Gathering the Shards- Teaching & Practicing Tikkun Olam Inspired Loving Kindness in Hard Times

Led by Rachel Carroll Rivas

I like giving the service here at Big Sky UU because, selfishly, it helps me dig down and examine a topic or multiple topics that I have been mulling over in my head and, unselfishly, one which I think might be of interest to others. And so it was again this time. A few weeks ago I was thinking about my coming service and a few things seemed worthy of exploration. One, no doubt is of concern to many of you too, I think about it for work every day: how do we counter the: vitriol, the bigotry, the hateful rhetoric and aggression we seem to be swimming in right now? It’s a big question and in true UU fashion, I doubt there is one answer- gosh who thinks they have all the answers and are the single solution to our problems- wait don’t answer that question!

So the other thing on my mind is pretty central to being a parent or anyone who cares about how we are teaching our youth to be good people. I feel like one of my central jobs of being parent is to raise caring, empathetic people, who act on those core loving values. I have a feeling this topic will never be far from my mind ever again for parenting is a lifetime job and caring for our youth should be on all our minds.

I began by scooping the blogosphere for these topics and a came across a piece on Tablet, which is a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture. I’d never heard of it or the author of the blog, but the piece introduced me to some new religious teachings and parenting ideas that I found intriguing. The article is called “Teaching Kids about Tikkun Olam” and it’s an excerpt from the book “Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children” by Marjorie Ingall. Well I want those kids and the world sure needs those kids. Dig in I thought. Here’s what I got from that article and some further reading.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept usually translated as “healing the world” and it often is interpreted as meaning acts of loving kindness and participation in the ongoing process of creation. It’s become code amongst liberal minded Jews to be synonymous with social and environmental action. There a whole movement around the concept, a magazine and it’s made its even made its way in to the hippy spirituality. It’s become so popular that it also has its naysayers. One conservative Jewish critic of the concept wrote about, “The Rise of Tikkun Olam Paganism,” called it a “pseudo-religion,” “social action fetishism,” “a vulgar misuse and distortion by assimilationists,” and said that it is a theological notion and not a trendy socioeconomic or political one. Perfect I thought! That sounds like my kind of theological idea. I doubt this was the reaction he was hoping for!

And actually the concept isn’t the Torah, but it is in the Jewish oral laws the Mishna and Talmud. Tikukn Olam is a myth, including a creation story by Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known as Ari, in the 1500s. It’s a pretty cool creation story, “The Shattering of the Vessels.” The myth goes that in the beginning God’s light filled the universe and in order to create the world, God needed to make room, to contract God’s divine self. God first drew in breath and contracted and thus darkness was created. And then God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) and the light came in the form of ten holy vessels filled with light. The Jewish mother author described it as the opposite of the Big Bang. I love that thought. It’s so visual. And she compared it to how just as parents must pull back helps our kids grow, God’s pulling back made space for human agency and goodness. In Ari’s creation myth, the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the shards were scattered like sand, like seeds, and like stars.

Some modern Jewish women philosophers compare the contraction and breathing-in to birth contractions, and the breaking of the vessels like the birth of the world. And even at its most basic interpretation, Ari’s myth is quite a departure from one Judeo/Christian belief- in Ari’s myth the shattering of the vessels happens before humans and thus the Adam and Eve aren’t responsible for bringing evil and sin to the world. It really shifts the idea of our purpose from having to make up for human’s ‘original sin,’ to instead fulfilling a good plan and gathering the shards of light to reveal and heal.

Regardless of the details or interpretation of the myth itself, the moral of the story is clear, it’s our job as humans is to complete the divine work of creation by gathering those shards of goodness. In doing so we repair and heal the world- Tikkun Olam.

Again, this task is given us such a beautiful visual. We can each picture the tiny shards of glass that dust our kitchen floor after a dropped cup slips from our hands. Can you imagine collecting each of those tiny pieces, searching for them in the most hidden crack and joining them with the big easy pieces that lay on the counter that you don’t even have to bend down for. We bring them back together to remake that vessel and hold the light.
Or in the description of them as seeds spread out over the world, we collect each precious one, everything from those teeny tiny carrot seeds to the great big black sunflower, harvested and saved and nurtured into beautiful garden.

And we can even do the collecting and the gathering with our eyes and our minds, picking out that first dimly lit star in the early night sky and then seeking out the next and the next until they become the big collection making up the milky way and helping us see across the landscape in the night sky.

