Tikkun Olam Begins with Correction of Our Own Inner Worlds


By: Jay Lavine, M.D.

Tikkun” means “repair,” often with the idea of making recompense for past misdeeds and for evil. “Tikkun olam,” which means “repair of the world,” is a term that dates back to the Mishnah, but it has acquired different meanings over the centuries. Suffice it to say that it now generally refers to making the world a better place in which to live by righting the wrongs that have been and are being committed. “Tikkun olam,” however, is based on and subject to Jewish values and is, therefore, not synonymous with secular “social justice or action.” “Tikkun midot” refers to an attempt to improve upon our character traits, and the ability to do so pretty much exemplifies the Jewish idea of being successful, in contrast to the secular world, in which “successful” generally refers to financial gain. If we can change our midot, our character traits, for the better, then we will have a much better chance of repairing the broken world. Thus, tikkun olam begins with tikkun midot, that is to say, with self-improvement.

Shimon the Tzaddik, as related in Pirkei Avot, used to say, “Al sheloshah devarim ha’olam omeid: al hatorah, ve’al ha’avodah, ve’al gemilut chasadim — The world stands on three things: on Torah, on the service of God, and on deeds of lovingkindness.” These things provide the foundation for the world and are what keeps the world standing, but, clearly, the foundation has become very wobbly. The entire world bears responsibility for this, but Jews do especially, because their mission, as expressed by the Aleinu prayer, is “letakein olam bemalchut shaddai — to perfect the world through the kingdom of the Almighty.” Here we see tikkun olam in its original religious context.

al hatorahOne reason that the three pillars of the world’s foundation have become wobbly is that assimilation has taken over the world. There has been a loss of basic values as people have abandoned the ethical standards to which they once clung. When everyone is doing something, it seems to be okay, and people then fall to the lowest common denominator. But as minorities like Jews should be aware, it’s okay to be different. The French have a nice expression for this: “Nos différences font notre richesse — Our differences will be our wealth.”

ve’al ha’avodahAnother reason for the loss of values is the spiritual void people experience as a result of their separation from God. A spiritually fulfilled person is endowed with a deep, inner happiness. Without it, people turn to materialistic and hedonistic pursuits that provide immediate gratification with which they attempt to fill that void. If we can succeed at tikkun middot and get away from that valueless way of life, becoming, like Moses, servants of God, we may well be more likely to succeed at tikkun olam.

Two of the most powerful forces that oppose the three pillars of the world are preoccupation with money and materialism. Let’s examine them from a Jewish standpoint and learn why we must make tikkun for them.

It wasn’t the Jewish Bible that stated that the love of money is the root of all evil, but the idea had its roots in Judaism. Money and material acquisitions connote power and status to many people. Money, like power, corrupts, as expressed by the portmanteau word affluenza currently being tossed around in the news media. The love of money leads to covetousness, which the Tenth Commandment is all about. Love of money can lead to serious lapses in business ethics, including geneivat da’at — deception. Love of money often results in trampling on anyone who gets in the way. A recent study confirmed that the rich tend to be more separated from ethical behavior than others (“Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” PNAS 109 (11), 4086-91, 2012). In so-called democratic societies, the ability of politicians to raise money often means the difference between winning and losing, and major donors expect and usually receive something in return for their investment. This is clearly not in the best interests of society.

Yet, money rules. We usually think of charities as one of the vehicles through which we can work toward tikkun olam. However, most charities not only accept money from people who acquired that money in unethical ways but often bestow special recognition and awards on such people. The charities rationalize it by saying that the money will be put to good use, a consequentialist and distinctly non-Jewish way of looking at things. Many charities pay their executives huge salaries. Does anyone really need to earn more than $200,000 a year? Nonetheless, some people justify the practice by saying that high salaries are necessary to attract the best people. But that is rationalizing for the sake of money. Perhaps such highly paid executives are good at raking in a great deal of money for the charity, some of which ends up in their own pockets. But are such individuals truly charitable and do they really have the proper goals of the charity in mind? It often seems that the main goal of many charitable organizations is making money for the executives who run them. Whatever good the charity does serves as window dressing for its promotional materials.

