#GivingTuesday and the Tradition of Tikkun Olam

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#Giving Tuesday challenges every presumption about the inherent selfishness of human nature and provides us the power not only to make a difference but to change and repair this world.

By Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

Most acculturated Jews may never have known and might even deny that the idea of the Messiah (Mashiach, literally “anointed one”) is a firm integral part of Jewish tradition. The established presumptuous vision in our texts is that there could be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction that “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the lion will lie down with the kid.”

Above all the coming of the Mashiach, an inherently miraculous event, would usher in an age defined by world peace. Jews would be gathered from the four concerns of the earth and returned to Israel. The strict enforcement of Torah Law would be reinstituted; the rebuilding of the Third Temple would be initiated.

While the traditional expectations of the Messiah could occur to us as illogical, if not ill-advised hope for the Mashiach is a traditional Jewish axiom embodied by Maimonides in his Principles of Faith: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.”

Already two centuries ago among Jews who were unable to adhere to Maimonides proclamation the anticipation of the coming of a personal Messiah morphed into an aspiration for a messianic era, an age when there would be universal justice, truth and peace resulting from our collective efforts in cooperation with all other people.

In our own time the latest iteration of this enduring Messianic objective is embodied in the constant and now common, if not hackneyed, call for Tikkun Olam (Repair the World).

Tikkun Olam has become a prevailing mantra. It is a fundamental aspect of religious school curricula. Social justice programs, mitzvah projects of students, mail from Jewish organizations and even newspaper articles often refer to Tikkun Olam with a presumption that the words are part of the vernacular of contemporary Jews. We would be hard pressed to find a synagogue mission statement without Tikkun Olam included as a priority. It is a well-intentioned messianic agenda. But is it possible?

One might argue that the goal of Tikkun Olam cannot be attained because it depends on a fundamental change in human nature which is beyond our reach. Despite our inclinations we will not obliterate bigotry, reverse hatred or curb xenophobia. We will not alter human lust, bad inclination, or self-interest.

Additionally one might question if the collective aspiration for Tikkun Olam, so beyond our reach, has the unintended result of taking the individual off the hook as we rely on our organizations, agencies, synagogues and other representative bodies to repair the debris of human misconduct on our behalf.

In response to the immensity of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world in its time of need is a more personal objective for any individual: Tikkun Ha-Nefesh, the healing of another individual in their time of need. After all each of us has the power to make one other person’s life better, even for an instant, through an act of intentional kindness. For the person in need each of us can be the Messiah for the moment helping in the time of another human being’s greatest distress, searing pain, or most profound loss. That’s for each of us to decide and any of us to enact.

Yet the aspiration for Tikkun Olam has not ceased.

There are those who have an audacious commitment, a pulsating pursuit of Tikkun Olam even when repair of the world seems abysmally beyond our grasp. Towards that end there has flowed forth from 92Y and now embraced around the world the transformational belief that each of us along with nations, corporations, municipalities, organizations (charitable and not) and a teeming multitude of other individuals can embody and participate in inspired acts of collective goodness and pervasive generosity. #Giving Tuesday, noted as a global day of giving back, gathers partners across boundaries, territories and societal divides. It convinces us that there is a shared will to repair this world by donating time, effort and resources (tzedakah) in defiance of the naysayers who say that generosity of the spirit will falter before a dominant inclination to selfishness.

In no small way this world-wide campaign to turn the tide of consumerism into a forceful power for decency is an inherent contradiction of narcissistic self-importance and indulgence. #Giving Tuesday challenges every presumption about the inherent selfishness of human nature and provides us the power not only to make a difference but to change and repair this world. Passion and devotion for human betterment is not dead. It may have taken a long vacation but it is back with a healthy vengeance. We can repair this world and Giving Tuesday launches us forward in this courageous endeavor.

Peter J. Rubinstein is the Director of Jewish Community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92Y in New York City.  He is also the Rabbi Emeritus of Central Synagogue, where he served as the Senior Rabbi for 23 years.