Tikkun Olam Reflections from Reuven Spero
One of my favorite stories of tikkun olam involves one of the greatest rabbis of the middle ages, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg. Rabbi Meir lived in the area of Ashkenaz (Franco-Germany) during a dark period of persecutions during the 13th century. At last he found life as a Jew untenable there, and he uprooted his family to attempt the long and dangerous journey to the Land of Israel. He did not make it far. Rabbi Meir was recognized by an apostate Jew was traveling with a church official. Denounced and arrested, he was held in a formidable fortress.
The Christian kings of that era knew that a Jew held captive was money in the bank. Our people have long been devoted to redeeming captives, ever since our forefather Avraham gathered a small force and rescued his nephew Lot – and all the other captives – from the hands of Cadalaomer (Gen. 14). Likewise, David rescued the bodies of King Shaul and his son Yonatan from the hands of the Philistines so that he could give them an honorable burial. The State of Israel continues the tradition of doing everything in its power to rescue or redeem captured soldiers, alive or dead. Pidyon Shevuiim (redeeming captives) is a value deeply ingrained in our national consciousness.
Indeed, the Jewish community of R. Meir’s time gathered a huge sum, over 20,000 marks, to secure the release of their spiritual leader. How could they expect that Rabbi Meir would refuse to be redeemed? Quoting the Mishna, R. Meir forbad the community from redeeming him at such an outrageous cost – “for if you do so, no sage in Israel will be safe.” Following the Mishna, he concluded that NOT redeeming him should be done for the sake of tikkun olam.
How far this is from our own modern understanding of tikkun olam. Nowadays, we would create a GoFundMe page and raise the amount within a week – within a day! And the call would go out to contribute to this worthy cause for the sake of tikkun olam! And according to Rabbi Meir and the Mishna before him, that is not at all what tikkun olam demands!
The idea of tikkun olam is derived from the story of creation. In creating the universe, Hashem did not finish creating so much as He left off from creating. That is, the world was left unfinished, and it is the role of humanity to work in dialogue with Hashem to complete the works of creation. The brit (covenant) with Noah, and later with Avraham, and finally with all Israel at Har Sinai provide direction and guidelines on how to partner with Hashem to participate in tikkun olam.
And what about Rabbi Meir? He died after being held in prison for 7 years, and in the end a wealthy Jew ransomed his body on the condition that he might be buried next to him.
Where is the tikkun olam here? And how do we reconcile Rabbu Meir’s understanding with that of the State of Israel, which until now has redeemed our soldiers at a huge cost.
I believe that we have to see both R. Meir and the State of Israel as involved in tikkun olam. Perhaps the definition changes by circumstance, perhaps Rabbi Meir, being a great sage, was able and willing to be stringent on himself for the sake of the security of others. Perhaps the State of Israel prioritizes the suffering of families, of the whole community of Israel, for whom it sees itself as responsible.
My original direction in writing this small drasha was to save the idea of tikkun olam from the rather reductionist view that we tend towards in our day. In many contexts nowadays, tikkun clan is used to define or advocate for political agendas. I think what I have learned through writing this is that the essence of tikkun olam transcends politics. It lies in the sensitivity we have towards each other, being stringent on ourselves when seeing the big picture, and seeing the holiness in each other to address their pain.
That, I think, expresses a true partnership with Hashem. It is a thought to keep with us as we commemorate MLK.