Tikkun Olam: Is the World Incomplete or Fundamentally Broken?

Living in the city, one encounters a disproportionate number of younger people in wheelchairs – men, usually, debilitated by urban violence or any number of adverse medical conditions. As an able-bodied person, I wonder what it would be like to have to negotiate uncut curbs, careening traffic and potholes.

A couple years ago, I was riding my bike near the shul on Election Day when I noticed a neighbor named Mike, his wheelchair askew, wedged in a sidewalk pothole. His electric wheelchair was revving, but he made no progress. He was quite literally spinning his wheels. I hopped off my bike and helped Mike get unstuck. We had a brief chat. He was on his way to Beth Am, our polling place, to vote. I let him know the new voting machines were acting up and there was a line out the door. He may want to come back later, I said. He thanked me for the help. I mounted my bike, and we rolled off our separate ways.

The image of Mike caught in that pothole sticks with me, though, not just because streets and sidewalks in so much of the city are abysmally maintained but because Mike’s predicament that day is a metaphor for so many impoverished and/or disabled Baltimoreans. Many are stuck. Many feel like they’re spinning their wheels. Many feel crushed under the weight of generational poverty, criminal injustice and structural racism.

Many feel that way. Others don’t. And still others, fully justified in losing all hope, make a choice to focus not on privation but gratitude.

I don’t know if Mike felt beaten down by his circumstances. Frankly, he didn’t seem to be. Many of my poorer neighbors greet passersby with a smile and when asked how they’re feeling, confidently reply, “blessed!” “Who is rich?” asks the Mishnah. “The one who is content with his portion” (Avot 4:1).

When Jews talk about social justice, we often use the term tikkun olam, repairing the world. Never mind that the origin of the phrase was not really about service or justice, tikkun olam has now entered into the lexicon of modern Jewry as a fundamental principle of our faith. The question, though, is what exactly does this phrase say about the world?

The story most commonly associated with tikkun olam comes from the Ari z”l, Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist. Luria describes the world’s existence as having resulted from a powerful explosion, a big bang of sorts, called sh’virat hakeilim. In this primordial flash, vessels are shattered, suffusing the universe with shards of fractured matter. Humanity’s task, as explained by decades of twentieth and twenty-first century rabbis, activists and camp counselors, is to repair these vessels, to heal the world. This paradigm suggests the world is fractured because it is fundamentally broken.

But another paradigm can be found in the Torah text itself. The very first verse of Bereishit is usually translated, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But, an equally plausible rendering is, “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.” The tikkun olam paradigm means human partnership with God bestows upon us a nearly impossible task: to fashion wholeness from brokenness. We are less partners with God as we are entropy janitors, cleaning up a profound cosmic mess. Bereishit, though, seems to understand creation as a process. The universe is unfurling before humanity. The world isn’t broken. It’s incomplete, unrealized.

When I found Mike spinning his wheels near Eutaw Place, my first emotion was pity. However he ended up in that wheelchair, what a pitiful fate: to be rendered inert on one’s way to the polling place! What a metaphor for futility in West Baltimore! But Mike had no interest in despair. Mike had an election to get to!

A broken world can feel paralyzing. However, if the world is not essentially damaged but unfinished, it is not about what’s missing but what is not yet found – and only then what must be done. In this model, the world isn’t a shattered urn, a conduit to be mended. The world is a tree, absorbing the light of heaven and converting it to energy in a complex biological and spiritual process called living. The world is a scroll being written, a song waiting to be sung.

The problem with sidewalks is they are (quite literally) concrete, so it’s hard to see cracks and potholes as anything but brokenness. The Jewish task, as we roll along, is to see the journey in the sidewalk, the places it brings us from and gets us to. Only then will we know how to refashion pathways in sustainable ways, so that more of us have a smoother ride.

A version of this column will appear in the July issue of JMore (www.jmoreliving.com).

Who’s Going to Start the Druid Hill Park Conservancy?

The “Central Park” of Baltimore is great but it could be glorious.

Years ago, I wrote short blog entry after returning from a visit to L.A. During the trip, we were strolling along the ocean-front path in Venice when we chanced upon an impressive beach home with a whimsically tiny patch of AstroTurf in front. The sign read: “World’s Smallest Front Yard.” The irony, of course, is that the home had an enormous front yard: the sand and grassy areas of Venice Beach and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Worlds smallest front yard

At the time, we lived on Druid Park Lake Drive (what locals call “Lake Drive”), and I couldn’t help but think of my own neighborhood named Reservoir Hill for the large source of drinking water that serves as an aquatic gateway to the “Central Park” of Baltimore.  In our nearly seven years in Baltimore, Druid Hill Park has been our lush, vital and undulating front yard. My children both learned to ride a bike around the lake. We walk our dog there, play tennis and visit the zoo, conservatory or farmers market. We have attended concerts and art exhibitions in the park. In nice weather I jog or cycle there, enjoying the interplay of forest and grass, whimsical historic pavilions, invigorated by numerous public and private celebrations. The park is alive, and I feel more alive within it.

Druid Hill Park has deep Jewish and African American resonance, making it the perfect front yard for a neighborhood like Reservoir Hill. Barry Kessler, former curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and a longtime Beth Am congregant, authored a paper in honor of the park’s 150th.  “From 1920 to 1960,” he said, “Druid Hill Park was Jewish Baltimore’s green oasis and the geographic center of the Jewish community.” Generations of black Baltimoreans have also come to rely on the park as a place to break bread or BBQ, swim, play basketball or tennis (Arthur Ashe used to play on the “negro” courts when the park was segregated).

The park is clean, beautiful and well used. But despite its noteworthy pedigree of Olmstead influence, it has yet to reach its modern potential. Why? Funding, of course! The Park Service does its utmost to keep up with the massive task of mowing grass, maintaining pools, playgrounds and pathways and creating new ball fields and cycling tracks. But more resources are needed to make the park worthy of being what in many ways it already is: a hub of green activity and leisure for Baltimore’s vital urban center.

lake renovation

The timing is right for catalytic investment in Druid Hill Park. The reservoir, one of the largest earthen-dammed lakes in the country, is scheduled to undergo a multi-year upgrade this summer. Two enormous tanks will be buried beneath the western portion of the lake, meeting a federal guideline for open-air reservoirs and allowing for recreational use. The city plans to put in a new fountain, an amphitheater, fishing and perhaps rowboats or paddleboats – Baltimore’s second waterfront! In addition, our area was just selected for up to $750,000 in targeted grants  for improved pedestrian and cycling access. This is an opportunity, as Councilman Leon Pinkett of the 7th District put it, …”to re-focus our priorities on improving quality of life for people living in and around Reservoir Hill, making jobs to the east and our world-class Druid Hill Park to the north safely accessible to residents who choose to walk, bike, or take transit.”

How to fund the gap between what the park ought to be and city’s limited budget? Look to the actual Central Park! For years, New York City has depended on the generosity of donors to its Central Park Conservancy. Such an idea has yet to be tried in Baltimore, but it seems to me this is the moment. With societal energy around sustainability, green-space and urban renewal, Druid Hill Park is ripe for visionary leadership to invest in our verdant gem. The gauntlet is thrown. Who will raise their hand and create the Druid Hill Park Conservancy, a tool for maximizing the potential energy of Baltimore’s enormous front yard?

A version of this column appears at Jmore