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Re-thinking Tikun Olam

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The longest pier

A photo posted by seomka08 (@seomka08) on


Tikun Olam, repair the world,  a saying in the Talmud that many Jews and Jewish organizations take to heart. It is a noble cause, a great thing to say but as I was out there surfing in the Pacific Ocean, I pondered: what does it mean?

To repair means that something is broken. It means it broke on its own or someone could broke it. But the world by itself is perfect. Whatever suffering is in it, whatever is broken is not the fault of the world, but of humans. Meaning humans broke it.

So then the question is who broke it and whose responsibility is it to fix it? Tikun Olam implies generally that it is the Jewish responsibility to fix the world. That could mean two things: it is our fault and thus our responsibility to fix, or that someone else broke it and for some reason we think we ought to fix it.

However both seem false. We didn’t break everything and thus not everything is for us to fix. Especially when there are 20 million Jews to 7 billion non-Jews. Then there’s the question of why we should fix that which others broke? It somewhat implies that they are either incapable of fixing it, taking responsibility or even realizing that they broke it. This can create resentment of who the hell are these Jews that they think that they are a) smart enough to fix everything and b) that someone wants them to fix that which they did not break?

It’s kind of like when a kid breaks something, he might want the parent to come over and fix or not. If he doesn’t and the parent fixes it, the toy will probably break again. Then again, if the parent doesn’t fix it and the kid asks for it to be fixed, it also might break again. However, if the kid comes over to the parent and the parent shows the kid how to repair, then the kid might repair it on their own without having their own abilities judged and in fact having the ability to understand what it means to break and to fix.

In my humble opinion, Tikun Olam is a presumptuous phrase which implies that not only can we fix everything but that we should and are the only ones capable of fixing everything. Presumptuous as we are also human, also imperfect and have plenty to fix in ourselves before we go out there fixing others (ie Olmert). So let’s be there when we’re needed, ie Nepal, when we are asked, let us help others repair that which they broke when they ask for help. But let’s not assume that we can or should repair the world. That is, unless we break it. In that case we really should.

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