Each of these visuals is a way for us to understand and motivate us to seek out and to find the goodness and the light in dark times. It’s so easy to feel down. Maybe it be the political turmoil or the difficulty of parenting. These visually help remind us that those little flecks of light are out there and that we should be seeking them out in easy and difficult places. But, I think it is also important to note that it is NOT a rose colored glasses type of seeking, because remember the vessels shattered due to the immense power that was within. It isn’t a battle over evil, but simply a gathering of the power and energy that is contained in goodness, in love. It’s simple, as the pieces of light are collected they drown out the darkness. They don’t destroy, just inch by inch, piece by piece- they overcome.

And overcome is such a righteous and perfect word for it. I came across a Huffington Post piece by Rabbi Authur Waskow, titled, “This Election: Three Thresholds & the Left-Out Americans.” In it he picks apart some of the sad realities of the current election cycle in the US and calls for a movement after November that speaks to the spiritual, cultural, and economic needs of the electoric that feel “left-out”. He calls for a renewed commitment to the creation of what Dr. King called the ‘beloved community’ and he calls for a true “healing of the world.” As I read Waskow words I heard the spiritual ‘We Shall Overcome’ and connected it with this Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam and the overcoming of the darkness with the light. I thought of the righteousness that King and heros like John Lewis brought to the Civil Rights movement. Again, in her Jewish Mamaleh book Majorie Ingall wrote about the ways we can teach and instill Tikkun Olam in our children. She talked about passing on righteousness. “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” Deuteronomy commands “righteousness, righteousness, should you pursue.” As political actors, community members and parents we need to instill the need to right wrongs, to fix what’s broken and support the underdog or unpopular cause even when it’s hard because “it is just the right thing to do.” I think righteousness is that moral compass and we all need it, kids included. Why did many Christian rescuers risk their own lives to help the Jews and others escape the holocaust- “it was just the right thing to do” many said. From the smallest scale of stopping bullies to standing up for marginalized groups it’s part of healing the world, part of creating that beloved community.

It is community. Tikkun Olam isn’t optional and it’s not possible to do alone. There is just no way by ourselves can make it to all the corners and get into every crevasse that the shards are found, we have to do it together. This goes for us as adult and for teaching our children they are part of community and need others just as they are needed. Family is community and mutuality makes a house function. But, oh boy are those simple acts of loving kindness, those mitzvoh’s towards those closest to us the hardest! It’s a good place to start, practicing loving kindness to our family and close friends! Tikkun Olam doesn’t have to be complicated and grand, although there are times that’s called for, but Tikkun Olam can be simple small acts, mitzvohs, those are also powerful.

I like the idea of Tikkun Olam because it’s not about good or evil, but again this collection of light that overcomes the darkness. In my work I have to call out the bad actors. I think it’s important that people don’t get a pass when there are causing harm. But, I always say that it’s the ideas and beliefs that are harmful and all kinds of people can get caught up in ugly things. Good people can get caught up in nasty movements. We often say we are ‘shining a bright light injustice.’ That fits pretty well. I want to teach my children this idea and about larger injustices. That yes it’s our duty to pick up the shards and do our good deeds but there are larger systematic things causing the darkness too. I’ll share this story that I hope illustrates this. The other morning Nava was in the bathroom singing “if people don’t have food, we’ll give them food. If the people don’t have food we’ll buy them food.” I said that’s a nice thing to say and she went on, “if the people don’t know where the grocery store is, we’ll show them where the store it.” I said oh that’s nice, but Nava the people know where the store is, but some people don’t have enough money to buy the food. The song went on, “if the people don’t have food, we’ll go to the bank and get them money.” Again, Nava that is so kind of you, but they people probably don’t have money at the bank because some people can’t work or their work doesn’t give them enough money to get the food they need. We have some money and food to share and we should always share, but they people should be paid more and those that have more money and food should be sharing even more. “OK Mom” “ABCDEFG….” Maybe a little to young, but hey she’ll get it. Its Takkun Olam for this family.

So there it is Takkun Olam. I think this beautiful creation myth the duty to collect the shards and bring the power that comes with the light they create collectively is motivating. As a parent I’m always looking for ways to raise those ‘successful, creative, empathetic, independent’ children hailed on the book cover. As a community and in this hectic time we all need more motivation to find our power in active, righteous deeds of loving kindness for social justice and for the planet.

Teaching Kids about Tikkun Olam
How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism
This Election: Three Thresholds & the Left-Out Americans
Story for all ages: “Tikkun Olam Ted” and “Tell Me a Mitzvah: Little and Big Ways to Repair the World
Reading: Repairing the World By Mankh (Walter E. Harris III)

OPENING HYMN: #123 Spirit of Life
HYMN: #95 There is More Love Somewhere

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