There is a passage in the Babylonian Talmud that is very unsettling. “Abba Binyamin says, ‘If the eye only had the power to see, no human being could withstand all the Mazikin.’ Abayye said, ‘They outnumber us.’” (Berachot 6a)
Mazikin (also known as Shaydim) are harmful invisible beings whose purpose is to hurt human beings and damage the world in an enormous variety of ways.
For centuries afterwards, neither the rabbis nor the common people doubted their existence. If we “depersonify” the Mazikin and understand them as the bad forces and phenomena in what we experience and see all around us, Abba Binyamin’s and Abayye’s words are very discouraging. Just consider some of the events in September and October of 2017: hurricanes and an earthquake and a senseless massacre of fans at a concert in Las Vegas.
“Overwhelming” certainly comes to mind – psychologically, emotionally, and, even for some people, spiritually.
Abba Binyamin does say that human beings have an innate defense mechanism: They are unable to digest the totality of illogical, indeed, inhuman disaster and evil. Without this protection, we would become dysfunctional and unable to accomplish acts of Tikkun Olam.
Accepting this, we pick up our tools and begin our job of Fixing.
I believe the two most crucial tools for this work are Tzedek and Tzedakah. Linguistically, in the Bible these terms are often interchangeable – justice, righteousness, even righteous victory. In modern educational settings, though, we usually differentiate: “Tzedek” as establishing society on a just basis, and “Tzedakah” as personal
acts of doing good for others, and, when contrasted with Gemillut Chassadim, caring specifically through the means of our money.
1. Tzedek: I have always found the preamble to the American Constitution to articulate Tzedek with great eloquence: “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” Actualizing these principles would include the right to vote, to legislate anti-discrimination laws, to establish fair trade practices and a living wage for workers, set up unbiased courts, and provide universal affordable, accessible health care, however these would be logistically configured. To realize these
high principles and programs, we as individuals are called upon to vote, demonstrate, lobby, and politically and ethically maneuver within the system of the Powers That Be.
2. Tzedakah: All of the above is Tikkun Olam on The Grand Scale. So,
we might ask, what difference does buying one extra item of food for the food bank when you grocery shop, or even Chesley Sullenberger’s safely landing his crippled airplane in the East River with no loss of a single passenger’s life, or buying a bunch of jump ropes or crayons at The Dollar Store for children who don’t have them so they can enjoy their childhood – what difference, in the Great Scheme of Things do they really make? Two stories may provide some Jewish answer:
A. An adult walking along the beach sees hundreds of starfish, and a child throwing them into the water in one-by-one. He says to the child, “There are so many of them here, what difference are you making?” The child picks one up, throws it in the water and answers, “It makes a difference to that one.” This is exactly what the Mishna
(Sanhedrin, Chapter 4:5) means when it teaches, “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if that person had saved an entire world.”
B. Rabbi Akiva was still illiterate at age 40. He sat in school with little
children learning the Alef-Bet until he had mastered “all of Torah”. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar compared it to a stonecutter who, sitting on a mountain, said he was going to uproot the mountain and toss it into the Jordan. He kept chipping away pebble by pebble until he
reached a big boulder. He crawled under it, uprooted it and pushed it until it rolled down into the Jordan. (Avot deRabbi Natan A:6)
I believe that there is something really significant – even magnificent – about the tale of Rabbi Akiva and the mountain. It might just happen, it could just be that in The Real World, these individual acts will expand, explode, radiate out into a smashing defeat of the Mazikin and contribute to an enormous sigh of relief for multitudes of hard-pressed
and suffering human beings. There are certainly no guarantees, but who knows?