Nearly every week I read about a dazzling new Israeli high-tech or medical invention. What is special about many of these innovations is that they have a distinctly humanitarian purpose.
Designed to repair and heal people’s lives and improve the world, they embody the essence of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Have you ever wondered why Israel has made tikkun olam such a focus?
Tikkun olam’s ancient roots are found in the book of Genesis. When God finished creating the world, he charged human beings with becoming its guardians, as co-partners in the physical and spiritual upkeep of the world.
Created in God’s image, the idea is that we have the potential to emulate divine qualities on earth through acts that bring light, holiness and healing into the world.
It has been said that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai as a “pilot project” for humanity. Moses was charged with teaching the Israelites the importance of implementing the Bible’s humanistic values and commandments.
Some of those key values are: Saving a life, seeking justice, loving one’s neighbor, showing compassion for the poor and the stranger, creating inclusive societies, protecting the environment, and pursuing peace.
Embracing and practicing these values creates a framework for living a holy life and becoming a “light unto the nations.”
Judaism views human beings as active agents whose deeds affect the world. Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that each person has the potential to tip the balance of the world toward good through acts of kindness.
Tikkun olam includes both tzedek and tzedakah, which are linguistically related. Tzedek refers to justice in the larger society, and tzedakah refers to performing personal acts of kindness for others.
Theodore Herzl’s late 19th century Zionist dream sought not only to create a refuge and political homeland for the Jewish people; he also dreamed of building a utopian society where justice and compassion served as guideposts.
David Ben-Gurion, deeply knowledgeable about the Bible, encouraged building a robust civil society that applied biblical values to contemporary social issues.
The term tikkun olam re-emerged in the latter half of the 20th century in evolving political and social movements. Today in Israel many people are engaged in the work of tikkun olam through what I would call “humanitarian startups.”
There is also a huge voluntarism sector that adds support to the many non-governmental organizations assisting those in need of physical, emotional, and social aid.
Exceptional projects in Israel based on humanistic values strive to improve the lives of Jews and Arabs, foster democracy and inclusivity, and seek peaceful coexistence. There are organizations that work to strengthen democratic principles and the rights of minorities, support women’s health, mental health and freedom of religious expression.
Israel’s unique army fosters inclusivity by including young people with disabilities. Israelis and Arabs in physically divided communities within Israel work together to become better neighbors through educational and cultural exchanges.
Israelis show compassion by saving lives of wounded Syrian civilians, driving Palestinian children to hospitals in Israel for medical treatments, creating medical clinics for refugees, providing cardiac surgeries and care to children, and training doctors around the world.
Israelis show compassion for strangers by delivering assistance during natural disasters around the world and helping to rebuild communities. They arrive quickly, often the earliest rescuers to set up field hospitals.
Having faced traumas themselves, Israelis are adept at developing methods of early intervention and recovery.
Israelis use innovative solar technology to bring energy, light and water to improve the lives of millions across the African continent.
Israelis offer advanced agricultural techniques to foster self-sufficiency in Asian countries. Israel’s scientific leadership in water desalination, sewage treatment and wastewater recycling is being taught to others globally, and joint projects between Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis work to conserve precious shared water resources.
And there are many groups of Israelis and Palestinians working together to foster peaceful coexistence on the ground.
Why aren’t most of us familiar with these modern tikkun olam projects? Could it be because broadcast news rarely focuses on the small and large humanitarian miracles going on in Israel? Instead, we are assaulted by negative press, BDS, efforts to delegitimize Zionism, and growing anti-Semitism in world forums.
What would it take to open the eyes of today’s idealistic and energetic younger generation, who admire humanistic values and are passionate about improving the world, to connect with the many small miracles already happening? There is no shortage of humanitarian work to be done within and beyond Israel’s borders.
Engagement in tikkun olam initiatives can lead to a satisfying sense of accomplishment, meaning and purpose. The partnership of the next generation’s humanistic values with the Israeli spirit of optimism, creativity and caring, a can-do attitude and chutzpah, could lead to amazing outcomes.
To help create a better world, remember that each of us, through our actions and deeds, can tip the world’s scale towards growth, goodness, blessing and peace. How do you think any of the above miracles began, anyway?
Israela Meyerstein has been a therapist for over 40 years, and is the author of Miracle Nation: Seventy Stories about the Spirit of Israel. The book was written in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday and features the stories of dedicated Israelis doing tikkun olam work.