This past year of COVID has been difficult for many of us. Sure, some of us probably did something productive with all the extra time in-doors. Maybe some of us learned to bake bread, paint, or finally built that home gym and have spent the past ten months or so working out and getting fit. Probably. But for many of us, this has been one long grim year of disappointment. We’ve burned through everything half-way decent on Netflix and developed a first-name relationship with far too many pizza delivery men. Suffice to say, we haven’t been at our best.
Thankfully, the new year is a time to change that. With a vaccine on the horizon and the promise of a return to normalcy, 2021 should be a year about appreciating what we have and making the world a better place. It should be about tikkun olam.
What is tikkun olam?
Tikkun olam is a term that dates back thousands of years to what is called the Mishnaic period in Jewish studies which means to "repair the world.” In its earliest incarnations, this repair referred to legal amendments, updating the laws of the land to make things more fair and just, specifically to try and protect the vulnerable in society. But the term has taken on a variety of meanings in modern times, morphing into an active responsibility to improve the world God has given us. It’s the difference between a duty to not cause harm to the planet or to another person, and the duty to heal harms that have been committed, address them, and improve the world going forward to prevent those harms from happening again.
It can sound a little hippy-ish, and there are definitely those out there who chant "tikkun olam” without truly considering their actions, but the core idea is very affirming for Jews and Christians alike. God has given us this world and we are all brothers and sisters in his eyes. What kind of family let’s their home run to wreck and ruin? What would God think of us if we ignored a brother or sister in need? Repairing the world starts at home and it starts with all of us.
How do you practice tikkun olam?
There is a Jewish concept called "mitzvot” which roughly translates into "good deeds.” These good deeds can be religious (such as observing the sabbath) but can also be ethical actions of any sort. Feeding the hungry would be a clear mitzvot, as would holding the door open for someone with their arms full. Great and small, any kind of good deed contributes to a more whole and perfect world.
Obviously, this is a very broad interpretation, which is why tikkun olam can sometimes be the subject of debate. One person’s idea of what is best for the world may differ from another’s. So, it’s difficult to draw a roadmap that says "this is how you practice tikkun olam.” That answer is going to be a little different for everybody.
But while the specifics may be hard to pin down, the overriding principals are not. Do good wherever you can at whatever scale you’re capable of. If everyone does their own small part, we can make the world a better place, a place that treats the gifts God has given us with the respect and reverence they deserve.
Best of all, it’s good for you! Practicing tikkun olam isn’t just about helping others, it’s also about helping yourself. When you approach every day looking for ways to make the world a better place you gain a sense of accomplishment and purpose. There is a drive behind every day that guides and sustains you, replacing apathy and fear with caring and excitement. We don’t have to take the world as it is, every single one of us has the power to make some small change!
Could there be a better answer to the cloud of negativity and uncertainty that has hung over us through all of 2020? Let’s escape the shadow of COVID and strife and fill 2021 with a renewed (and distinctly Israeli) sense of optimism and purpose. Look for mitzvot opportunities in your life and commit to repairing the world in this new and better year.