Tikkun Olam: where would i begin?

Just this morning my Bible reading brought me to chapter one of 1 Peter, where two verses jumped out at me: Be holy because He is holy (1:16) and …love one another deeply, from the heart. (1:22) They loomed large because they feel so impossible for me these days. I confess to having difficulty in loving my neighbor–and I use the word neighbor loosely. Kind of like asking Jesus, Who is my neighbor? and getting the reply that you know, but you don’t want to hear… What! Those people who call themselves Christians, yet still voted for Trump? They are my neighbors? Yes. That’s really how I feel… (And that is, realistically, almost half this country???)

My ruminations led me to remember the book  Adopted by Kelley Nikondeha;  so I pulled it from my bookshelf and started paging through it again, a couple of years later, in this time of Covid-19 and anger and racial division and conspiracy theories and chaos.

It didn’t take long to find the chapter I remembered, “Repair.” She writes about a Jewish term, tikkun olam, which means “repair of the world.”  Tikkun olam calls us to do what we can to sacrificially act for the good of our neighbors, even if those neighbors might be our enemies. Even if those neighbors are belligerent about mask wearing; even if those neighbors have a nasty-language-sign in their yard; even if they somehow think the person in the White House is good for the country. How can I love them when I think what they believe is abhorrent? (For a Jewish discussion on the concept, you might enjoy this article from My Jewish Learning.)

Nikondeha then relates several stories of the Batwa tribe in Rwanda who, when faced with having their harvest of carrots stolen from their neighbors, gave them potatoes too. When they were falsely accused of stealing cabbages, they gave twice as many cabbages back. Can you hear in these stories of one of the most difficult messages from Jesus:

…But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. — Matthew 5:39-40

Perhaps we ignore this instruction because it is just too difficult to wrap our heads and hearts around? There are many difficult “red-letter” passages in the New Testament, but none so absolutely unachievable as this one. Don’t fight back, instead say yes, here, hit me again. Someone is suing you for $5,000? Give them $10,000. Your neighbor’s car just died? Give them your second car that you just finished paying off. Forgive the person who treated you so grievously a few years ago that you haven’t spoken to each other since. Wait; don’t just forgive them, invite them to a luxurious feast at your house…

It’s radical, this concept of tikkun olam. But just think of what needs repairing in this world. More accurately, in our own small worlds–our families and our communities.

I suggest that another reason we ignore the reparations that we need to make is because they are SO HUGE as to be daunting. This is not only Love your Neighbor (which is hard enough!) but this is Love your Enemy. How can we do this? Where could we start? The poet philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Yes, this is the road right outside my door…

Jesus’ version of this thought is recorded in the gospels of Luke and Matthew–the parable of the mustard seed: “For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) ESV

Although probably no one actually stole your carrot or cabbage crops, it is likely that someone stole your political yard sign. Or it is likely that your neighbor (or family member) voted for the other side. I suggest that to repair America, we need to take that first step toward tikkun olam. And the road begins right outside our door…

16 thoughts on “Tikkun Olam: where would i begin?

  1. Oh my. . . . . what a lovely, timely and difficult message to read on this day. Thank you for sharing it, and I plan to find that book and read it.

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  2. Nobody said that sacrifice for the good of all had to stick in your craw. In fact, if the act you’re contemplating will become a seed of resentment, I think you need to approach this. The first step doesn’t have to mean self-abnegation. St. Francis pretty much hated most people. He was, however, known for his kindness to animals. (Which is why folks get their pets blessed on his day.) You can pick a specialty, a defined area in which you start the path. (Francis did.)

    I plant trees. Though I don’t consider myself Christian, I do think the human race has some reparations due to the planet. So every year I plant a hundred to a couple hundred trees. My point being, you have to start by picking acts that are healing and that come from the heart. It’s not broccoli. To be good for you, it cannot sit, bitter, on the tongue.


    • Thank you for your thoughtful words…It cannot sit bitter on the tongue…Absolutely! I think one of the reasons things are so ugly these days is that we are no longer encouraged to have Real Relationships or Real Community. I hate to jump on the anti-social media bandwagon, but it is so easy to dismiss people when we don’t really know them. And yes, sometimes I’m glad of my cat…:-)

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  3. I was hoping that we would hear from you.. Where ever each of us stands we are to pray for all people. Not just those labeled with the color we are affiliated with, or aren’t. My prayer is that all be done in a gracious and respectable manner. No inciting of more conflict and division, nor harm to anyone. May God’s will be done. Thank you for sharing from your heart..

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  4. Thanks for taking the time and heart to write this. It’s been hard for people who are trying to follow the gospel of Christ to understand our fellow humans who seem to have such a radically different view of Christianity. Yet, Christ asks us to love others, to have mercy, to forgive others. And Paul wrote about the importance of grace. Your post reminds us that these are actions — they take work and commitment, not just nice words.

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  5. Thanks for this reminder about the concept of repair, the Jewish tikkun olam. I first heard about it in a Leonard Cohen song that included the line “Loss and Love’s Repair.” Yes, the gift of love and understanding to those who hold different values can be a challenge but one we are surely capable of. We had an example in John McCain’s concession speech.

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    • Ahh… Concession speeches. I remember those. The mark of humility and grace.
      It’s hard. Daily it’s hard. As you can see from my snide remark above. The question is— Is it too early to start repair before the events are over?
      Thank you for commenting! I’m glad to have found your blog through it.

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