It’s well known that a couple of minutes before the end of davening most of the guys are in ‘wrap up’ mode. They’ve done their thing and now it’s time to leave. By this point they may be putting on a coat or folding the tallit (prayer shawl) or already heading out the door. This “I’m out of here” attitude is not the biggest deal in the world. At least they showed up to begin with. However, those who get into wrap up mode may not be aware of what they are missing. Granted, there is a lot of repetitive stuff, especially if one says or hears these same lines every day, but there is something quite amazing that comes at the tail end of the whole show. It’s called Aleinu.
Aleinu means ‘it is upon us’. But that is only the first word. What comes next is a dramatic expression of the unique Jewish task of praising the Creator, stressing God’s omnipotence and omnipresence (all-powerful and existent within everything). This prayer is quite ancient. Perhaps it goes back to second temple times. Perhaps it dates to the Mishna or the Talmud. We simply have no record of it in any of the primary texts of Jewish law. It probably made its first appearance in the context of Yom Kippur tefilla in which Aleinu was inserted in a very prominent place in the middle of the service.
Eventually, it became included in the daily service, constituting a stirring conclusion to every occasion that a Jew spoke to God. A second paragraph was added, doubling the length and greatly expanding the nature of the content. This second paragraph, more than all the rest of davening, tends to be blitzed through as if it were nothing more than an afterthought. It is probably safe to say that most people are not only not paying attention to what they are saying, but are also not even saying words that even remotely resemble what the text actually says. This is particularly disturbing, being as this part contains the essential goal of Judaism and of the entire human race. The following is the text of the first half of the second paragraph:
‘Therefore we hope in You, Hashem, our God, to quickly witness the glory of Your strength, to remove idolatry from the land, and false gods be cut off, to fix the world in the kingdom of the Almighty. And all humanity will call in Your name to turn all the evil of the world to You. All inhabitants of the earth will recognize and know that it is to You that every knee bow and every tongue swear, before You they will bend and fall, and give honor to the glory of Your name. And they will all accept the yoke of Your kingdom, and You shall reign over them quickly and forever…’
This all sounds pretty standard for the Siddur. It’s the kingdom of heaven party line that Christians made famous, written in a Jewish form. It is difficult to say how much of this was anti-Christian polemics and how much was sincere hope for a world completely obedient to God’s kingdom. The main theme is obviously about God reigning over the entire world. Idolatry will have to go if this is to happen. Evil will somehow turn to good and everyone will recognize God’s sovereignty. This is about as messianic as it gets in classic Judaism. Anything more blatant than this would smack of Christianity, something Jews always wanted to avoid for one reason or another. But there is a phrase in the middle of all this that frequently gets lost in the translation or in the rattling off of the original Hebrew. It’s these few words ‘to fix the world in the kingdom of the Almighty’. It’s a curious phrase that is sometimes translated ‘repair the world’ or ‘prepare the world’, but frequently rephrased with the common Hebrew expression ‘Tikkun Olam’ - perfecting the world.
Tikkun Olam. It’s used all over the place now. Reform Judaism really plays it up. Conservative gets their money’s worth out of it. Jewish renewal groups practically live by it. It just says it all. It’s got authentic Judaism combined with the post-modern drive to improve the world in some way – who could ask for more? What does this fascinating catch-all phrase really mean and are there any limits as to its usage?
It turns out that the phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ probably made its first appearance in Jewish literature as an expression in the Mishna referring to special decrees that solved a potentially far-reaching social problem. There are a whole series of such decrees, all given the label of tikkun haolam (repairing of the world), a phrase that is almost identical to the modern term but of a much more limited scope. In rabbinic literature, the phrase is used to emphasize the effectiveness of certain halachic solutions. But the phrase caught on. By the time it became enshrined in Aleinu it had acquired a completely different meaning.
In the context of Aleinu there is no question that repairing the world is limited to religious improvements. Everything in this paragraph speaks of theological perfection – eliminating idolatry, evil turning to good, total allegiance to God, acceptance of the yoke of heaven, etc. There is nothing in here about saving the whales or helping earthquake victims. But the question is whether the extant of tikkun olam that was expressed in Aleinu was meant to be a limitation or a guideline. In all likelihood, the original intention was restricted to what it actually says, but it became a springboard for a greatly expanded theme.
