TIKKUN HA-OLAM THROUGH TIKKUN HA-MIDDOS: Perfecting the world by perfecting oneself
By Michoel Stern
Published March 27, 2009, by the Jewish Times, as “Tikkun Olam Vs. Tikkun Middos?”
When we take a look at the investment of time and resources the Jewish community puts into the cause of Tikkun HaOlam (repairing the world) we gain an appreciation of how projects under the banner of Tikkun HaOlam have a central focus in our community dedicated to them. Indeed, one can easily see how the concept of Tikkun HaOlam has permeated the Jewish community due to its intrinsic value to the Jewish religion and mission. Yet, tragically, at the expense of a broader definition … the word Tikkun HaOlam has become synonymous and limited to “social action.” I am not, G-d forbid, trying to mitigate the social action component to Tikkun HaOlam. Rather, I am pleading for the Jewish community to reassess our understanding of the word Tikkum HaOlam, and to gain a greater understanding of the concept entailed. In order to achieve this goal I think it is essential for us to understand and define the traditional concept of Tikkun HaOlam, and
how the concept of Tikkun HaMiddos (repairing character traits) plays a vital role in the implementation and achieving of a complete Tikkun HaOlam.
The idea of Tikkun HaOlam traditionally has been understood as changing the world for the better through the mitzvos (commandments) by accomplishing change in the spiritual realm with a cause and effect action that determines the landscape of the physical realm (world). This idea is expounded upon by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh HaChaim 1:6) commenting on the verse in Leviticus (18:5) regarding the mitzvos: “And you shall live in them (the mitzvos).” A person “lives in a mitzvah” by effecting change in the spiritual realm through their adherence to the mitzvos, this in turn empowers the physical world which is sustained by the spiritual realm they effected the change to. Therefore, the person lives in a physical world which they impacted by their keeping the mitzvos. This is Tikkun HaOlam in its traditional sense.
Tikkun HaMiddos, a form of Tikkun HaOlam in its essence:
Leo Tolstoy said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.” I believe that if we would be more in tuned to the role that Tikkun HaMiddos has in Tikkun HaOlam, and the goal of our existence in general, then we would focus more of our energy towards self-evaluation. The Jewish text are far from silent on this matter. In fact, they inform us unequivocally that perfection of one’s character is the purpose and anchor to our mission on this world. In the introduction to the classic mussar (discipline of character refinement) of text, The Orchos Tzadakim, we are told: “And if you do not have good traits, you do not have Torah and mitzvos, for all of Torah hinges upon the perfection of one’s traits.” In the Vilna Goan’s master piece on mussar, Evan Shelimah (1:1-2) he informs us: “All service of G-d is dependent upon correcting character traits … The main obligation of a person is to constantly
strengthen their struggle with their character. If not, why [did G-d] give him life?” The Baal Shem Tov (commenting on Geresis 1:26) explains how a person is a “partner” with G-d in bringing their own potential into fruition through using their free will. G-d created humanity with the potential to obtain spiritual greatness. However, only we can harness our free will to accomplish our Divinely given task.
Rabbi Chaim Freedlander zt”l (in Sifsei Chaim-Middos V’avodas Hashem vol. 2 Pg. 17) shares a profound meaning if the mishneh in Pirkei Avos (1:14) where Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” What Hillel was saying is that each person is unique in the abilities they have been given and what position in life they were put. Only they, and nobody else, are capable of achieving their purpose in the world utilizing what they were given. It should be abundantly clear that perfection (or the pursuit) of character refinement is a form of Tikkun HaOlam in its purest sense. The pursuit of character refinement repairs this both world in its physical aspect and its spiritual manifestation.
Tikkun HaMiddos as a vehicle to enhance Tikkun HaOlam:
Rabbi Yisroel of Salant once said: “It is easier to learn all of the Talmud than to change one bad character trait.” I think this quote could be modified to fit our context by saying that, “It is easier to attend sixty marches and soup kitchens than it is to have the brutal honesty to assess where we can and should be, compared where we are.” Psychologically being involved in causes for others is more attractive than our own introspection. However, when we take the initiative to repair ourselves we are in a better position to help others. People often get in and out of social action fads, but by instilling the intrinsic value of kindness as an opportunity to emulate G-d we can be better motivated to be more throughly committed to the task at hand. Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l (in tape E-142) lays out this important premise in kindness when he observes that in the episode where Abraham was circumcised and G-d made the weather very hot
in order to advert guests from coming to his house while he was recovering. However, because Abraham was bothered by not having guests G-d brought angles to visit him (see Rashi to Genesis 18:1). Rabbi Miller asked, what was bothering Abraham? There were no guests to be had because the weather was so horrible, so no one needed his kindness! Rabbi Miller said Abraham was greatly agitated at the lack of opportunity in emulating G-d through doing kindness, this is what pained him!
The skills one develops by working on themselves contributes immensely to toward team work and a more effective personal contribution as well. Pragmatically, when we are better people, we will be better liked, and this will enable us to make a larger impact in our efforts toward social action. Thomas Szasz (in the Second Sin) points out that,“People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something that one finds. It is something one creates.” With this in mind let us, with G-d’s help built ourselves up so that we can make the best tikkun (repair) possible in everything that it entails.