Justice and Mercy

SOUNDINGS – The ‘Mini’ Tikkun Olam

“Tikkun Olam” is I think one of the most powerful phrases on the planet.  It’s Hebrew and of the Jewish tradition, and captures the vocation of post-Fall woman and man.  It simply means “repair of the world”.   Embedded in Tikkun Olam are the assertions that there is a Creator, the world is broken and it can be repaired, there is a Redeemer, and we are summoned to act with and for that Redeemer for the repair of the world until it fully functions as it should have before it was broken.  One author observes Tikkun Olam is where mysticism meets activism.

For all the grand acts of repair for which our heroes are rightly famous (think King and Day, Wilberforce and Teresa), Tikkun Olam comes mostly in small deeds done as a way of life in our daily lives.

I call this “the ‘Mini’ Tikkun Olam”, and every one of us can do these often, and as we do our ordinary days can become adventures in the extraordinary, and our mundane infused with the magnificent.

It happened to me this past Sunday.

I was driving quite early to church (to preach) on a route I rarely take.  It was quite cold and crystal clear, and the streets were void of traffic due to the time and the day.   Not a car was moving on the streets around me, and I hadn’t put my clergy collar on yet.

Far up ahead at the stoplight, I saw a black man sitting in the center concrete median strip, bundled up against the cold, sitting in a wheelchair and holding a small cardboard sign that was too far away to read. 

I had a choice.  There were no other cars.   Do I stay in the right lane, window rolled up, eyes straight ahead, with an empty left lane of concrete between me and him providing a buffer in order avoid the imposition and awkward exchange?  To my shame, this option occurred to me, as I wasn’t quite yet fully awake and didn’t really want to have to deal with the situation that crossed my path, or rather, the man in need who was in my path.  My natural inclination is unfortunately to be that of a Pharisee on the way to Jericho.  Piety takes practice for a guy like me.

Thankfully, I’ve long made a habit of simply giving money to folks who ask for it. (I wrote about this years ago here in the Washington Post).  So while my brain went back and forth (Left lane? Right lane? Left lane?  Right lane?) my spiritual muscle memory kicked in and I drifted over to the left lane while I dug in my back pocket for my wallet, pulled out a dollar bill, and rolled down the window as my car eased to a stop at the red light.

Now I could read the cardboard, two lines, four words “NOT HOMELESS. CANCER PATIENT.”  I could barely see the man’s face under his hat and hood, but could see he was older and heavy.  And it was cold.

“Good morning, brother,” I said as I leaned out my window to hand him the dollar as he sat in his wheelchair, “God bless you”.

“Thank you, that’s my first money today,” he said, and then looked right at me and asked intensely, “Are you on your way to church?”

“Actually, yes,” I replied.

“Let me tell you,” he said, “the first lady who stopped this morning–a Caucasian lady, and she had her kid in the car–she was on her way to church.” 

He paused and took a deep breath and looked to the sky with a pained expression, “And she said some things to me I’m not gonna repeat.  And she was on her way to church!  And she had her kid in the car!” 

Then he looked back at me, “Let me tell you, she was on her way to church, and you just did church.”

And I said, “Do you know why I did that?”

He shot back, “Because I’m a child of God!”

And I said, “Damn right you are!  You’re a child of God and you are my brother.  I’m so sorry for what that woman said to you.  We are brothers.”

“That’s right,” he said, “We’re brothers.”

The light turned green and I pulled away saying “God bless you, and see you in heaven.”  He shouted back as I drove away, “See you in heaven, brother!”

It was a small thing, a ‘mini’ Tikkun Olam.  I’m ashamed by my first thought to stay in the right lane, yet by choosing to get in the left lane was able to share in a small act for the repair of the world.  It was a small thing, even too small perhaps, and yet it was no small thing for it was part of the largest thing, Tikkun Olam.

So I got to church, and preached, and processed out at the end the end of the service in my collar, clergy robe, and stole.  At the back of the church I saw man who was familiar to me but whom I’d never seen at church, and who didn’t look like most folks at our church usually do.  I couldn’t place him, then I heard his voice.

On the way I normally drive to church, at the end of the exit ramp from the highway, for a long time on Sunday mornings there’s been a man who is on the corner, looking for spare change, and it’s part of my routine to say hey, give some money, and have whatever conversation there’s time for before the light goes green, with a “God bless you” as I drive off.

And it was the same man!   And I said, “Brother!  It’s so good to see you here!  Do you remember me?” 

He did, and we gave each other a big hug and I still couldn’t believe it.

“You’re most welcome here! But how’d you get here?” I asked.

He pointed at one of the ushers he was talking to and said, “He brought me”. 

A mini Tikkun Olam!   This time not by a preacher, but by a regular guy, a simple Christian, and whereas I suppose I could have invited this guest to church any number of times, I haven’t, but the usher did.  God bless him, and may his tribe increase (starting with me).

Let us once again commit ourselves to Tikkun Olam, in acts both large and small.  The mini matters, and can turn seconds into sacraments.   Remember  “The ‘Mini’ Tikkun Olam”, small acts to repair the world.

And let us remember the words of that most famous Jewish man who said, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”



“SOUNDINGS” posts are aimed at considering topics that are important for our society, for the Church, and for our own spiritual journeys. To ‘take a sounding’ is a nautical term about using depth to determine where you are and where you’re going.  These writings are designed to do just that. Follow along when we post on Fridays by subscribing here and selecting “Soundings.” Please share this post with others!

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