Which world do you want to repair?

The answer is closer than you think.

A worker removes prayer notes Aug. 25, 2021, left by visitors in gaps between stones at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s Old City, ahead of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. The notes are buried in a nearby cemetery in accordance with Jewish tradition. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

(RNS) — With Rosh Hashana commencing this Monday evening (Sept. 6), and Yom Kippur following 10 days later, the global Jewish community finds itself in the heart of two seasons — giving season and receiving season.

The seeking, granting and receiving of forgiveness, atonement and renewal are central to these holidays. Jewish tradition has, for thousands of years, linked our ability to receive with our willingness to give, especially our giving to those most in need. 

So, from a very concrete perspective, the High Holidays are a time when organizations reach out for the financial support they need in order to accomplish their respective missions throughout the year.

Have no fear: Though I do lead one such organization, this is not a fundraising pitch. Rather, I want to address how any of us — regardless of religious tradition or time of year — thinks about what difference we want to make in our world.

We all receive many competing claims and multiple calls, and seemingly endless emails, from so many worthy causes and institutions. There are, by most any caring measure, infinite needs, yet each of us has finite resources — be it time, talent or treasure.

To whom should we respond? To whom do we actually respond? How do we decide? 

For thousands of years, and using a number of different but closely related terms, Jewish teachings have celebrated the human obligation of Tikkun Olam — in English, “repairing the world.” Instead of trying to figure out which cause or issue is “most important,” “most urgent,” “most spiritually aligned,” we might ask ourselves: Which world are we trying to repair?

You might be saying, “But Brad, what do you mean by asking us which world? There is only one world, and, especially on Rosh Hashana, which celebrates the creation of that world and birth of our shared human ancestors, how can you suggest anything less?” 

The answer comes from the rabbis who, 2,000 years ago, said, “Whoever saves a single life, saves an entire world.”

So teaches the Mishnah (foundational text of Rabbinic Judaism, produced in the time of Jesus and the century and a half following). Far from being rabbinic hyperbole, it is a profound claim about the infinite value of every human being — each one created in the image of God — as we celebrate with the birth of Adam and Eve, whose birthday is Rosh Hashana, according to that same tradition.

Each person, according to this text, is an entire world — infinitely valuable, unique and equal, each to the other. Once we accept this fundamental truth, which world do we want to heal is the question that is always there for us to answer.

As much as Tikkun Olam is about the world, in other words, it is at least as much about us. There is no one world to repair, there are billions of worlds to repair. And all the arguments about priorities, efficiencies and measurable outcomes pretty much vanish. 

The places where we worship; the hospitals that heal the sick; literacy programs and those that help assure that nobody goes to bed hungry in the richest nation in the world; assuring the existence of a safe and secure state of Israel, vitally important to many in the Jewish community; securing voting access for all eligible voters here in the U.S., which should be vitally important to all of us: These are all worlds we can choose to repair, once we set our eyes, our ears, our hearts and minds on them. And from the perspective of each of the respective residents of those discrete worlds, they are the whole world, in very real ways.

If you crave a more legalistic approach, let me share one additional source from the Talmud — the thousands-page-long conversational commentary on the Mishnah — “The poor of your village take priority.”

Which invites us to ask, what counts as “our village”? Do poor nonmembers of our respective faith communities, often people living right in our physical neighborhood, come before members of our extended faith-based families, living thousands of miles away? What if one group is more materially in need than the other? What happens if we are confident that others will address one set of needs but not the other? 

Different authorities respond in different ways to these and related questions, but all of the answers reflect the answerers’ understanding of to whom they feel most proximate, most connected — that is, who they count as being in their respective villages.

Once again, the answer is less about the one right answer, and more about the one asking the question.

So I ask myself, and invite each of us to ask ourselves, who is in our villages and how are we prioritizing them? As with the issue of which worlds we choose to repair, the only wrong answer is that we live in our own private villages, so we need not give priority to anyone beyond ourselves and those who are just like us. Other than that, we really can’t get it wrong.

In a world of infinite need, each answer is correct, and the only test we need to pass, is the extent to which are occupied with answering those questions.

According to the Book of Genesis, we humans started out tending a single Garden 5,782 years ago, or millions of years before that, or both, depending upon how you count. Now the entire planet is our garden, and Rosh Hashana is our chance to remember that we are all descended from the original gardeners — that we are here, each of one us, to tend our chosen plots as best we can.

(Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!