“Righteous people say little and do much.”
BT Bava Metzia 87a
“Every minute - every single second - there are a million things you could be thinking about. A million things you could be worrying about. Our world - don’t you feel we’re becoming more and more fragmented? I used to think that when I got older, the world would make so much more sense. But you know what? The older I get, the more confusing it is to me. The more complicated it is. Harder. You’d think we’d be getting better at it. But there’s just more and more chaos. The pieces - they’re everywhere. And nobody knows what to do about it.”
These words from a conversation in David Levithan’s young adult fiction, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, create a picture of a frustration. The sadness in the world at times feels crushingly overwhelming. John-Paul Flintoff articulates this paralysis concretely in How to Change the World. “Surprisingly often, we find ourselves impaled on a paradox: we desperately want to do something, but have no idea what it may be.” This impulse often escalates in intensity as a new year approaches. There is a new chance to make this the year that we end poverty, hunger, cancer, etc.
But our impulse to do good in the world is often thwarted by the practical problem of how to do so. To help us change the world, Flintoff includes and index called “198 Ways to Act” excerpted from Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action and includes suggestions we might expect – demonstrations, pressure applied to political figures, boycotts, leaflets – and includes rude gestures, self-exposure to the elements, satyagrahic fasting (look that one up), mutiny, mock funerals, silence, teach-ins and, of course, protest disrobings.
Many of these suggestions involve communication in different modalities. But the rabbinic response seems, instead, to prefer silence and action, as the Talmud says above. “To be is to stand for,” as Rabbi A. J. Heschel says. Standing is not speaking. In fact, sometimes speech masks inactivity. We talk about goodness instead of embodying it.
Our expression for social change, tikkun olam, is most famously expressed at the end of traditional prayer services “Le-taken olam b’malchut Sha-dai.” Critics of the tikkun olam impulse in contemporary Jewish life complain that too much energy is spent on environmental awareness or poverty in other countries but very little is expended on embracing Jewish law and ritual. We are a small people and if we do not help each other, who will take care of us? The Alenu prayer tries to focus our works under the shadow of the kingdom of God. Social justice is twinned with spirituality.
Permit me to offer an alternative reading. Perhaps the idea of fixing the world in the kingdom of God is recognizing our humility when we set out to repair something we deem broken. There is often a smug or self-righteous approach that accompanies social justice work that is condescending and intimidating. Even the presumption that we can change the world sounds arrogant. I can barely change my shoes on harder days.
Flintoff returns us to more modest goals: “…if we are really interested in changing the world, we have to put other people first. Every attitude we assume, every word we utter, and every act we undertake establishes us in relation to others.” Tikkun olam is less about changing the world in this view and more about attuning ourselves to the needs of others through curiosity and empathy.
Leviathan captures this sentiment majestically in his novel:
“…Then it hits me. Maybe we’re the pieces,”
“Maybe that’s it. With what you were talking about before. The world being broken. Maybe it isn’t that we’re supposed to find the pieces and put them back together. Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe, what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking. Tikkun olam.”
Maybe it is audacious to think that this is the year we will change the world. Maybe it is enough to believe that this is the year we will change the brokenness ourselves. And maybe that too is audacious.