Joshua L. Schonfeld

Mend the Fabric of Our Community

At almost every Jewish event one might have attended in the last 25 years or so, you are likely to have heard the phrase “Tikkun Olam” — repairing or healing the world. The expression, used to explain part of the mission of the Jewish people, is inspirational, and without qualification, it has fostered many admirable charitable and humanitarian efforts over the years. That is not, however, the subject of this essay.

As I see it, we have emphasized Tikkun Olam to the exclusion of so many of the other important teachings of our Jewish Heritage.

One of the concepts that is lost is that of Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh l’Zeh — “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” On occasion people may still use that term, but when it comes to communal discussions…much of what is seen and reported on is internal Jewish bickering. In treating one another without respect, without kindness, we will ultimately fail in our goal to make the Jewish world better. Instead, we will make it weaker because of the way treat each other.

One of the most powerful lessons I learned in Jewish Day School was that Sinat Chinum (baseless hatred) led to the fall of the Second Temple. This is also mentioned on occasion in current discussions-and this time of year when we approach Tisha B’Av when we mourn the fall of the Temple. In reality, how many of us really absorb this lesson?

I watch and listen as adults and children of almost every age snipe at each other in ways that are unfortunate. The levels of criticism of our fellow Jews (and others) are often quite negative and without caring. Other members of the community, fellow classmates and colleagues are targets or are simply ignored — left out — for the most trivial mistakes or perceived failings. How can we remain a caring, strong and vibrant community if we attack or marginalize one another? How can our children find their life partners and build strong Jewish families and communities if everyone they meet is relentlessly judged?

This brings me back to Tikkun Olam.

We are so busy repairing the world for others, that I think we oftentimes forget that certain basic principles must apply in our communal dialogues and in the interactions that make up our daily lives. This is even more so now when more of our interactions are via electronic media — and not face to face.

Somewhere along the line, it somehow became fashionable, hip and cool to be cutting or snarky. What is supposed to be comedy is often simply an exercise in how far the characters can go to embarrass others. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I do not enjoy watching people being humiliated. I do not think I am alone. People are tired of watching their backs — wondering who will jump on them next.

Members of our community (and the broader community too) should be more mindful as they enter conversations, send an email, post on Facebook or add a comment to an article. People need to step back and take time to think about words that cannot be taken back and might be available to be viewed by anyone and everyone​.

I am paraphrasing, but one of my favorite Chasidic stories involves a man who had said unkind words about another. He goes before the Rabbi to ask him how to fix what he had done. The Rabbi tells him to go home, stand outside and slice open a feather pillow. The man does what the Rabbi suggested and returns to the Rabbi perplexed. The Rabbi then tells the man — now go and gather all the feathers. That is impossible, responds the man. The Rabbi then explained that just as one could not re-gather the feathers that had blown away, so too, one cannot take back hurtful words. How much more true is that today when careless insults or jokes, once launched into cyberspace, can last forever and spread worldwide in an instant.

Our Sages also teach us that embarrassing someone can be compared to murder. It is true. Humiliation tears our souls, our hearts. The insulted are made smaller. Is this what we want to be known for? That we were good at degrading each other?

Ultimately, our Jewish community is a small one (wherever we live). When we tear each other apart — we make it even smaller.

This is not an attempt to stifle discussion, debate or good natured humor.  It is a request for a reintroduction of a word — a concept — Chesed (kindness) into our communal consciousness and into our daily living. Kindness is not a word that is in vogue these days. Since this word has dropped out of our vocabulary, we have lost an important part of the texture of communal life (inside and outside the Jewish community).

Our Jewish tradition has many positive lessons regarding the way to live our lives. My hope is that more of us — in whatever role we play — can take a portion of the positive energy we spend on Tikkun Olam to repair our relationships. Simply put, we must restore Chesed to its rightful place on our list of priorities and take better care of one another.

About the Author
Josh Schonfeld lives with his family in Potomac, Maryland. He is originally from St. Louis, Missouri. He has served as a board member for a number of Jewish communal organizations and is an active member of the community.