I recently stopped by a local couple for a visit. During the course of the conversation they mentioned the tikkun olam project they were currently contemplating.

Tikkun olam is an interesting phrase, which can be defined in a number of ways. It literally means "to repair the world," but for many it defines our religious obligation to pursue social justice. It is interpreted as a call to alleviate hunger, oppression or to improve the global ecosystem.

I am not questioning those who seek to change the world, refusing to concentrate on the particular needs of Jews and Judaism. They no doubt see themselves as synthesizing the needs of our own community with a broader vision for the world. All fine goals, and to be applauded.

I wonder if the meaning of the phrase wasn't watered down by the attempt to broaden its implicationsBut I wonder if the original meaning of the phrase hasn't been watered down by the attempt to broaden its implications. The phrase in its original form is part of the oleinu prayer, recited at the end of every prayer service, where we thank G‑d for His munificence and pledge in return to reciprocate with faith and fidelity. We undertake "letaken olam bemalchut sha-dai" – to rectify the world and to render it under the sovereignty of G‑d. And there's the friction. Too many content themselves with fulfilling the first half of the phrase and forget the latter section.

As a believing Jew, everything I do should be with the intention of turning my lonely corner of existence into a stage on which G‑d may headline. G‑d's commandments and strictures are variously applicable to different strata of my psyche and society. Some regulate my personal disposition, others my interaction with peers or the world at large. At times I may serve my Creator with feats of heroism that impress, other times I may justify my existence by sitting calmly in a locked room and making room in my heart for Him. Makes no difference to me, just as long as my end-all and be-all is directed to G‑dliness, I have fulfilled my mission of tikkun olam and perfected my world.

Lost in Translation

People make the same mistake about a number of intrinsically Jewish concepts; dropping the purpose and concentrating on the process. For example, the attempts of early 20th century Zionists to lead a mass migration of European Jews to the then Palestine were rejected by much of the orthodox establishment because they too focused on the trees at the expense of the forest. They called themselves the BILUs, an acronym of the verse "Beit Yaakov Lechu Veneilcha" – House of Israel let us go [up to Zion]; forgetting that that verse has as a postscript "Beor Hashem" – by the light of G‑d. To many of their co-religionists their choice of title conveyed the message that the proposed new nation-state would be exclusively concerned with building castles on earth and not palaces in heaven.

One can only wonder how differently the ensuing century would have played out had as much care been taken by the young and idealistic Jewish Communists, Socialists, Bundists, Zionists et al, to live up to G‑d's vision as that of their newer ideologies. None of these beliefs are intrinsically anti-Jewish or impossible to synthesise with a fidelity to G‑d and His commandments; and Judaism as a whole is the poorer for the fact that this effort was not made.

One can only wonder how differently the ensuing century would have played out...Let my People Come

Similarly, at the Passover Seder ceremony, it is important to convey an accurate rendition of the lesson of the Exodus. Moses' immortal clarion call, "Let my people go," has a lesser-known postscript—"That they may serve Me."

It was certainly sad that our ancestors were imprisoned, and we sure are glad that they were freed, but escaping from Egypt was not sufficient. Physical freedom is not enough, and until we reached emotional and spiritual independence we remained slaves. When first attaining autonomy, we didn't celebrate with a party or a well-deserved rest, but showed our true values by hiking on through the desert to receive the Torah at Sinai.

The Seder story does not end after the afikoman, that is merely the first stanza of the victory march. The second paragraph of our national hymn was written at Sinai, and Jews throughout the ages have added their own individual touches to the ballad.

The culmination of our journey, and the closing credits of existence as we know it, will come soon, when we breast the tape at the finish line of history, with Moshiach jogging by our side and all our ancestors cheering from the sidelines, complimenting us for our efforts in the final stages of our national relay.