth.
Ruth Messinger spoke at our launch; no one has done more than she in this domain. President of the American Jewish World Service, she oversees its involvement in some 450 projects. What we do is always locally determined, she explained; local needs and leadership determine our response. Maybe that’s what led to the most remarkable anecdote of the evening, when she recalled a conversation between her hosts during a recent visit to Africa. ‘You don’t understand’, said one of them to another, ‘Jews give with humility’.
In our shul we’re starting small, with micro-grants from fifty to (the not so minimal) one thousand pounds, to encourage people, especially teenagers; we want them to know that if they come up with an idea to help change the world, whether it’s in their street or across the globe, we will offer mentorship, guidance and seed money. Collectively, we want to be thinking Tikkun Olam, that God wants us to care for and heal God’s world.
This is no alternative to other core Jewish values and principles. Chesed, loving-kindness, should guide our daily actions, whether at home, in the shops or on another continent. Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, guides and sharpens our values to give our life moral direction and open our heart to wisdom. Tefilah, prayer, brings the deepest resources of grace, beauty and inner strength back into our spirits when we feel jaded or disillusioned. Tikkun Olam leads us back out, to change the world. Together these values form a blessed circle, inspiring us to live full and dedicated lives.