Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World
Rev. Amy Russell
March 16, 2014
In the sixteenth century, Issac Luria, a mystical Jewish Kabbahlist, imagined the world as a pottery vessel that God had made to hold his divine light and energy. As he poured this holy light into the world, the vessel was too fragile to hold the myriad divine sparks of God’s incredible love and power. The world broke into shards spilling the holy sparks across the universe until all things were bathed in light, but the world itself was broken and in need of repair. Luria used this metaphor to challenge Jews to see their mission in life as gathering the holy sparks that are God’s gift to us and using them to repair the broken and hurting world who so needs God’s love.
The Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” may have originated as early as the second century CE and it has been translated as “tikkun” meaning to fix or to establish, and “olam” usually refers to the world or it can mean eternally or forever. Some use it to refer to the physical world, some as societal order, and some use it to refer to a fully realized divine order. It is not found in the Hebrew Testament, but in the Talmud where Jewish scholars use stories and metaphors to teach about biblical concepts.
The idea of repairing the world in this context asks us to not only be aware of the need for the healing of the world but also to be aware of our own brokenness and need for healing. Through our spiritual journey to find the sparks of divine light that we need to repair ourselves, we find that in giving and working to heal others, we find our own healing. Seeking light for our own darkness, we find the light that can help guide others in their journey.
In the Judaic tradition, our mission in the Universe is to repair the broken world by beginning to renew the holy light within us and then through our deeds of loving kindness to assist the world in restoring itself to a wholeness containing God’s light.
Often when we are hurting and in pain, we shut out the rest of the world. We focus on our own difficulties, not having the energy to even be aware of other’s pain around us. We pull inward and close the door on the rest of the world. Sometimes, when something prods us to open to others outside us, we can find some healing in our reaching out.
Some of you have heard about Millard Fuller, a self -made millionaire at a young age. He had had numerous successes in business. But he found himself working all the time and not having time for his wife and family. One day, he came home to find that his wife had left him and gone to New York. She left him a note that he was no longer present in the marriage so she had left to find a new life for herself.
Millard Fuller knew immediately that he had to change his life completely. This crisis catapulted him into a spiritual review of his life in which he saw that his priorities in life were upside down. The most important thing to him was his family, but they got the least of his time. He went into action, flying to New York, finding his wife, and asking her to consider renewing their marriage with a new set of priorities. He told her that he had already began actions to sell his companies and move much of his wealth into a foundation. The foundation would be devoted to helping others. He asked his wife to help him figure this out together with the family being the topmost priority in their lives. Together they founded the Koinonia farm in Mississippi where they developed a plan for helping families in need to build their own homes. Out of this work, Habitat for Humanity was born. In the crisis of Fuller’s personal life, he reached out to others, and healed his own personal life.
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in working for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. We believe that our communities should be places where we treat one another with fairness and acceptance. The practice of tikkum olam begins with ourselves and our own communities. We reach out to others around offering kindness and acceptance, beginning the world of healing ourselves. We also reach out to the larger community offering ourselves in service to heal the world.
In the church in Louisville, Kentucky where I completed a two year internship while in seminary had a very small social justice program. I was asked by the minister to work with them to help them define their direction. Most of the projects that they were doing at the time were humanitarian giving projects like collecting items for Thanksgiving projects or money for a food bank. They enjoyed these projects but they felt that the congregation as a whole was not very invested in this work. And it wasn’t energizing, collecting money and giving it away. I suggested that perhaps we needed to initiate a project that was more personally involving where people’s lives were involved with others and thereby changed. After looking at several projects that involved more personal involvement, the committee decided they would like to adopt a refugee family with the help of a local agency.
During this time, I got to know a woman on the committee who was very quiet and unassuming. She didn’t say much. But when we got going, she took on a lot of responsibility for organizing the furniture collection. Part of the project involved finding an apartment for the family we would be hosting, and furnishing it with items collected from the congregation. This woman, Debbie Sublett, got going and we soon had more than enough furniture for one apartment and even more left over. Storing the furniture became the problem. But Debbie took on this problem and many others to make the whole project successful.
