There is a phrase that resonates with me which comes from the Jewish tradition. It is “tikkun olam” and means healing or restoring our fractured world.
Purportedly the origin of the phrase is derived from the great Kabalist Rabbi Issac ben Solomon Luria, who lived in the 16th century. He wrote a Creation story wherein God was “fractured” during the Creation of the world, and as a result his essence was suffused in all of creation. Hence, we each have a bit of divinity within, and God was no longer “complete.” God in his covenant with us asks only that we as his creation work to make him whole again. To do that our task is to restore harmony (justice) to the world.
The act of restoring God to his wholeness is called tikkun olam. Every religious act, every act in pursuit of reconciliation, every act in search of justice, every act of love helps restore something of the harmony that was lost when God’s fractured essence entered Creation.
Luria held that tikkun olam is in part why we exist and why our lives have meaning, and our job as humans is to create justice or order or equity during our lifetimes. We thereby share in the act of Creation, and by making God whole, we make ourselves whole.
For some the story of the creation of the world and fracturing of God in that process may feel uncomfortable. It is, however, a metaphor, and as such like other Creation myths, like myths in general, we understand it has a metaphorical meaning, rather than a literal interpretation.
I would suggest this myth speaks to our human obligation, our ethical responsibility, to the wholeness of the world. We cannot be whole unless we work at healing what we as humans have caused to fracture. And, as part of Creation, as part of the energy that is the universe, we are quite capable of working toward repairing those fractures.
In Isaiah chapter 1, verse 17, it says: “Learn to do good, seek justice, aid the oppressed, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.” This then is a Jewish tradition, carried on as a Christian tradition and in progressive religious traditions. One common thread of these traditions is that we seek justice and aid the oppressed. And, not only do we seek justice and work for the end of oppression, we have a responsibility to do so.
I do not say this easily or lightly. I understand all too well that many of us are busy and our own lives seem complicated enough as it is without worrying about doing social justice work. Social responsibility, ethical responsibility and moral responsibility probably need some reaffirmation because they have become somewhat problematic in recent times. What links me to children starving in Africa, or the victims of an earthquake in India? What, for that matter, implicates me in the fate of the unemployed, the homeless, the poor in my own society, my own neighborhood?
For one thing, the problems are too vast for my acts to make a difference. We have grown used to delegating such responsibilities to other organizations or governments. Perhaps we think that because we pay our taxes or give to charity, we thereby fulfill our moral obligations. As a result, ethics have tended to turn inward, and become a matter of personal choice rather than collective responsibility.
There was a time when we lived in close contact with our neighbors, creating networks of shared meaning and reciprocal duty. Nowadays we tend to live anonymously among strangers whose religious, cultural and moral codes are different from ours. By what duty or right do we share a responsibility for their fates? It is my premise that we share a religious responsibility for all of humanity, even if we do not know them personally or if we have little impact.
It is clear that each one of us cannot deal with all the fractures in the world; they are far too many and far too complex. That, however, does not excuse us from doing what we can together. The world will not get better of its own accord, nor will we make it a more humane place by leaving it to others.
We each bring something unique and powerful to the world. We each can affect issues using our distinctive power to change things for the better. Paul Paulson put it this way: “No one person can change the whole world for the better; but each is needed. For each is a bit different — just as one leaf is different from the others on a tree, yet all are needed for its complete foliage.”
Every act that generates some form of justice, increases equity or counters oppression makes a difference. Every act matters. Will we save the world? No, not in its entirety, but our acts will make a difference.
There are many issues, many problems — far too many to detail — but we have the responsibility, and the right, to deal with them. We must speak out. We must act out. We must love our world enough to help it heal, if only a little bit.
In a democracy, we can vote and on the ballot this next Tuesday are issues that affect the possibility of justice. Vote. It is our responsibility to do so; it is our moral and ethical obligation, and in the end, we may help lessen oppression and injustice in our world. We just may have helped heal the world slightly, yet significantly.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.