Rescue vs. Repairing the World

The Talmud (B. Berakhot 10a) tells us a short story about Beruriah, a powerful woman who refuses to accept the world as it is. Some bandits live in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir. They cause him so much sorrow that Rabbi Meir, Beruriah’s husband, prays for their deaths. Beruriah chastises him for his behavior. Correcting her husband’s interpretation of Psalms 104:35, Beruriah teaches: Does the book of Psalms say, “May sinners disappear?” No! Instead it says, “May sins disappear (Psalms 104:35).” And, even more, the end of the verse says, “And evildoers will be no more.” Instead of praying for the bandits’ deaths, Beruriah tells Rabbi Meir that he should pray that they repent from their evil ways. If the bandits repent, “evildoers will be no more.” Rabbi Meir follows Beruriah’s instructions, and the bandits repent. Through her ability to read Scripture and her willingness to speak out, Beruriah has saved the lives of the bandits, taught her husband about compassion, and lessened the amount of evil in the world.

Jewish tradition presents us with two modes of healing suffering: tikkun olam and hesedTikkun olam, often translated as repairing the world, can also be translated as recalibrating the world. It is a view that the world is out of balance, and that its very order, even its legal order, needs to be modified. Tikkun olam involves looking at the systemic needs of the wider community and trying to create a better, but not necessarily perfect, future. Hesed, often translated as compassion or loving-kindness, means looking at the needs of individuals. It involves focusing on the immediate needs of those suffering, trying to alleviate moment-to-moment pain.

Although Beruriah’s story does not use the words tikkun olam or hesed, it teaches us about acting in both of these modes. As women, we have often been associated with the mode of hesed, private acts of compassion. Hesed is quieter, more hidden. However, Beruriah’s story encourages us to speak out about systemic injustice as well as act with compassion. It would have been easy for Beruriah to agree with her husband, to imagine Meir’s suffering ending through the bandits’ deaths. Yet, she does not comfort her husband by sympathizing over his misfortune and agreeing that these bandits deserve to die. Instead, she takes a route of hesed and of tikkun olam. She envisions a world where these bandits have become good. She speaks sharply and unhesitatingly, teaching her husband how to act in a different voice, a voice that Rabbi Meir is unable to see without her instruction. Pray, she tells him, for a different kind of world. Have compassion for those who act wrongly. As the story teaches, his prayer is effective and the bandits change their ways.

While our prayers alone will not change the world, Beruriah tells us that in order to recalibrate the world we will need to learn to imagine our society’s possibilities anew. We will need to raise our voices, sharply and strongly, in order to advocate for these visions. What can our world be? What systemic injustices do we need to correct and how? How do we need to learn to treat others with compassion as we try to change our society? How can re-thinking our Jewish tradition teach us to act with hesed and tikkun olam? Beruriah teaches us the importance of creative and outspoken action, action that treats individuals with kindness as we simultaneously change our world.

Rabbi Jane Kanarek, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Rabbinics in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. jkanarek@