I have spent the past nine months, living in Jerusalem and absorbed in the history of the Jewish people. Through Masa Israel Journey, I am a student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where I engage in intensive Jewish textual study each day. Sunday through Thursday, I take classes on Chumash, Talmud, Rambam, Modern Jewish Thought, and many other subjects. In these classes we look at the texts in their original language, often Hebrew or Aramaic. While this has been tremendously difficult for me, it has been exponentially rewarding as I have witnessed how much my abilities have progressed throughout this program. What has been even more incredible is realizing how important and relevant these ancient texts are to my modern life.
One of the things I have noticed in our tradition is the importance of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” The belief that we need to look out for those around us and not think only of ourselves comes up again and again in our people’s vast literature. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel famously said in Pirke Avot 1:14, Over 2,000 years ago Hillel, one of the greatest rabbis of our tradition, understood the importance of looking out for the needs of others and not only of our own.
In his renowned work, the Mishnah Torah, Rambam taught that eight levels of charity exist and that each is above the other. The lowest is giving grudgingly and the highest is helping someone become self sufficient. Rambam lived in Spain over 800 years ago, and not only understood the importance of helping others but saw that there were distinctions in how one helps another. For Rambam, the greatest form of tzedakah was not a temporary fix, but a permanent solution. He understood that tikkun olam went beyond helping those in need, but addressing the problems cause it, as well.
In Bereshit 6:9, we are introduced to Noah and the text states that he walked “with” God. Rashi, one of the greatest commentators in our tradition, notices the difference between this verse and Bereshit 17:1 about Abraham, which tells us that our forefather walked “before” God. Rashi explains that Noah required God’s support for his righteousness, while Abraham had this strength within himself. Many other commentators have also wondered why Noah walked with God and Abraham walked in front of God. While they give many interesting explanations I am particular to one we discussed in my class.
Noah himself was a good person; the text even describes him with the same word later used for Abraham, “tamim,” often translated as “pure,” “perfect,” or even as, “blameless.” There is however, one important difference between the two: Noah was himself tamim, while Abraham sought to lift up those around him as well.
Over and over throughout the story of Abraham, we see him go out of his way to help those around him. When a powerful group of kings comes from the East to wage war against the local kings near Canaan, Abraham gathers the men of the household to help the local kings. After he saves the day, he takes nothing for himself from the loot they collected in the war. Not only did he go out of his way, but he expected nothing as a reward for his actions. Also, when God plans to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham argues with him until God agrees not to destroy the city for the sake of 10 righteous people living there.
As opposed to Noah, Abraham set himself apart by focusing on helping others in any way he could. He walked before God, because he carried God’s message into the world through acts of tikkun olam. Noah may have been a good guy himself, but when the flood came, he did his duties but didn’t go beyond them to help anyone else. This quality explains why Abraham, and not Noah, merited being the father of the Jewish people.
At Pardes, I’ve learned that it is our responsibility as Jews to be like Abraham and to go beyond what we are told to do. Whether it is with money, time, or even just treating our fellow human being with dignity, it is our duty to perform acts of tikkun olam, and repair the world, by helping others in any way we can.
Next year, Louis will begin rabbinical school at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.