Sewing Up Social Justice

About a month into the stay-at-home order, our nine-year-old daughter Hannah fell off her bike. Thankfully, her only injury was a large cut on her knee. Three months ago, we would have hopped in the car and headed to Urgent Care or the Children’s Emergency room to see if she needed stitches. In our world today, we took a deep breath, put on our COVID-19 hats and (after a short phone call to our pediatrician) decided that we were going to patch this knee up ourselves. With gauze and antibiotic ointment in hand, we did our best home remedy.

The word Tikkun Olam is used a lot in modern American Judaism. Often it is used synonymously with the words Social Action or Social Justice. A footnote in our prayerbook explains that this term has evolved over the years. In the second and third centuries it referred to “rabbinic legislation to remedy specific social ills or legal injustices.” Later, in our Aleinu prayer, it is used to refer to the actions God will take to fix our world. In the sixteenth century, Jewish mystics understood tikkun olam to refer to the human actions we take to perfect our world.

My daughter’s knee has healed now. She will probably have a scar for life, but our home remedy mostly did the trick. As we all learn how to navigate life from home, I want to remind us that many of the wounds of our world do not require social justice surgeons. Most of us are not walking around with law degrees and, in our normally busy world, most of us do not have the luxury of stopping everything we are doing to become amateur experts in the complex issues of injustice today. But a lot of our justice problems do not require such a degree, much time or God’s divine intervention as was the case for the Israelites. A lot of justice work can be done with a home remedy.

We are all patients, regardless of whether we have studied medicine or not. We all have suffering in common. Scratch the skin of any human being and you come upon some degree of helplessness, misery or even agony. Being a person involves the ability to suffer himself, to suffer for others; to know passion as well as compassion.

~Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 24)

To believe in tikkun olam today is to believe that we, average human beings, have the ability to offer home remedies for the world’s wounds. Whether we say it aloud or not, we know the remedy for the racist murder of a man out for a jog. We know what senseless loss feels like, and we know that sometimes it’s just one conversation across the table that opens our eyes to understand someone for who they are and not how they look to us.

May we all know that we are patients of suffering so that we can act as surgeons of social justice. And, as our prayerbook reminds us every Shabbat: lirot m’heirah . . . l’takein olam. (May we swiftly recognize that we are the ones who have the ability to heal the wounds of our world.)