Tikkun Olam

Although articles discussing it are several  days old, I just came across  a link to the Baccalaureate Address given to graduating Yale students by Yale President Peter Salovey.

Salovey’s address was titled Repair the World.  He began with the question “If a graduating senior asked me to capture the purpose of life after graduating from Yale in just a few words, what would I say? What would that purpose be? Could I articulate your life’s mission as you leave Yale — on Commencement weekend, no less — while ‘standing on one foot’?  (As many may recognize, the phrase “standing on one foot” is a reference first century rabbi Hillel, who was asked to summarize the meaning of the entire Torah while standing on one foot.)  He suggested that there are many answers to the question of the students’ commitment after Yale – finding a good job, nurturing a family, etc.

Salovey had this suggestion as to the purpose of the lives of these new graduates: to improve the world, or as it would be expressed in the Jewish tradition: Tikkun Olam, literally to repair the world.  He elaborated

What I like about this proposal for life’s purpose is that improving the world can be accomplished from within nearly any political framework. Repairing, healing, or improving the world — often captured in the idea of alleviating suffering — can be pursued from a liberal perspective (develop social programs that encourage self-sufficiency but provide a safety net), from a conservative point of view (teach fundamental values in order to cultivate individuals of good character who make the world a better place), and even from a libertarian agenda (enable free market forces to reinforce good ideas and good behavior; in the meantime, live and let live).

I also favor improving the world as the life purpose of a newly minted Yalie because it is possible to embrace this life mission in so many ways:

When you start a new business that employs people and contributes something new, you improve the world.

When you serve others with great distinction in one of the professions, you improve the world.

When you pursue an academic career in order to light fires in the bellies of the next generation of college or high school students, you improve the world.

When you inspire others by creating a beautiful work of art, you improve the world.

When you build a service organization and you listen to and collaborate with those who you would like to help, you improve the world….

Improving the world is a difficult project to take on because – unlike so many aspects of your education at Yale or of life itself – there really is no beginning, middle, or end here. There is no “bottom line.” What may be most challenging is that even after a lifetime of work, further repair may be necessary. Maybe even more than when you started. My predecessor, President Richard Levin (whom I like to refer to as “Twenty-Two”), often quoted Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. ….

Tikkun Olam is a task for all of us.  We may debate what it means to repair the world, but it is a task as to which we each have a part.

You can read the entirety of President Salovey’s address here.