I was having a discussion this week with a non-Jewish friend who was in awe of our Jewish Tradition that sees us firm in performing our observances and practices despite the secular milieu all around. He also mentioned that he knew this was the not the case with the entire Jewish community!
To emphasize this I saw an interesting piece in the Times of Israel https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/its-not-birthright-thats-in-need-of-repair-its-american-judaism/
The authors bemoans the State of American Jewry and states ‘My baby boomer generation has sadly produced a generation of young Jewish adults who believe that all of Judaism can be summed up in “Tikkun Olam,” a phrase not found in traditional texts, and the idea that to be Jewish, all you have to do is be a nice person’.
Part of the problem, says the author are the words ‘Tikkun Olam’. They have been taken widely as ideas of community service or social action which happens outside of the Jewish community. However, that is not really Tikkun Olam as it classically appears and has really only been seen that way since the 1980’s brought in by the progressive movements in America.
We come across the phrase daily in Aleinu with the expression ‘le-taken olam be-malchut shaddai’ ‘To remove detestable idolatry from the earth and false gods will be utterly cut off, to perfect the world through the Almighty’s sovereignty.”
Here we see that Tikkun Olam is about perfecting the world through removing idolatry and false gods. It is part of the Divine service of a Jew.
It is further used in mystical thought by the Arizal. He explains that Hashem contracted part of Himself into vessels of light—partly limiting himself—to create the world. These vessels shattered and their shards became sparks of light trapped within the material of creation. Prayer, especially contemplation of various aspects of the Divinity (the Sefirot), releases these sparks and allows them to reunite with God’s Essence, bringing them closer to a fixed world – a Tikkun Olam.
Once again nothing to do with social action or wider communal work – here it is to do with our relationship to Hashem and Tefilla in particular.
It seems that to many modern Jews that we can simply self-define what is and what isn’t Judaism.
We can see the root of the problem in this week’s Parasha with an idea of Rabbi Frand.
Ki Teitzei contains the mitzvah of ‘Shiluch HaKen.’ The Torah commands us that when one finds a mother bird nesting on her eggs, if he wants to take the small birds he must first send away the mother. Only then is he allowed to take the children for himself [Devarim 22:6-7].
The verse concludes that if one keeps this mitzvah it will be good for him and he will have length of days. There is only one other mitzvah in the Torah, which carries this same reward. That is the mitzvah of honouring parents.
The Midrash comments on the fact that both the “easiest of the easy” and the “most difficult of the difficult” have the same reward — length of days. This teaches us, says the Midrash, that we do not really know the reward of the commandments.
However, why is the sending away of the mother bird referred to as the easiest of mitzvot and why is honoring one’s parents referred to as the most difficult of mitzvot?
The Sefer Shemen HaTov suggests the following:
The Ramban on the Torah tells us that the reason the Torah gave us the mitzvah of Shiluach HaKen was to train us in the attribute of mercy. He takes pains to explain that this does not mean that Hashem necessarily has mercy on the animals; what it does mean is that Hashem is concerned that we should be compassionate people. We should train ourselves in compassion. If one is trained to be compassionate even to a bird, this will carry over and he will be compassionate to human beings as well.
If that is the case, this mitzvah is called the easiest of the easy because it is consistent with human nature. We can all relate to this mitzvah. We can all relate to the suffering a mother bird would feel if her children were taken away before her very eyes. We can understand its rationale. Therefore, it is an easy mitzvah to fulfill.
If this is correct, it would follow that honouring parents is spoken of as the most difficult of mitzvot because it goes AGAINST human emotions.
Why does honouring parents run against human emotions? Because, the Rabbis tell us that the basis of the mitzvah of Kibud Av v’em is the concept of Hakarat HaTov — showing gratitude. We, as human beings, do not like to show gratitude. Showing gratitude to someone is acknowledging that we needed that person. Our egos do not want to let us believe that.
We want to think that we are independent and can do things ourselves. To show appreciation means that the other person was needed. Appreciating parents involves dealing with the fact that, in essence, we owe EVERYTHING to our parents. Our very life was dependent on them. That is difficult to admit. It is difficult for us to say, “I owe you everything.”
Even more than that sometimes to look after and honour parents is difficult – is painful – yet it is the correct thing to do, it is what God commands us to do.
The Jews, who the author of the article is bemoaning are falling into the same trap.
Judaism is not about what I want – it is actually about what Hashem wants and what the Torah commands. There is no such thing as my Judaism – there is just what Hashem commands us to do – what Hashem wants us to do.
We may not know it, but what Hashem wants is what we need
Keeping mitzvot are not easy – they can be unpleasant, inconvenient, difficult, challenging– that is irrelevant, they must be kept – that is what Divine service is all about.
Many times in our limited capacity as human beings, we cannot fathom the depths of the Divine command.
An Orthodox religious way of life has boundaries, has limitations – yes, but they are there to enhance our spirituality and provide a way of life that has survived almost unchanged for millennia.
We cannot decide how we think Shabbat should be kept – we must follow Halacha.
We cannot decide which Mitzvot to keep and which to ignore – we must follow Halacha.
And we can’t remove the idea of Tikkun Olam from the original idea of closeness to Hashem, powerful Tefilla and observance of Torah.
Of course, we should help the wider society, be good citizens and care for all humanity – not just Jews. However, we have to realise that as Jews we have our responsibilities, and that true Tikkun Olam is an embrace of Torah, mitzvoth (the Halacha) and a cleaving to Hashem.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and our community flocks back to shul, let us hope we can inspire them and ourselves with true Tikkun Olam – perfecting the world that Hashem has given us by living the lives that Hashem wants from us.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw