When we look at tikkun olam from a fresh perspective, we see that it is not so Jewish in origin, but it is so very Jewish in defining our unique purpose.
Whether your background is Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, the term tikkun olam occupies a special place in Jewish practice. It is the teaching that we are here to try to fix, even perfect, this imperfect world through a variety of positive actions.
But there seems to be quite a disparity as to what kinds of actions this refers to. Many Jews view tikkun olam as having a very specific role, with social action being the focus. However, when we look at tikkun olam from a fresh perspective, we see that it is not so Jewish in origin, but it is so very Jewish in defining our unique purpose.
For starters, we are often told that this is a uniquely Jewish belief. However, we see that all of humanity is involved in this pursuit, not because they learned it in Hebrew school or yeshivah. Most of the world population never met a Jew, but many are doing tikkun olam daily.
The fact is that tikkun olam is not Jewish in nature and it is not even a belief. It is universal in nature and something that all humans are hard-wired to accomplish. People throughout the world, of all backgrounds and belief systems, want to make the world a better place to live in. They do not necessarily do it out of belief.
Most people naturally find that it feels good to help another person, solve a problem no matter how small or fix something that’s broken. Those with children do it because they want their children to live in a better world. These seemingly mundane acts not related to social action add up over time to help improve our world in all sorts of ways, big and small. People everywhere feel in their gut that this is part of their purpose in life.
As proud as we Jews are of the high percentage of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, most of the world’s scientific, governmental, technological and material progress has been made through non-Jews.
In my book, Eight Paths of Purpose, I explain eight different applications of tikkun olam, which all of humanity can fulfill. Social action is but one of them. These paths propose that we make tikkun olam a practical part of life for every human being. We have opportunities to fulfill our purpose in life and to answer the call of tikkun olam every day. It is not reserved just for lofty goals and accomplishments, but needs to be applied to our mundane lives, including the tests and obstacles we face.
So, you may wonder, is there any unique Jewish connection to tikkun olam? The answer is a powerful yes.
From the times of Abraham and Sarah (more than 3,700 years ago), Jews have taught the world about values, morals, mitzvos and the belief in monotheism. Through the centuries, basic Jewish values have been accepted by billions. Christianity and Islam built their systems on the foundation of the Torah. Our impact on world history has been totally out of proportion to our numbers; not necessarily because of what we fixed but rather because of what we taught the world.
We continue this tradition by striving to serve as a “light amongst the nations” (the prophet Isaiah) and by teaching our children not only how to “fix the world,” but also how to draw God’s presence down even to the most mundane aspects of life.
This effort is what we refer to three times a day in the Aleinu prayer — “L’takain olam b’malchus Sha-dai” (fixing the world in God’s dominion — a term credited to Joshua more than 3,200 years ago). This is something uniquely Jewish!
So, don’t stop making the world a better place but do also remember to align yourselves with this unique Jewish approach to tikkun olam that looks at the potential for every act, no matter its size, to be an act of tikkun olam. It’s the Jewish thing to do.
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon is the founder and regional director of Chabad on Long Island, New York. He serves on the executive committee of Chabad.org.