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Jun 21 2013

Friday Night: Repairing the World Means Helping People

By at 10:12 am

tikkun olam tedJoining PJ Library is one of the best things we’ve done as parents. Every month a new Jewish book arrives at our home and Lila learns about a Jewish holiday or concept through a story that’s meaningful to her. Several PJ Library books–like the Hanukkah counting book and the Dayenu”-centric Passover book–have become diaper bag must-haves, genuine favorites that we have read countless times. Perhaps because our experience has been so superlative, I was surprised by a disappointing recent selection.

Tikkun Olam Ted tells the story of a boy who is small in stature but does big things. He works to repair the world daily, and this storybook covers one presumably typical week. Each day, Ted does a different, vividly illustrated Tikkun Olam project. And whenever we finish the book, Lila enthusiastically chants, “’gain!,” eager for an encore reading. 

On principle, I’m thrilled that Lila is so excited about reading, and reading Jewish stories in particular. But I’m often tempted to hide this book because the way the (presumably well-meaning) author explains Tikkun Olam doesn’t reflect my values.

All of Ted’s activities relate to nature or animals; three pages of pictures are devoted to recycling. Now, I’m all in favor of treating Mother Earth well, but planting trees in Israel is notably absent, and the term tzedakah appears only on the last page, where it’s part of the picture but not mentioned in the text.

Is that the extent of what it means to be a Jew, or a Jew working to repair the world? That’s not what I believe.

I love the story of the man who dared Rabbi Akiva to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one leg. Akiva’s reply? Love your neighbor as you love yourself. I wonder, where are the people in this book?

Years ago, I became involved with local campaigns and then worked in government because I wanted to help people. I wanted to do what I could to make the world better. When I worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, my office periodically received calls from people whose homes were being foreclosed on mistakenly; I took their details, inquired about their cases, and helped them pause, or halt, the foreclosure process. That wasn’t my job, but I was happy to do it because these strangers needed help, and I was in a position to assist.

To me, the most vital part of Tikkun Olam is helping other people whenever we can, however we can. That means doing things large and small, both for friends and strangers.

For example, our neighbors helped us tremendously when we faced a recent family medical emergency. I had to travel to New York, my husband had to work in Washington, and the logistics of Lila’s accompanying me were impossible. Two of our neighbors, whom Lila likes and trusts, volunteered to rearrange their schedules–delaying an out-of-town trip and skipping a review session for finals–so that they could watch Lila while I traveled. A third neighbor cancelled weekend plans so that she and her son could host Lila for a play date.

We were incredibly grateful. When you have a family emergency, and other people pitch in with unexpected support? That is Tikkun Olam.

When you bring soup to a friend who is home sick.

When you visit elderly relatives, who cannot leave their homes.

When you offer your subway seat to a pregnant woman.

When you donate excess breast milk to a local milk bank.

When you hold the door for a parent juggling a stroller, shopping bags, and children.

When you offer a hug to a crying child (as I’ve seen Lila do).

When you lend an ear to a friend going through a rough patch.

When you visit a family sitting shiva.

When you volunteer at a homeless shelter.

When you donate time or money to charities that help the needy.

Each aforementioned mitzvah may appear small on its own, but taken together, they point us toward a better world, the sort of world I’d like Lila to one day inherit.

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