Tikkun olam, the repair of our world, is a bit like motherhood and apple pie in that no one can disagree with its intent. Of course we want the world to be a better place – but just as too much or too little mothering can cause trauma, and too much apple pie can lead to obesity, acts of tikkun olam in absence of humility can have unintended consequences. If we attempt to do them to make ourselves feel important, or merely to further our own goals, then the good is diminished.
The Jewish understanding of human nature dictates that within each of us is a yetzer hara and a yetzer hatov, a good and a bad inclination. So too are these instincts part of human action.
It’s easy to see the good in tikkun olam. On the surface, it’s difficult to argue with the principle. Yet when I attend b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, for example and hear, “For my tikkun olam project, I worked at a soup kitchen and raised $5,000,” I sometimes wonder whether the teen has merely checked off a box on the bar or bat mitzvah to-do list or truly learned about the people he or she served.
Are these burgeoning young adults grateful for their own good fortune, or do they take it for granted, knowing that their parents’ friends can contribute money to their b’nai mitzvah fundraiser? In this way, we may sense the yetzer hara, the bad: The b’nai mitzvah student feels good about helping others but has only helped him or herself, gaining little insight into the deeper meaning of tikkun olam.
It is of course worthwhile to require young Jewish students to think beyond themselves and to show them that they personally can – and must – act to improve the world. In both personal and communal life, we want our kids to understand that there is a link between thoughts and actions and between benefiting oneself and benefitting others.
Unless we also help our children see that their actions are merely a drop in the bucket, though, we have not helped them understand their own good fortune and the obligation that comes with it – and we risk their developing an inflated sense of self and moral superiority.
But I have also heard tikkun olam used as weapon of superiority by Jewish adults, most often in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Instead of talking about the actual issues at hand, one side accuses the other of not caring about tikkun olam. They fail to recognize that individuals on both sides care passionately about improving the situation in the Middle East and that, though they may disagree on methods or root causes, both want to solve a problem.
Moral frameworks give us simple answers to the complexities of life, merely pointing us in a direction. As our synagogues commit to tikkun olam, so too must we commit to helping each other and ourselves understand our motivations and our inability to control the outcomes and complete the task.
Our sages were well aware of how difficult and complicated it is to repair the world. In Pirke Avot Chapter 2, Mishna 21, we read, “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it.”
Even the most iconic of our heroes have only begun the task. Theodore Herzl’s dream of Zionism led to the State of Israel, giving Jews a place to live, even as the safety of the Jewish people in Israel is still in question. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded in integrating public facilities, but as we see from today’s Black Lives Matter movement, there is still much work to be done to erase prejudice and guarantee safety.
Unrealistic expectations set us up for self-righteous indignation. Good deeds are merely one step in a never-ending process. Each one of us is just a beginning. Pairing tikkun olam with humility is essential to its success.
The world is a work in progress, and we are all but cogs in the wheel.