Repairing the world
There are so many really big challenges facing us every day — pandemic, climate, abortion, poverty, politics, and guns — that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s easy to be consumed by a sense of powerlessness and futility. It’s easy to want to give up.
Last weekend, we attended a family bar mitzvah celebration. In the Jewish tradition, there is a concept known as tikkun olam, or in Hebrew, to “repair the world.” Historically, the phrase referred to various rabbinical laws and rituals intended, at least in part, to preserve social stability and maintain the religious order. In Liberal Judaism, the concept has come to refer to the pursuit of social justice based on the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
— Rabbi Tarfon on Micah 6:8
In reminding their son of his obligations as a Jewish adult, the parents paraphrased this command. It resonated deeply with me. Often, in my daily life — and in my writing, specifically — I struggle to find the balance between big things and small, to know when to look up and when to look down.
This Is Us ended its six-season run last week. Its first episode aired on September 20, 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago. One reviewer observed that “This is TV that showed the big stuff that makes life bearable, hopeful, awful and wonderful, while also imploring us to cherish the small stuff: those everyday moments when you forget the mayhem and just breathe in your loved ones.”
Throughout its run, the series employed various devices of non-linear storytelling to flashback and flash-forward to different periods in the life of this family from the 1960s to sometime in the not-too-distant future. Rebecca, the family matriarch, dies in the penultimate episode, so we expected this final episode to focus on the funeral, bringing Rebecca’s story to a sad but final end. The finale, however, also delivered a parallel story, taking us back to sometime in the early 1990s, when the three kids were in middle school.
It’s not a big story, but a small one, taking place on a Saturday where a last-minute change of plans leaves everyone suddenly free with nothing to do. Kate suggests activities for the family, but the boys are complaining. Eventually, the parents get to the bottom of it. Rebecca listens to over-confident Kevin share his insecurities. Jack hears over-achiever Randall’s guilty confession. Finally, the family comes together around a child’s game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
After 106 episodes of twists and turns, intense highs and lows, that the show’s writer and creator Dan Fogelman chose not to end with a dramatic surprise or a flash-forward look to the future is telling. This scene is everything to me, highlighting the small, everyday moments that solidify the organic power of a family’s bond. I was completely overcome with emotion, and I’m still crying.
When I think about my personal obligation and commitment to repair the world, it certainly includes speaking up and speaking out — and writing — about the big issues. It includes voting and advocacy. It includes supporting causes that matter to me. It encompasses my hope that I can leave the world better than I found it. But I know nothing that I have aspired to do in my life will have a fraction of the impact of the family that I have created with my wife.
Judaism teaches, in fact, that each person is an entire world, an entire tikkun. And each tikkun — each of my children — has the potential to change everything. It really does all come down to the small things.
This hit me when our daughter shared that she wants to write her college application essay about our family dinner table. I don’t know exactly what she’ll do with this topic, but I do know what our family dinners have meant to me. Rushing home from work, cooking when take-out would be easier, scheduling around all three kids. Talking about school, work, family, politics, current events. Listening, laughing, sometimes yelling, and sometimes crying. Working to be seen and heard. Always learning from each other. Just being together. The other night, dinner actually lasted almost three hours.
“[Tikkun olam] says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job — everyone’s job — is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
— Rachel Cohn, author of Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist
Within a family, this is the work of tikkun olam. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, just us, sitting at the dinner table or playing a game, but we can come together. Trying to repair ourselves each day, to stop the breaking and make ourselves whole again. Practicing justice, mercy, and humility, in the small moments. Steeling ourselves for the big ones, when we are called upon to confront the world’s grief head on and put the pieces back together, even when it feels easier to give up.