New Year to Start with Renewed Sense of Tikkun Olam

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The notion of tikkun olam and its imperative to fix a broken world is one that certainly resonates with many Jews.

All the more so around this time of the calendar, which offers the opportunity to look at your actions over the closing year.

But is there a particular connection between tikkun olam’s popular social justice connotation and the High Holidays?

“I would say, absolutely,” answered Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom. “We operate from a perspective that our spiritual lives and our lives as activists for tikkun, for the repair of the world, are part of our approach to Jewish life. So it’s not, ‘Oh, let’s add social justice into this’ — that is what it means to be Jewish in our world.”

Even rabbis 2,000 years ago would say the same thing, Zevit asserted.

“If I would pretend to be for a moment Rabbi Gamliel 2,000 years ago, I would say — though I don’t have his accent down — ‘Of course!’” With an enthusiastic Yiddish-sounding inflection, he added, “‘That’s why we chose Isaiah for Yom Kippur!’”

The haftarah from Isaiah read on Yom Kippur notes that fasting alone is not enough, but there must be ethical and moral action to support its foundation.

The connection between the High Holidays and social action is not a new-age twist, Zevit said in further explanation, “or we’re rising to meet the times now, and we’re going to focus on acts of consciousness around justice and lovingkindness, though that’s part of how the High Holy Days have evolved into what they are today.”

For Zevit, who also serves as co-chair of the clergy caucus of interfaith social justice organization POWER — which organized the “Philly is Charlottesville” rally last month in response to the white nationalist march in Virginia — the notion of tikkun olam also includes repairing one’s own self, which manifests in the synagogue’s added focus in the coming year on food justice and reducing carbon footprints.

And as there are so many things to care about today, he noted — like the hurricanes ravaging parts of the country or the ongoing fight for health care — it’s easy to stretch oneself thin.

“If we just focus on social justice and we don’t also focus on self care and care of each other, we can live an imbalanced life and we can burn ourselves out or get pulled in so many directions,” he said. “We really want to invite people to look at how they’re living their lives as well as where they’re choosing to focus their attention, without judging what any of those foci are.”

He believes this year in particular, social action has increased, and the High Holidays give it extra meaning.

“It would be disingenuous to say oh, it’s business as usual — it’s not. This is not a time of business as usual,” he said, invoking the saying by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “We were made for these times.”

“Certainly we feel like we are a community for these times and if we were made for these times, we really have to step up. For a lot of us, even as activists of communities we’ve been, the sense of OK, where do I focus my attention? What are my involvements? … We’re already involved in a lot of things so we want to deepen our spiritual lives and our activism and our caring for each other.”

However, he has one requirement moving forward.

“For all the social activism we’re doing,” he said, “for me, what’s important is that we keep claiming a place of love and not of anger and hate, and a place of connection and not isolation.”

Rabbi Seth Goren, executive director of Repair the World: Philadelphia, noted that volunteer opportunities offer a way for many to engage in social action, especially around the High Holidays.

“During the High Holidays, we recognize it as a time for people to engage in introspection,” he said, “and for some people, volunteering is a way of connecting with their perspectives on Judaism and Jewish tradition and so we both encourage that and provide opportunities for people to do that.”

The connection between the High Holidays and social action becomes clear in the practice of repentance, he noted, “where people can take a look at what they’ve been doing for the past year and how they want to be different moving forward.”

“For some,” he added, “that’s about how do they treat themselves, and for some people it’s about how they engage with individuals around them and for other people, it’s about how do they engage with their community and what are they doing to strengthen their community and to lift up those who may be underserved or marginalized in other ways.”

That has become increasingly important for some in this past year as laws targeting those most marginalized have changed — even in the past week with the administration’s announcement of the end of the DACA program protecting from deportation those brought illegally to the country as children.

“We’ve seen an upsurge in violent language and violent action against Jews, against people of color, against LGTBQ people, against Latino people, against people who are undocumented — it should bring to the fore these issues that have always existed but now are becoming not just more common but also more recognized,” Goren said. “For that reason, I would say that this year in particular, we should really be paying attention to social justice issues at the High Holidays.”

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