Regardless of the correct interpretation, this idea of tikkun olam has become enshrined as the great Jewish hope for the world. We want to see a world in which evil is not just destroyed but is converted over to the side of good. We want to see a world in which people are united in a common cause for the good of everybody. We may even want to see a world dedicated towards spiritual awareness, worship of a God in whom everybody sees the ideals of perfection and truth.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Jewish idea of a perfected world has never really been limited to improving the lot of the Jews. There was always an ‘entire humanity’ component that was superimposed over any national aspirations. One of the visions expressed in the tefilla of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is of such a world: ‘Therefore, put Your fear, Hashem our God, on all Your works, and Your awe of all that You created…And they will all become a single society, dedicated to doing Your will…’
There is no question that in the ensuing centuries, tikkun olam expanded in many directions. Mystical circles included it as an inner dimension in the performance of any mitzvah, a world-changing effect that comes from a pure and simple action or statement. The spiritual benefits that emerged from such a way of looking at things were vast. It effectively transformed what would have been a rote action, into playing a human role in bringing God into the world. Any act of kindness could tip the balance towards averting a plague or some other disaster. Any blessing could be a soul-rectification for previous incarnations.
Now tikkun olam rests somewhere in between the mystical and the ethical and is available for anybody who wants their cause or their personal project to have a little of both. It remains an ideal way to inject godliness into the mundane. Though sometimes it can seem a little far-fetched, one never really knows what the spiritual effects of any deed will be. Each thing may bring the world an infinitesimal bit closer to spiritual perfection, or at least prevent it from falling further into the spiritual netherworld it frequently seems to be heading towards. Tikkun olam is a life-changing outlook. It takes the most trivial, most personal, most private words or actions, and makes them vehicles for bringing God’s presence into the world. In a sense it is an answer to all three versions of the ‘big’ question: God’s purpose in creation was to create a perfect world; we have to play our part in bringing the world closer to perfection; we gain the incalculable benefit of a sense of spiritual fulfillment in almost any aspect of our lives that we choose. Who could ask for more?
There are few pick-me-ups in life that can match the effect of feeling good about doing something meaningful. It is well known that that the typical ‘good deed’, as beneficial as it may be for the recipient, can be a life-saver for the doer. It never hurts to have one’s intentions directed in the right direction when engaged in such a deed. If selfish thoughts are running through the mind (‘look at how great I am’) then it stands to reason that it will significantly diminish the self-benefit due the doer. It’s a little bit of a catch-22 written in the fine print. If you do it for yourself, you really don’t get all that much out of it. If you do it for the other person, the sky is the limit on the returns.
Nowhere is this equation more visible than in the tikkun olam application. If the intention is really to improve the world or to perfect the world, it opens up the doors of spirituality to reveal vistas that could not have been imagined from the limited confines of the simple little deed. It is simply a matter of turning on a little switch and transforming what was just a mindless chore into a world-changing accomplishment. Half of tikkun olam is in the attitude. A healthy attitude makes the most trivial thing worthwhile.
Of course it always helps if the deed truly is something that does change the world for the better. There is literally a world of activities available to almost anyone, that genuinely qualify as tikkun olam. It’s simply a matter of going out and finding them and then getting involved. It could mean signing up for some community project, or picking up a piece of trash every day on your way to or from work, or making sure to liven up some forgotten person’s day. It might be getting into nature and preserving some little corner of the world. It could be walking some elderly person to the store and making sure that they are able to get what they need. The possibilities are endless. There is not necessarily anything Jewish about any of this, but it sure is nice to know that what you are doing is somehow clearing a path for God to enter into the world. That’s really what tikkun olam is all about. It’s helping God clean house so that we all can lead lives of meaning and purpose.
Food for Thought
This is all very nice and makes everybody have a warm and fuzzy feeling, but is any of this for real? Is this just another new-age way to feel good about ourselves without expending much effort?
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