Social Justice and Tikkun Olam or “Who is my neighbour?”


The general concept of social justice and the more Jewish specific concept of Tikkun Olam has gained favour in the last decades. Barely a day goes by without mention in the headlines of demonstrations for social equity, gender equality, abolition of human trafficking etc. More and more there is a call for an equal society where the rich do not abuse the poor and there is freedom for all. It is something that we all want to see.

You shall not oppress your neighbour, nor rob him.

Despite it’s renewed popularity in recent years, the concept is as old as the Torah. This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, is full of laws which pertain to the issue of social justice, for example, “You shall not oppress your neighbour, nor rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:13) God seems to sum up all of these laws connected to social justice in one pithy saying: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18) The only problem is, who exactly is “my neighbour”?

It’s a valid question. After all, when we read the command “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” it seems a bit overwhelming. There are many people in the world – am I supposed to look after them all?

It’s the same question that a Jewish teacher once asked Yeshua (see Luke 10:25-37). However Yeshua saw that this man’s motives weren’t pure and so told him a story to show him who his neighbour was. In the story, a Jewish man is beaten and left for dead. Surprisingly, a cohen and a levi walk by without helping him. The hero of the story, who bandages up the man’s wounds is a samaritan – one regarded as an outcast and an enemy of our people. When asked which of the men acted as a neighbour, the Jewish teacher would not even mention the man’s ethnicity: “The one who showed him mercy”. Yeshua’s reply was a challenge not only to that specific Jewish teacher, but to all of us: “You go, and do likewise.”

Loving your enemy is not easy – in fact, it’s impossible. And yet that’s exactly what Yeshua did for us. Rav Sha’ul, the Apostle Paul, wrote, “While we were sinners, the Messiah died for us” (Romans 5:8). We are the beaten up Jewish man in Yeshua’s story and He is the samaritan who was willing to heal us and give us life. Sha’ul continues, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of us Son, much more, now that we are reconciled shall we be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:10).

The ultimate example of social justice happened on the cross almost two thousand years ago – Yeshua unjustly and unfairly reached out to us, so that we might be restored and have our lives fixed, our relationship with God reinstated and our relationships with our neighbours repaired. That is, if we’re willing to put our trust in Him and ask Him to change us.

As we campaign for social justice and equality in the world, our love for others, for our neighbours will only ever be imperfect and flawed. Moreover, we’ll never be able to entirely rid the world of injustice and inequality – at least, not until the Messiah returns. But we can and must always remember the love that was shown us by the One who considered us His neighbours. Are we willing to consider Him our God?

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Social Justice and Tikkun Olam or “Who is my neighbour?”