Fixing the Road: Metaphor for Life in an Imperfect World

Talmudic Tikkun Olam, "fixing" the problem in Israel
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Tikkun olam entails an activist attitude to what is wrong with the material and social world that enables people to maintain hope and loyalty toward a less than ideal world. It contrasts with a classical Stoic approach that dismisses the importance of the material situations and social opinions in which a person, that is, a soul or mind finds itself. Being sick, enslaved or dishonored are meaningless because one’s free will is exercised over what subjective stand one’s mind takes towards the world, not over the objective givens. While this

Stoic perspective protects humans from the frustration of those aspects of life over which one has no control, it also tends towards passivity in terms of changing the world, even though one is very active as an interpreter of the world. At the end of the Babylonian Talmud’s treatment of marriage law they present three points of view toward the land of Israel which might apply to any situation: one wholly idealizes the world without regards to its worldly reality; one fixes what is wrong piecemeal, and one looks on the bright-side of any situation rather than dwelling on what is wrong.

While these three positions have been read as trying to defend the good reputation of Eretz Yisrael as against the ten spies who bad-mouthed the land of milk and honey that God had promised them (Numbers 13: 32), this interpretation broadens the question of this anthology of responses to how one relates to any reality in which one lives or to any person to whom one is married:

Rabbi Abba kissed the stones of Acre [the first city in Eretz Yisrael as one arrives from the northwest]. Rabbi Hiya bar Gamda rolled in the dust [of Eretz Yisrael], for it is says, For your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust. (Psalm 102:15).
Rabbi Hanina fixes (tikein) what is wrong [literally, obstacles in the road over which one might stumble].
Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi used to get up and move from the sunlight to the shade [in the heat of the summertime] and from the shade to the sunlight [in the cold of the winter]. (TB Ketubot 112a-b)

Both Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Hiya bar Gamda love Israel and see it – through that love – as without blemish. Its rocks and dust are personified and romanticized. The symbolic significance of the land blots out its material reality and its flaws. However such an approach does not lead to improving the situation. Often the façade of unlimited praise and uncritical love may simply collapse and leave no realistic basis for relationship. One suspects that such romantics as Abba and Rabbi Hiya bar Gamda are not in love with anyone or anything real, but enamored by an image of perfection projected on reality, an illusion that will ultimately disappoint them and break the dreamer. This is how Erich Fromm, the psychologist of The Art of Loving, distinguishes between “being in love” – which is reflexive and adolescent – and loving someone real in a dialogic relationship. Presumably these two rabbis could not abide anything less than a perfect beloved, so their love is head-over-heels and it is necessarily a blind love. If however one holds that all beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and objective criteria are irrelevant, then perhaps Rabbi Abba’s love is viable and not to be dispelled in the name of realism.

By contrast, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi see Israel’s faults realistically and they admit their discomfort. But they do not condemn Israel for its failure to live up to their ideals as if the world must revolve around human subjectivity. They adjust themselves to enjoy the best that the world has to offer them without lying to themselves. They see the glass as half full without fooling the selves. They do not put the world to the test of their high standards and find it wanting, but they adjust their expectations and their experiences to fulfill their expectations. However they too do not change the world but only their places from which to see it.

Finally, “Rabbi Hanina fixes (tikein) what is wrong.” His Promised Land does not have to be romantically prefect and always comfortable. Its blemishes or its serious faults are an invitation to improvement. The Promised Land is a place of promise, not yet of fulfillment. Its fulfillment depends on its human residents, rather than descending as God gift of redemption descends from heaven like a bejeweled heavenly Jerusalem now on earth. The ideal is a process, a work in progress. The relationship is built by an activism that does not seek to judge the Promised Land as the ten spies did when they asked and answered the questions: Is it worth it? Can it be conquered? The ten spies treated the world as a consumer evaluates a purchase. They remain indifferent because they are not yet married to the land. They can take it or leave it. But the two positive spies regard the land of Israel as God’s gift to his new bride, the home they will live it. To reject the gift is to reject the marital covenant with God. Rather they will invest it the relationship and fix it and make a life together not based on blind love but working out the issues. Their commitment grows as they make the promise come true a step at a time.

Fixing the roads, tikkun olam, is a non-perfectionist approach to the world that is process-oriented. Hence it fixes the road, removes some obstacles, and enables a long-term relationship with the land. The “problem” with Israel becomes its energizing challenge; criticism becomes an assessment of what and how to improve the situation; one’s alienation becomes one’s investment; one’s distancing judgment of what is becomes one’s engagement in changing what will be. Theodore Herzl, as he composed his literary vision of the Jewish state, wrote to himself in his diary that he did not want to raise any crippling criticism and doubts while he was developing his dream because it would be so easy to denigrate the potential for change. The vision must nurture willpower and trust in as yet untested possibilities, before turning to fodder for self-defeating intellectuals.

Similar to Rabbi Hanina’s approach is Herzl’s. For Herzl the “promise” of the Promised Land begins not with what we find there, but with what we bring to it. As a Zionist now in Israel for 40 years Herzl’s celebration of an activist love of country inspires me and gives new meaning to the concept tikkun olam:

No one has ever thought of looking for the Promised Land in the place where it really is – and yet it lies so near. It is here, within ourselves! For everyone will carry over there, in himself, a piece of the Promised Land. This one, in his head, that one, in his hands, the third in his savings. The Promised Land is where we carry it.I know where the country lies – in ourselves! In our capital and our labor. (Theodore Herzl, Diaries, June 18, 1895)

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