There is a tongue-in-cheek Jewish joke: An American Jew visits Israel and asks the guide, “How do you say ‘tikkun olam’ in Hebrew?”
Tikkun olam is how we address inequity in the world. It has become as American as bagels and cream cheese. We think it is about world peace or solving the global problem of hunger. Or maybe volunteering in a soup kitchen or helping build a house.
But we ask, “Can I really impact the world? Is it really possible to change the world “one mitzvah at a time”?
In actuality, tikkun olam may be even more mundane than you think. In a Talmudic commentary (Tosafot Ketubot 18a), we learn that tikkun ha-olam can be those small acts of righteousness: For example, a woman in need asks me for a warm drink outside Starbucks and I buy her one. Or I complete my tax return without cheating or cutting corners. Or it could be creating shalom bayit, peace in my home and in my relationships. Or returning a lost object to its rightful owner. It doesn’t have to be global in nature or in impact.
In the rabbis’ view, if everyone simply did these small acts of righteousness, then people would be able to function on a day-to-day basis.
In the Talmud, the phrase tikkun ha-olam appears 49 times — 43 times in Tractate Gittin; gittin is the plural form of “get,” meaning a divorce document. This concept first appears in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 24:1): A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house; she leaves his household and becomes the wife of another man.”
To 21st century eyes, this verse has everything wrong with it. She fails to please him because she is obnoxious? There’s no reciprocal requirement for him to not be obnoxious? And he has the sole power to send her away? How could it relate to tikkun olam?
But to the sages, tikkun ha-olam is most singularly important in the case of divorce, in the pain of a broken marriage. With the Talmud emphasizing it so many times, we know there’s a mensch-like way to divorce someone. There is a way to free both spouses so they can go on and build their lives with another partner.
Some of us ask: How do I reconcile egalitarian sensibilities with a ritual that seems inherently unequal? Can it lend holiness and/or healing to my life? Does it offer ancient wisdom?
Elise Edelson Katch explores this in “The Get: A Spiritual Memoir of Divorce.” Her husband leaves her, and she grapples with the get: “I stumbled upon a formula for separation and ending — a cookbook recipe. Add these ingredients to be separate and free. Had I not followed the formula exactly, I would still be connected to the man and the marriage. The recipe was essential. But it was the get that provided the crucial vehicle for this emotional end — a finality not possible from the [civil] court alone. The get provided the instrument for separation, an ancient formula for a profound end.”
Can we create new ritual around the centuries-old requirement of the get? Yes, we can re-interpret important points of Jewish law in the area of wedding contracts and bills of divorce. We can secure a get in a manner that names the emotional aspects of divorce.
We must imbue this ritual with the love, caring and sense of community. Just as we shower candy on the bride and groom as they stand before the Torah on the Shabbat before their wedding, so too can comfort the bride and groom as they painfully, yet necessarily, go their own ways.
Take on a mitzvah that is associated with divorce. Support those in our community as they experience in a gut-wrenching, life-transforming moment. Ensure that they get the help and counseling they need.
Face the fear of divorce in our community, and don’t stop seeing people socially just because they are now single. Accompany a friend to the writing of a get. And, if we find ourselves needing to seek divorce, we can obtain a get. Ensure closure. Ensure tikkun ha-olam.