Taking Responsibility

By Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Ph.D.

In my recent piece on eJP, “Our Responsibility,” I called on the Jewish community to further prioritize its commitment to repairing the world. One commenter asked “for a follow-up piece that moves from a call to action to a suggested list of action items … if you could suggest three, or four, or maybe five actions for each of us to undertake, individually, organizationally, communally, we are much more likely to engage in the effort you have called for.”

I will begin my attempt at a response by first repeating these words from the original piece: “The time has now come for every Jewish organization – synagogues, schools, social service; philanthropic; political; Israel-related, and other organizations – to add the cause of Tikkun Olam to their mission statements. These institutions must also staff departments, set up committees, and allocate resources (creativity, time, energy, wisdom, money, …) to consider how they can hasten the arrival of the messianic era.”

This excerpt reflects my recognition of the obvious fact that no one person has the grand solution to civilization’s woes, and that, if we are to have any chance at slowing The Great Demise and moving toward salvation, individuals, groups, organizations, and communities will need to consider this question deeply for themselves.

With that being said, here are some suggestions:

The deep identification with the pain of others has always motivated the actions of humanity’s most compassionate and visionary leaders. While some are apparently born with both the genes and the environmental conditions for this capacity to develop organically, most of us need to cultivate it with intentionality. To achieve redemption, each individual (or at least a critical mass of individuals) must undergo a personal transformation and develop a much greater sensitivity to how far off course we currently are. Rather than the philanthropic ‘giving until it hurts,’ we all need an existential ‘feeling until it hurts.’

Here are two suggestions for how we might achieve that goal:

1. Meditation. Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Senior Program Director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, has described one outcome of meditation practice in this way: “The longer we sit, paying attention to our breaths, the more fully and unconditionally we open our hearts to the truth of existence … mindfulness practice leads us wholeheartedly into a loving connection to all of creation… We learn compassion for ourselves, and then for others.” Taken to its fullest extent, Slater continues, “The experience, as we push farther and farther out against the limits of our current awareness, is that our hearts begin to break. We are overwhelmed by the need of the entire world for compassion.” The more people who feel their hearts break at the state of the world, the sooner we will join together to achieve its repair.

2. Parallel to taking on a meditation practice, spiritual and intellectual experiences intended to highlight the wonder and miracle of existence should be emphasized. Seek out transcendent spiritual/religious experiences; read, listen, or watch great works of art, literature, and science; linger in nature. Each of these activities has the possibility of alerting or reminding us of the grandeur of existence; of the miracle that there is something rather than nothing. The resulting appreciation for our own existence, that of our fellow beings, and of the natural universe which we inhabit, will awaken us to the obligation to “serve and protect,” as our mythic first ancestor was enjoined (Gen. 2:15).

The assumption that informs these two suggestions is that Tikkun Olam is not only something that we must do for others; but rather, that it is something that must happen to us also. If we believe the world is in need of repair then we, too, as inhabitants of the world, are in need of repair. As Gandhi once captured it: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change…” The two suggestions above are ways of repairing ourselves so that we can participate in repairing the world.

Once we have felt the pain of the world, we can turn to outward action. Here are the steps as I understand them:

1. Educate

  • What issue/s concern you the most? Invest the time to understand the forces that create the conditions for this issue. Learn what can be done personally, within your family, in your local community, nationally, globally.

2. Invite

  • Find ways to share your personal transformation with others and invite them to consider joining you. At the same time, share what you have learned about the issue/s you care about most and invite others to join you in understanding them and identifying ways to address them.

3. Act

  • Now it’s time to contribute what you can to make a difference.

These are relatively simple steps that could have a profound impact. What is immeasurably harder is the personal transformation that precedes these three simple suggestions. Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “… morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings.” He was correct, we must feel it. Otherwise, we will do little to abate the suffering of the world, and even less to bring redemption.