Improving the World, Improving Oneself
Rabbi Dr. Orna Triguboff Ph.D. is the founder and principal facilitator of the Neshama Life organization and serves as a rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue. Orna has been awarded a doctorate from Sydney University, specializing in the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed in the 16th century and the study of angels. She has also been a meditation and yoga teacher for over 20 years both in Australia and internationally. Orna was trained by Hatha yoga teacher, Acharya Upendra Roy. Orna is also a student of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and the Jewish renewal movement and received rabbinic ordination The Aleph Organization. She is devoted to enhancing self-improvement; caring and compassionate community and environmental harmony in an open-minded and healthy way, with Judaism as a framework through which to achieve these goals.
Some key principles in Jewish culture are the ideas of tikun olam –fixing the world, and tikun ha-nefesh – self-improvement. Inevitably, one principle depends on the other; we hope that by doing acts of charity and the work of social justice we also become better people. We hope that by striving to be a better person, we can also help the world.
The Cycle of the Year as a path of self-discovery
One way of looking at the various events and festivals throughout the year is through the lens of self-improvement. Rosh hashana (Jewish New Year) is a time to reflect on the creation of the world, the creation of humanity and the possibility of renewal with the coming year, asking ourselves: What will be new in this year? The ten days from rosh hashana to yom kippur (Day of Atonement) are a chance to contemplate our lives deeply, ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged and make new resolutions. The festival of sukkot (Tabernacles) is a time to cultivate joy, connect with nature and invite people into our homes and our makeshift huts – sukkot. Chanuka is a time to join with family and friends and contemplate the concept of light and the struggle for freedom. During each festival it is traditional to link the joy of the festival to an act of charity. The New Year for Trees, tu bishvat, is a celebration of nature and a time to connect with issues affecting the environment. Purim is a chance for us to explore the different aspects of ourselves, by dressing up and acting playfully. In that way, we are invited to discover a part of ourselves not usually expressed. Pesach (Passover) is a time to contemplate the idea of freedom and it can become a reality for all people. The Omer, lasting seven weeks, is an opportunity to explore seven key aspects of the personality, such as chesed (compassion) and gevurah (strength). Shavuot is a celebration of receiving inspiration through Torah. The 9th of Av is a day to mourn the destruction of the Temple and, from a personal perspective, explore what deep, internal sorrow we may have. The cycle of festivals gives each of us a chance to explore, communally and individually, the different aspects of ourselves, hopefully leading to self-improvement, tikun ha-nefesh.
The custom of resting one day a week is not to be taken for granted! Thousands of years ago, when it was instigated in Jewish custom, it was a new idea. Even today there are many not fortunate enough to have a day off to be replenished. Even those who have the means to take a day off every week do not always do it. Thus Judaism invites every single person to recognise a day of rest. The Sabbath is a chance to be replenished and revitalisation is considered of utmost importance.
Life Cycle Events as a chance for improvement
The customs surrounding different life cycle events can also be an opportunity for tikun ha-nefesh and thus tikun olam. One example is the bat or bar-mitzvah. It is replete with customs for self-improvement and helping improve the world. It has become customary in the year leading up to the bar/bat mitzvah for children to work for and contribute to charities whose cause they feel strongly about. The bar/bat mitzvah is also given the challenge of speaking and singing in public, and learning to lead the community in prayer, thereby developing courage, strength and maturity. This is self-improvement and world improvement within the flow of a tradition.
Cycles of Soul-Accounting
Embedded within Jewish practice is a process of “soul-accounting” – cheshbon ha-nefesh. This is a chance to check in and notice what is going well and what can be improved in our lives, so as to have a harmonious existence. Over the millennia this process has been refined to become an effective technique of self-improvement. Doing this on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis gives us a chance to examine our lives from different perspectives. Contemplating how your day went is a very different process to considering how your year has passed, and opportunities to do examine both are part of the “Jewish experience.” Each morning, the tachanun prayers invite us to think about how we can improve ourselves, thereby making the coming day a good one. On Friday, just before Shabbat begins, around sunset, we are invited to take stock of the week gone by. In the days preceding a new moon, we consider how the month has fared. For a whole month before the Jewish new year, the month of Elul, we make an effort to mend relationships that have gone awry, as well as considering our achievements in the year that has passed. On Yom Kippur we fast and connect with our inner regrets and also connect with our innate goodness. This is the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh – soul accounting, or teshuvah – atonement and it all happens within the cycles of our tradition.
From inner to outer
And the deep connection between all these opportunities for improvement of self, and the imperative to improve the world, can be found in the last prayer of every communal service – the aleinu prayer. The prayer contains the phrase, “le-taken olam be-malchut Shaddai” – “to repair the world in the kingdom of God.” This is significant because prayer is an introspective activity, and yet it ends with the imperative to use that internal energy for the good of the world – to repair what is broken.
Choosing to be part of a tradition, culture and society in which self-improvement and social justice are key features is important if we want to live in a healthy world. It is also up to us to foster those principles so that they are at the fore in our communities, hopefully leading to new levels of tikun ha nefesh and tikun olam – repairing of the soul and the world.