We soon found out we would be welcoming a young couple from the Sudan, the wife pregnant with their first child. When the couple arrived at the airport in the middle of the night, extremely exhausted after a couple of days of travelling the world, we were there to meet them and escort them to their new home. The couple were amazed walking around this small apartment like it was a castle. We had to show them how the stove worked, how to use the appliances. They were so grateful. We soon became their family helping them to learn how to adjust to life in this country.
The congregation grew much close together and energized by the personal relationship they developed with this family as they realized what a difference they were making in the life of this young couple. After this experience, the church went on to adopt three other families that they brought over from the Sudan including a group of young men who had lost their family in the conflict. These young men have been sponsored through completing high school and two of them have now completed college.
During this time, Debbie came out of her shell, and became the Social Justice Chair. She led the congregation through these adoptions and then through the adoption of a Kenyan orphanage. The church sponsored the building of a new dormitory in Kenya, with a group from the church going over to visit several times during this process. During this time, Debbie’s grandson became very ill with a kidney disease. The committee tried to get Debbie to take time off from her church responsibilities. She insisted that this work helped her to deal with her worries. She felt she needed to be focused on helping others since she felt so helpless about her grandson’s illness. Helping others brought the best out of her and gave her hope.
In 2006, Debbie Sublett received the UUSC’s Volunteer of the Year award for her amazing leadership in all of these projects. In this life-changing way, Debbie and Thomas Jefferson UU Church had experienced the power of healing themselves through helping others.
Often we learn new skills and talents from our work in our churches or volunteer jobs. Over the years as a lay leader in religious organizations, I learned skills of ministry that I never knew I had. I learned that I could speak publicly, that I could listen warmly and carefully to others, that I could even learn to have patience with others when I was upset. Those things I learned about myself helped me in my personal life immensely and led me to a career in ministry. I’m sure many of you have had the similar experiences where skills you developed as a volunteer led you to develop in your career.
A UU from the Bull Run Manassas congregation, Betsi McGrath, learned to face some of her fears through her volunteering at SUUSI, our UU summer camp in Virginia. She volunteered to lead a group doing some hiking on a difficult trail. Many thought this path was too rigorous and dangerous. She led the group of volunteer guides out of a harrowing hike on a mountain. Through overcoming her own fears and leading others, she realized that she could face one of the biggest fears of her life, coming out as a lesbian to her family. She found her courage through helping others find theirs.
The ancient concept of tikkun olam contains the idea that as a thirteenth century Jewish scholar put it, “When the impurity is destroyed from the world, then the divine presence will return throughout the world, and the world shall be repaired.” If we look at our modern context, we can see “impurity” in the social ills in the world. We can see it in countries where people do not have a voice in their governance. In countries, where people are still enslaved, and we are told this happens even in our country. We can see it in many countries where people do not have enough to eat or a place to live. And that is still true in many of our cities.
The spiritual idea of tikkun olam is that when we understand that the impurity of the world exists within us- when we can see our own failings and frailties, we can understand the failings and frailties of people everywhere. And in working toward improving the problems we see, we are naturally working on ourselves, on making ourselves better people and on healing our pain. Our own healing is so connected to the feeling of other’s suffering and our ability to reach out to others.
In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are very intertwined in the way that they lead us to enlightenment. In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote,
“Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness).
In other words, when we truly see our own suffering, we can see the suffering of others more clearly, and that leads us to be compassionate. When we reach out to others, we often alleviate our own suffering when we create a deep empathic bond.
This doesn’t always happen when we think we’re being compassionate. Sometimes, we’re just going through the motions, we’re doing our best with at a job that involves helping others, but we may be stressed-out or overwhelmed. When that happens, we don’t have the wisdom to see our own suffering, let alone someone else’s. That may be a time when we need to look at ourselves and our own spiritual practice to see what is supporting us. What is nurturing us? We need to have empathy for ourselves when we are burned out. How can we repair the world if we ourselves are broken?
Tikkun Olam- repairing the world, starts with healing ourselves. And sometimes healing ourselves starts with reaching out to someone else.