Tikkun Olam: Is the World Incomplete or Fundamentally Broken?

Living in the city, one encounters a disproportionate number of younger people in wheelchairs – men, usually, debilitated by urban violence or any number of adverse medical conditions. As an able-bodied person, I wonder what it would be like to have to negotiate uncut curbs, careening traffic and potholes.

A couple years ago, I was riding my bike near the shul on Election Day when I noticed a neighbor named Mike, his wheelchair askew, wedged in a sidewalk pothole. His electric wheelchair was revving, but he made no progress. He was quite literally spinning his wheels. I hopped off my bike and helped Mike get unstuck. We had a brief chat. He was on his way to Beth Am, our polling place, to vote. I let him know the new voting machines were acting up and there was a line out the door. He may want to come back later, I said. He thanked me for the help. I mounted my bike, and we rolled off our separate ways.

The image of Mike caught in that pothole sticks with me, though, not just because streets and sidewalks in so much of the city are abysmally maintained but because Mike’s predicament that day is a metaphor for so many impoverished and/or disabled Baltimoreans. Many are stuck. Many feel like they’re spinning their wheels. Many feel crushed under the weight of generational poverty, criminal injustice and structural racism.

Many feel that way. Others don’t. And still others, fully justified in losing all hope, make a choice to focus not on privation but gratitude.

I don’t know if Mike felt beaten down by his circumstances. Frankly, he didn’t seem to be. Many of my poorer neighbors greet passersby with a smile and when asked how they’re feeling, confidently reply, “blessed!” “Who is rich?” asks the Mishnah. “The one who is content with his portion” (Avot 4:1).

When Jews talk about social justice, we often use the term tikkun olam, repairing the world. Never mind that the origin of the phrase was not really about service or justice, tikkun olam has now entered into the lexicon of modern Jewry as a fundamental principle of our faith. The question, though, is what exactly does this phrase say about the world?

The story most commonly associated with tikkun olam comes from the Ari z”l, Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist. Luria describes the world’s existence as having resulted from a powerful explosion, a big bang of sorts, called sh’virat hakeilim. In this primordial flash, vessels are shattered, suffusing the universe with shards of fractured matter. Humanity’s task, as explained by decades of twentieth and twenty-first century rabbis, activists and camp counselors, is to repair these vessels, to heal the world. This paradigm suggests the world is fractured because it is fundamentally broken.

But another paradigm can be found in the Torah text itself. The very first verse of Bereishit is usually translated, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But, an equally plausible rendering is, “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The tikkun olam paradigm means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit, though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.

When I found Mike spinning his wheels near Eutaw Place, my first emotion was pity. However he ended up in that wheelchair, what a pitiful fate: to be rendered inert on one’s way to the polling place! What a metaphor for futility in West Baltimore! But Mike had no interest in despair. Mike had an election to get to!

A broken world can feel paralyzing. However, if the world is not essentially damaged but unfinished, it is not about what’s missing but what is not yet found – and only then what must be done. In this model, the world isn’t a shattered urn, a conduit to be mended. The world is a tree, absorbing the light of heaven and converting it to energy in a complex biological and spiritual process called living. The world is a scroll being written, a song waiting to be sung.

The problem with sidewalks is they are (quite literally) concrete, so it’s hard to see cracks and potholes as anything but brokenness. The Jewish task, as we roll along, is to see the journey in the sidewalk, the places it brings us from and gets us to. Only then will we know how to refashion pathways in sustainable ways, so that more of us have a smoother ride.

A version of this column will appear in the July issue of JMore (www.jmoreliving.com).

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