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Commentary on Tanakh class November 16, 2020: Tikun Olam- Repair the World

Donald Perlmutter

We enjoyed a stimulating examination of this subject with participation from many members and quotations from authors and teachers including Leonard Cohen, Kohelet, Rabbi Salanter, Rabbi Nachman, and John Lennon.

What is tikkun olam?
Rabbi Edery led off our group discussion by asking: “What does tikkun olam mean to you?” Responses included “Make the world a better place” and “charity." One member stated that it implies “intentional activism which is the opposite of passivity," a necessity in building up society. Another added that tikkun olam is an obligation unique to the Jewish People. Tikkun olam is “bringing heaven to earth” was also suggested. 

Inevitably, our discussions apply the concept under discussion to current events and politics. Tikkun olam provided fertile ground for this exploration. For instance, President Obama’s attempts to repair the world were regarded as long-range goals whose effects may not be appreciated for years to come.    

The principle of stopping the damage that is being done before we can truly effect repairs was discussed. Rabbi agreed, adding that we must “move away from what is bad” and used environmentalism as an example: If we don’t stop doing damage, our positive efforts will not be productive.  

How does seeking perfection enter into tikkun olam?
The discussion moved to the poem “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen which challenges us to “Ring the bells that can still ring” and informs us that “There is a crack in everything, that’s how light gets in.” This spurred a lively discussion of how imperfections can have positive effects. One member commented that the light coming through represents learning. Rabbi suggested further that the Trump Administration exposed our defects: the White supremacy movement, disregard for science, rift between rural and urban as well as between the more and less educated. The cracked Liberty Bell was described as a metaphor for our democracy. Though imperfect, it holds the most hope for a free society and must be repaired. Rabbi added that having lived in both, he prefers an imperfect democracy to a perfect dictatorship. Another member offered that it is not up to us to complete the work, but we must do our part and begin it. Demanding no less than immediate perfection can stifle the hard work of incremental progress. 

The discussion returned to the first line of the Cohen poem by suggesting that we must repair our ability to select which “bells” to ring so that we might communicate and reach common understanding with others. It was suggested that this collaboration can’t occur until we understand what is causing fear in those with whom we disagree. 

How does fear affect repairing the world?
We moved on from this to a fascinating examination of fear used as a tool by politicians for generating tribal conflicts and the political divisions that currently plague our society and prevent tikkun. Rabbi Edery suggested that we live in “the land of the fearful” as evidenced by spikes in gun sales whenever there is a national crisis and eager acceptance of the false notion of a “caravan” of undesirable immigrants. Fear impairs the process of repair by obscuring the reality of those conditions that require fixing. 

What needs to be repaired?
First, we must agree on what is reality. What are the real “cracks” in need of repair? Which are the “bells” to be heard in Cohen’s poem?

One of the “cracks” identified is a gap in education. Without knowledge, we cannot escape the easy seduction of fear. Devising a repair is a more complex and cerebral endeavor than falling prey to the emotion of fear. It requires learning. 

Another challenge is poverty and the economic gap. We live in the wealthiest nation on Earth and yet poverty is everywhere. Do we look away from it or do we address it? 

The answer lies in self-examination. Rabbi Salanter in the 19th century taught that spiritual matters are more important than material matters, but we must move from working on our own spiritual selves to improving the material lot of others. John Lennon wrote: “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering…”  This suggests that we must examine ourselves before we can begin to help the world. 

Finally, tikkun olam demands that we transcend responsibility for only our personal behavior to a collective responsibility for everyone.  

Is there a reason to hope for a repair to the world?
Our discussion concluded with the opposing views of Kohelet in the Bible who said: “What is crooked cannot be straightened…” and Rabbi Nachman, a Hasidic mystic of the 18th Century, who taught that: “If you believe that it is possible to break, believe that it is possible to repair." The large voter turnout in the 2020 election gives evidence that people can believe both that matters can get worse and that they can take an active part in improving the world.     

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782