Leron Zaggy

Tikkun Olam: Is it our mess to clean up?

Last week, a message circulated on social media, calling upon Jews to gather at UCLA campus to assist in the cleanup following the aftermath of an anti-Israel protest. The message urged participants to bring along essentials such as trash bags, gloves, scrub brushes, and cleaning supplies, aiming to “make UCLA beautiful again” under the banner of #TikkunOlam.

This initiative reflects a positive response to adversity, emphasizing collective action and the Jewish value of “Tikkun Olam,” meaning “repairing the world.” The idea is that coming together to restore the campus environment not only addresses the physical damage but also demonstrates resilience and solidarity in the face of opposition.

However, that concept did not sit well with me. The idea of cleaning up after those who advocate for our ultimate annihilation feels akin to a repeated abuse victim attempting to appease their abuser. On one hand, I appreciate the positive message it’s trying to convey – emphasizing the values of light, repair, and beauty that are deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition showcasing the inherent goodness within the community and demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity. Moreover, it can serve as a means to move forward, shifting the focus away from hate and bitterness towards a path of healing and progress. Yet the message felt like an attempt to trivialize the impact of the anti-Israel protest and its underlying issues. It was disheartening to witness the vandalism at UCLA, and the destruction around college campuses nationwide, and although I can understand why people felt compelled to respond by cleaning up, I question whether this response effectively addresses the broader issues at play. While the act of cleaning up can be cathartic on an individual level, and for many UCLA is home, it does not address the root cause of the vandalism or contribute to meaningful change in the long term. The analogy of an abused victim cleaning up the home after a bout of physical abuse speaks volumes about the victim mentality pervasive in certain situations. When someone else is responsible for creating a mess or causing harm, it’s not the victim’s duty to clean it up. Doing so can be interpreted as a sign of weakness or a lack of self-worth. Instead, there should be a clear understanding of accountability and consequences for those who perpetrate such actions.

This made me think about the concept of Tikkun Olam and specifically that it took place during the second week of the Omer – a time significant for introspection and growth, as we engage in a seven-week preparation leading to the holiday of Shavuot.

The second week of the Omer focuses on gevurah– strength, power, and discipline. Gevurah is not about raw strength or exerting power, rather it is grounded fortitude that comes with using judgment and understanding limits!

Tikkum Olam emphasizes acts of social responsibility. The phrase “tikkun olam” remains connected with human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world, a concern with public policy and societal change, and with the kabbalistic notion of “tikkun” the idea that the world is profoundly broken and can be fixed only by human activity. However, I believe the tikkun comes with the arduous mission of internal transformation rather than external fixing.

Gevurah encompasses discipline and establishing appropriate boundaries, which in turn reflect a healthy sense of self-esteem and the value we place on ourselves. Without these boundaries, our efforts can become scattered and ineffective. These boundaries act as vessels bringing light into the world in a meaningful and constructive way. In the face of current events, particularly concerning developments on college campuses, the need for discipline is more pressing than ever. We must exercise gevurah to protect our keter – our mind, body, and soul. Rather than merely reacting to external challenges, we must embody the dignity and strength of our inherent royalty, calling us to shine light onto the world in a manner befitting our noble lineage.

This means discerning our actions carefully, ensuring they align with our values and contribute positively to the world around us. It’s not about simply cleaning up after those who seek our destruction, but about embodying our divine heritage and acting with purpose and integrity. Volunteering to clean up after vandalism without addressing the underlying issues or holding perpetrators accountable sends the wrong message. It suggests a lack of deterrence, boundaries, and consequences, which only perpetuates the cycle of disrespect and harm. Rather than passively accepting such actions or engaging in cleanup efforts, we must showcase our self-worth and dignity by taking proactive measures to assert our identity and values. This could involve activities like putting on tefillin on campus, more outreach programs, and sanctifying God’s name with our speech and dress. By assuming leadership roles which is the embodiment of gevurah, we are striving for personal growth rather than seeking validation from those who oppose us. While cleaning up after others’ actions may seem noble – a chesed, gevurah requires using our strength wisely, allowing the divine to flow through us rather than compensating for perceived weaknesses. Protests may appear strong, but genuine strength lies in silent adherence to righteousness. Cleaning up a trashed campus, while well-intentioned, does not fully embody gevurah.

Solely emphasizing chesed without gevurah, without striking a balance between warmth and expectations, risks raising children lacking discipline or restrictions. Too much warmth and too little expectations, lead to enabling behaviors, which is apparent in the behavior of adult college students today resulting in chaos. Volunteers wanted to demonstrate the inherent goodness within the Jewish community but those who harbor hatred toward us will not be swayed by such gestures. Instead of seeking validation from the world, it’s crucial to demand those who made the mess, and those who allowed the mess to take place, to be held accountable. Addressing the root cause is essential to prevent future incidents and promote a culture of respect and understanding.

While chesed, or kindness, is a fundamental Jewish value, it must be accompanied by gevurah, or boundaries, to be effective. Without boundaries, kindness can become misplaced, enabling behavior that perpetuates harm rather than addressing underlying issues. In this case, asserting boundaries and demanding accountability would be a more effective approach than attempting to win validation through tikkun olam.

About the Author
Leron Zaggy MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian who received her Master’s degree in Health and Nutrition from Brooklyn College in New York. She has given nutrition lectures, worked as an Adjunct Professor at Touro College, and worked as an Administrative Dietitian for the Kosher Kitchen at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA, where she currently resides with her husband and four children. Her focus is to maintain and portray values that are far reaching and that can impact herself, her family, her community, and the world around her.
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