Tikkun Olam is a very popular theme these days. Although traditionally this has been a kabbalistic concept, the past several decades has seen the phrase applied more to environmental, as well as to social/political issues including climate, disease, human rights, war and peace.
Without discounting the seriousness, and, to some degree, the urgency of the problems we face, I don’t think we’re yet properly prepared nor equipped to really accomplish very much. Protests, marches, petitions and meetings might make us feel good about ourselves, but, to date, they have done almost nothing to resolve these challenges. Many recent political upheavals, often spearheaded by mass protests, have actually created much worse worse realities than what they set out to change.
Our Torah brings us several examples of people getting ahead of themselves, trying to usher in new eras before they had developed the necessary abilities to direct things to a positive outcome. From eating from the Tree of Knowledge before humanity had prepared itself by experiencing our first Shabbat, to Korach’s rebellion, based on the true, but not-yet-realized concept of all Israel being holy, we see disasters that while wholly unintended, continue to reverberate even today, bringing damage into our world.
It might be inappropriate to bring John Lennon into the discussion, but in the Beatle song Revolution, he tries to calm the zealots of the 1960s, telling them to first, “free your minds instead”. Before we try to change the world, we need to change ourselves, make ourselves the most capable and the most wise we can be. Otherwise, the chance of potentially disastrous mistakes or disastrous overestimating our abilities soar. It isn’t for nothing that even in our day of sophisticated and advanced medical technology, for example, the Hippocratic Oath emphasizes “Do no harm”.
Our Torah and the paths in life it teaches us, is one of transformation and growth. We’re mandated to make ourselves as great as we each can be. Avot (1:6) says עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, Aseh L’Cha Rav. This is frequently translated as “make yourself a teacher”, but, literally, it says “make yourself great”. Many kabbalistic texts discuss the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm, defining macrocosm as עולם גדול, Olam Gadol, the great universe, and microcosm, each individual human, as עולם קטן, Olam Katan, the small universe. (Similarly, the macrocosm is also referred to as אדם גדול, Adam Gadol, the great human, the microcosm as אדם קטן, Adam Katan, the small (individual) human.)
The Mitzva system which our Torah graces to all Jews, is designed, perhaps in ways beyond our understanding (But how many of us have the slightest understanding of the computer I’m composing this with or the computer you’re reading this on? Nonetheless, we find it easy to “trust” often-baffling technology.) to guide our growth and evolution, aimed at our eventually being able to merge our tiny, individual selves with the vast Infinite. Torah study, described as כנגד כולם, k’neged culam, corresponding to (or being equal to) the entire Torah, and specifically Talmud study, is designed to grow and utterly transform our minds into being capable of simultaneous movement in different directions. It trains us to think linearly and laterally, empirically and intuitively, serially and associatively, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. It leads us to evolve to a state where human beings will, hopefully, begin to utilize more than the 20% of our brains that we normally do. All of this should make us much more capable than we are now.
So, in order to successfully “repair” the greater world, with all of its social, political and environmental crises, we need first to “repair”, to bring to its highest functioning state, our עולם קטן, Olam Katan–in other words, our individual selves. Frankly, in our current state of awareness, I’m not confident that we can even accurately identify the real issues, let alone devise strategies that will actually make the problems better, and not merely our make our self-esteem feel better.
The Torah, whose giving we read about this week in Parshat Yitro, brings the Infinite into our finite world, with the capability and purpose to transform each of us from our limited selves to our maximum beingness.