In his book Eye’s Remade for Wonder Rabbi Lawrence Kushner retells a story one of his rabbinic students told him about her great-aunt, Sussie. Sussie lived in Munich, in Nazi Germany. One day while she was riding a bus home from work, SS storm troopers stopped the coach and began to ask each person for identification papers. A light snow was falling. For most people it was annoying. But it was different for Jews; Jews were being taken from the bus and being placed in a truck nearby. Kushenr writes:
My student’s great aunt watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed she was crying he politely asked her why.
“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They are going to take me.”
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid woman,” he roared, “I can’t stand to be near you!”
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.
“Damn her” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again! I am so feed up. She always does this.”
The soldiers laughed and moved on.
(Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for wonder: Lawrence Kushner Reader, Jewish Lights Publications, 1998. 133)
Her great aunt never knew the man’s name, and never saw him again. Here is a story of one incident in which a stranger saw what needed to be done, and did it. His courageous act saved a woman’s life.
Rabbi Kushner reminds us that if we are awake to what is happening around us, we will see the things that God would have us do. A person who embraces a God centered, responsible way of life is attentive to what is happening, and responds. How we live, how we respond or not, makes a tremendous difference, to others, and to God.
Tikkum Olam is a Hebrew phrase translated “repairing the world.” It is a concept that describes an important element of Jewish spirituality. There is brokenness throughout the world. God gives us freedom to choose how we will live within all of it. We can ignore the brokenness, we can contribute to it, or we can choose to cooperate with God in the work of repairing the world. A faithful person honors God by serving. Tikkum Olam is a faithful way to align with the will and way of God.
How do we do that? If we want to live a life of meaning and purpose, the way is clearer and less complex than we might think. Kushner writes:
When you see something broken, fix it. When you find something that is lost, return it. When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way, you will take care of your world and repair creation.”
(Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for wonder: Lawrence Kushner Reader, Jewish Lights Publications, 1998. 115)
Jesus taught much the same thing, but in a parable. He spoke of a time in which the Son of Man gathers the nations for judgment. There is one criteria applied:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
The lesson is amazingly clear. The way to live a significant life, one that pleases God, is not mysterious or complex. It is something anyone and everyone can do. We simply open our eyes, our hearts, our hands, to see and to respond to the needs around us, especially to those who are struggling at the margins of society. When we do we are engaged in Tikkum Olam, repairing the world.
According to Jesus, when we do this, even when no one else notices, it is as if we are serving Christ himself. That is amazing.