Mitzvah Day: Good, But (Maybe) Not Tikkun Olam


Springtime is the Jewish season of volunteering.

Good Deeds Day, Mitzvah Day and other such events offer many annual opportunities to feed the hungry, visit the sick and elderly, help abused animals, clean the environment and more. For example, JServe is a national effort to engage teens, and attempt to teach them about “fulfilling the Jewish values of gemilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness, tzedakah, just and charitable giving, and tikkun olam, the responsibility to repair the world.”

In reality, the message of many such events is muddled. Participants do good, important things, but the meaning of their efforts is often unclear, lumped into a vague construct of tikkun olam.

Examples of how our community approaches these activities were expressed at a recent national meeting in December, the Jewish Education Project’s Jewish Futures Conference, titled For Which It Stands: How Can Jewish Civics Education Elevate American Democracy? The event was an open, respectful and very valuable examination of how we can approach educating for democracy, community engagement and leadership. There were a variety of speakers and workshops on engaging learners to be active participants in the democratic process. There was discussion of leadership, having a voice, and making change. Yet in a number of instances, when practical programmatic efforts in our communities were discussed by participants they primarily identified efforts at serving those in need. The message of the programs discussed was unclear, seemingly defining being good citizens as a form of Noblesse Oblige: the idea that people with advantages, for example those of a high social class, should help and do things for other people. While this is not a bad thing, it does not necessarily describe the type of participation in the democratic process that was the focus of the gathering.

The sense of mission and purpose that true activism can provide is the most powerful kind of education. We have just seen a wave of activism from our USYers relating to gun violence. One of the signature slogans chanted at the rallies was, “This is what democracy looks like!” Mopping floors, painting and making PBJ sandwiches are good, but I cannot imagine our children see such things as changing the world – instead they want to use their voices for social change.

I wish to challenge our Jewish educators to consider what service activities we ask our students (and our adults) to do, and what we can teach them that will invest Jewish meaning and passion into their efforts.

I propose three frameworks to define our efforts.

  1. Sherut: Service to others (because God tells us to) as embodied in Psalm 82:3-4 “Defend the poor and the orphan; deal justly with the poor and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
  2. Gemilut Hasadim: Dealing out kindness and mercy (because it feels good) without expectation of reward during this lifetime, such as burying the dead, comforting the mourner, visiting the sick and clothing the naked. Acts are performed out of an emotion that makes us do good.
  3. Tikkun Olam: Repairing the world, which has two types of meanings. The first is seen in the Alenu prayer, “to repair the world in God’s kingdom,” through the performance of the mitzvot. The second comes from the Mishnah: “The term mipnei tikkun ha-olam (perhaps best translated in this context as “in the interest of public policy”) is used to refer to social policy legislation. It was applied to situations such as determining just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves, or how far to go when redeeming captives. (Adapted from My Jewish Learning)

Each of these is an important concept, and each has a place developmentally.

The first two concepts, service and acts of loving kindness, are critical to teaching compassion and civic responsibility. The learning associated with them lends itself to children and their families. Most of what happens on Mitzvah Day or at JServe are covered by these concepts. Helping at the food pantry. Painting a day care center. Visiting the nursing home. It is about helping people today.

Tikkun Olam, in our contemporary world, is something else however. Its teachings are more appropriate for teens and adults. It is about fixing the system, about making social change. Inclusion. Social Justice. Civil Society. It is as much about the future as it is about the present. This is what our USYers were doing by participating in March for Our Lives.

Offering opportunities for service and social change, and helping our children and adults find Jewish meaning in their efforts, is a huge opportunity to nurture passion for an authentic, dynamic Judaism that meets our students where they are, and empowers them to thrive in the real world in which we live.

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