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What Tikkun Olam really means


Tikkun Olam, תיקון עולם, literally "Repair the World" is a Jewish concept that barely needs definition. Showing up in many places, it is also recited at the end of the prayer "Aleinu", the closing of many formal prayer services.

There, we speak of a future vision of wholeness and our ability, in the days to come, to repair the broken parts of our world within the majesty of the Source [le-taken olam b’malchut shaddai].


The message is that correcting the brokenness will not occur in isolation, but will be realized when we acknowledge our true spiritual connection with God. It is our job to bring out the sparks of holiness in our physical world.


How do we bring that idea down to the personal? In response, many people participate in "mitzvah days", "days of service" and "Tikkun Olam" programs. We all look forward to the time when we can gather again to do this important work. But we can't be on hold either. And when we really think about our responsibility to change the world, it can be overwhelming.


Judaism has your back. The word Tikkun appears as הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ in our sources and can be defined as "Repair Yourself" (also, prepare yourself). The change begins within, and that we can do now and all the time.


In Pirkei Avot [Foundational Ethics, 4:16], Rabbi Jacob says that our experience in this world is similar to our being in a corridor, a place to prepare ourselves for the next world, Olam HaBa.


A better world comes about by changing ourselves, by acting in the present moment. The actions we take might be minor, very small, but those actions ripple outwards.


Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement (a movement focused on ethical behavior) in the 19th century came to this conclusion:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. I discovered that I couldn’t change the town. So, as I grew older, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself....
Then I can make an impact on my family…and from that, our family could impact our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world!” [edited]

The Gaon of Vilna, a century earlier, said "The ultimate purpose of learning Torah is to change your character".


Changing ourselves can only happen when we become intimately aware of our actions. We often drift within the passing of our days, only realizing our stumbles when we've already fallen off the cliff of our relationships.


There are many practices, built into Judaism, that gift us with capturing moments of awareness. Becoming aware of moments before they flit away is possible through blessings, meditation, prayer, and engaging in mitzvot (commandments---there are many that don't involve large groups)---you can choose what works for you. At their core, all involve a 'living-in-the-present' focus.


Ironically, when we hold onto the present in these ways, the future is within our reach. This Tikkun of Ourselves, הַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ, can be the ripple that turns into a wave for Tikkun Olam תיקון עולם.

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