Charitable or educational organizations often acquire corporate donors or sponsors to finance their activities. The public is then told by the leaders of these organizations to patronize these donors. But let’s create a hypothetical situation. Company A and Company B provide similar products or services, but Company A does so in a substandard way, relying on marketing practices to make sales, whereas Company B relies on the high quality of its products or services. Both Company A and Company B donate to a certain education organization. Company A does so in the form of an advertisement placed in the organization’s brochures or programs, or it simply has itself listed as a major donor. Company B donates in a quiet manner. People then follow the request of the organization’s leaders and patronize Company A. Company A prospers financially, while Company B languishes, at least temporarily. Has justice been done and has society benefited from this turn of events?

ve’al gemilut chasadim. Love of money keeps people from giving willingly and liberally to tzedakah (charity), which means “justice,” something the poor have coming to them. Almost two millennia before “Occupy Wall Street,” ancient Jewish communities each had a rabbinic authority who saw to it that the playing field was leveled, that the rich could not take undue advantage of others, for example, by manipulating the market, and that the poor had the opportunity to provide for themselves (Bava Metzia). We’ve come a long way since then — in the wrong direction. But the concept has not been forgotten. In Israel today, people from all walks of life, religious and irreligious, have been up in arms about the undue influence of the tycoonim and the monopolim.

Once, soon after I entered medical practice, I decided to send a donation to the local Jewish federation. I was stunned when the development director told me that it was the first time in his tenure that anyone had given without first being asked. According to Maimonides, giving grudgingly and only after being asked constitutes the lowest form of charity. These days, however, people not only wait until being asked but often expect something in return in the form of recognition or honors, perhaps even something named after them. This isn’t giving at all; it’s taking. Many years ago, I founded a Jewish organization in a major metropolitan area. I decided people could become members by donating whatever they wished. There was no minimum donation required, and no “levels of giving” were established. This approach to charitable giving was foreign to some and caused a bit of consternation. But it was set up this way in order to make a point, and it did so.

Where we choose to spend and invest our money can make a difference. When people invest in the stock market, they are becoming part-owners of the companies in which they invest, and their stock purchase helps support those companies. This raises a number of important questions. Is investing in a company, either directly or through a mutual fund, that produces tobacco products something that promotes tikkun olam? How about companies that exploit or treat their workers poorly? How about multi-national companies that have their products manufactured in countries where few protections for employees exist, where they may be forced to work in unsafe environments with exposure to toxins or other hazards? Or food production companies that subject farm animals to inhumane conditions? Or companies that pollute the environment? Or those that define “ethical” as being whatever they can get away with, legal or not? Or those who engage in geneivat da’at (deception that the Sages considered the worst form of theft) in their marketing practices, as the vast majority of companies do? Clearly, contributing to such practices by owning stock in such companies in this era of unbridled capitalism is contrary to a desire to help right the world; it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Money, in and of itself, is not evil in Judaism. In fact, it may have a good side if it is earned honestly and in accordance with other Jewish ethical principles. But, in terms of the individual, I would posit that Judaism essentially represents a nonmaterialistic way of life: money means nothing to a Jew beyond meeting one’s own basic needs and using the rest to glorify God’s name by using that money to benefit mankind. Judaism condemns materialism and consumerism. A major value that was stressed by the mussar movement is histapkut bamuat, literally, satisfaction with having just a little. In other words, it is not enough to be content with having just a little; rather, we should be happy with the little we have. This is the basis of simple living. Jews practice it during the holiday of Sukkot when they assume a minimalist lifestyle for one week by living in a sukkah, a flimsy, temporary hut that reminds them of their humble circumstances during the flight out of Egypt. Avoiding ostentation, pretentiousness, and conspicuous consumption is paramount. In Talmudic times and in the Middle Ages, the rabbis enacted sumptuary laws, which curtailed extravagance in dress, jewelry, eating, gifts, and festivities and other social functions.

To work toward tikkun olam, we must put money in its proper perspective. “Who is rich? He who is content with his lot in life.” Money has its uses but it must be earned in a manner consistent with Jewish ethical values. The ends do not justify the means. Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, the 18th century rabbinic authority whose collection of sermons is known as Yaarot Devash, commented on the clause “Satisfy us from Your goodness” found in the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayer. “Your goodness” implies “what is good to You.” In other words, when the money we earn to buy food was acquired by legitimate means (which is good to God), only then will we be nourished spiritually as well as physically.

Tikkkun olam begins with self-correction. It means being an exemplar as well as an activist. It is the mission of the Torah; it is service to God; and it is an act of lovingkindness to the world.