Tikkun Olam and History

May 30, 2009
By Anonymous

Understanding history is important to tikkun olam, repairing the world. As I thought about these topics, I asked myself these questions. Why is it important to improve things? What happens if we don’t? Who will do it if I don’t? As Maimonides said: If I am not for myself then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now then when?

Tikkun Olam is generally translated as “repairing the world”. It means fixing the world; perfecting the world; having no chaos in society; social justice.

There are so many things in the world that need to be repaired. For example, there needs to be equal rights for all people, not just the majority. Gay people, African Americans, and women and girls and others are sometimes discriminated against.
Poverty is another issue that is in need of repair. Poverty can lead to a bad education, sickness, unhappiness, anger, terrorism, and hunger.

So, how can these things start to be repaired? Every person can make a difference. Small acts of kindness add up. Julia Pearlstein-Levy, a recent MJW graduate, has helped repair the world. Last summer, Julia and her mom volunteered at a poor orphanage in Ecuador. After coming back, she realized she could help even more by raising money for them. Julia raised over $5,000 for the orphanage.

It’s important that we try to repair the world. If nothing were repaired, nothing would improve. Think of how different things are in America from a few centuries ago, when women weren’t allowed to vote and there was still slavery. The actions of our predecessors brought about the changes we count on today. Without tikkun olam, the world would be in ruins.

If I don’t repair the world, what will happen? Who will? The answer is, if everyone thinks that things will get done without them, then nothing will happen. No one can repair the world for me, or for anyone else.

The study of history can help us address today’s problems. One way is by preventing us from repeating mistakes. No one wants to go through the Holocaust, or a World War again. Each killed millions of people. The Holocaust was caused in part by the Nazis’ need to blame someone for their economic problems. They blamed the Jews.Even today, we need to be aware that problems like scapegoating and persecution cannot be ignored The scenarios and problems in the future may differ, but their root causes often remain the same.

Not everything is terrible to repeat. There are positives to repeating things that worked before in history. The Iroquois Native Americans were a group of six united tribes. The individual tribes dealt with their local problems alone, but larger issues were decided by all of them. The states in America are partly based on those Iroquois ideas.

History can also help people to see possible outcomes or alternatives to a decision. By looking at history, we can see what might happen. History helps us to also see the long-term effects of a choice. When faced with our current economic problems, President Obama looked at the Great Depression. He studied history to try and find a solution to today’s problems.

Oral histories are one tool that can be used to study events from the past. History is usually recorded by the people higher on the social pyramid: presidents, kings, and the wealthy. The majority of people, though, weren’t part of this group. Oral histories offer the chance to learn about how ordinary people were affected. They have a much different view of events.

There are additional reasons why oral histories are good learning tools for the past, especially for the researcher. Oral histories are interactive. Researchers can ask follow up questions to what was initially said. With oral histories, you’re not limited by what’s written in a history book, or what the author deems important. You can learn the feelings of people who lived through those historical events.

Learning about the Brighton Gardens’ seniors’ stories fascinated me. I learned about how they thought about things like the Great Depression and Prohibition, and how these events affected them personally.

Most of the seniors were around my age during the Great Depression. They grew up poor, and so did everyone else. Some seniors said that because they were younger, it didn’t affect them as much. They also said they didn’t know they were poor. They were just like everyone else. If I had studied the Great Depression from books, I would have learned many facts, but not the feelings.

Most of the seniors also lived through Prohibition, which is when the government made alcohol illegal. Even during this time, there were still places that sold alcohol. There was one senior at Brighton Gardens whose father was a bootlegger. Her father actually had better business during Prohibition than afterwards, because after Prohibition there was more competition, which I found surprising.

I’ve learned a lot from history. The obvious decision isn’t always right. The government thought they could eliminate alcohol by making it illegal. All it did was create crime, and cut tax revenue. It didn’t solve the problem. During the Great Depression, people realized that happiness isn’t based on material wealth. Happiness is based on family, friends, and being a part of a community.

As you can see, understanding history--our past mistakes and our past successes--is key to tikkun olam. History helps identify what needs to be repaired in the world and how to do it. Tikkun olam is repairing the world, and all of us are a part of the solution.

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