What Does it Mean to “Repair the World?”
Even the translation of the term is ambiguous. “Tikkun” is usually translated as repair. However in the Torah and in the Mishnah (the code of Jewish law), it has a range of meanings: improve, fix, prepare, set up, or simply “do something with.” One could use the word Tikkun to describe straightening a bent post, maintaining a street, cutting one’s own fingernails, setting a table, or using a metaphor to explain a difficult idea.
“Olam” in Biblical Hebrew means “all of time,” which, loosely translated, means: eternity. It evolved in later Hebrew, to mean “the world”. Taken together the phrase “Tikkun Olam” means to do something with the world that will not only fix any damage but also improve upon it, preparing it to enter the ultimate state for which it was created. “Leave it better than you found it,” as the old campsite rule says.
There are many interpretations across all sects of Judaism and the term has been co-opted into the language of non-Jews as well. The purpose of this post is not to declare once and for all what the unequivocal meaning of the phrase should be. Rather we will look at the origins of the phrase, how its meaning evolved throughout the centuries, and how it is used today. Only you can determine what Tikkun Olam means to you and how you will practice it in your daily life.
The expression Tikkun Olam has a long and varied history in Jewish tradition. One of the best known (and considered by some to be the most important) of these variations is found in the ancient Hebrew prayer known as Aleynu (“It is our duty”), believed to have been composed in the 2nd century CCE, in which we find the phrase:
לְתַקֵּן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי
letaken olam bemalchut shadai
This line is typically translated as: “when the world shall be perfected under the reign of the Almighty.” In its original composition this prayer was meant to indicate the eradication of idolatry, but its language has become cornerstone for the contemporary call of Tikkun Olam.
Another significant source for this concept originates in Jewish mystical tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Luria was the leading figure in the historic Kabbalistic community in Galilee. The Kabbalists always saw the human being as an active party in the improvement of the cosmos, but it wasn’t until Luria, known as The Ari (Hebrew for “Lion”), the greatest of the Kabbalists, that the idea of Tikkun Olam came to the foreground. The Ari came to Tzfat in Israel around 1569. Back then Tzfat was a major center of Jewish culture and learning. He was there for less than three years, but in that time he revolutionized the way Jewish mysticism thought about everything.
While residing in the village of Tzfat he taught his disciples not only to perfect their souls by way of moral purification but also to perfect the cosmos as a whole. He believed the cosmos had become broken, most especially by way of human transgression. Even though many today invoke Luria’s ideas of Tikkun Olam as the basis for a commitment to perfecting the world, Luria’s conception is, in actuality, much more esoteric than either political or social. Still, the primary theme remains common across the interpretations: the conviction that it is the responsibility of humanity to direct their behavior towards fixing a broken world.
Luria spoke about the divine sparks invested in each thing and every event. Nothing in this world, he taught, is without a spark of the divine, and that spark is the very core essence of every being. These divine sparks fell from the World of Tohu, a world that was created to have such intense light that it exploded. The sparks of that explosion generated all the artifacts of this world. The reader might note the similarities between this theory and the scientific theory of The Big Bang which is believed to have been the beginning of our known universe.
The Ari compared these sparks to a fruit or nut captured within its shell. Our mission is to peel away the outer shell and reveal the beauty it conceals. That is how he explained not only all the mitzvot of the Torah, but also all the needs and functions of the human being. The purpose of all we do lies in the redemption of those sparks.
He was not literally suggesting that we could open a thing, living or otherwise, and examine it under a microscope to discover the fiery spark within. Rather, in the same way that sparks fly out from a furnace and continue to glow from the heat of the original fire, so too each object and event contains some hint of its original purpose glowing within.
However, there is a distinction: The sparks that fly out from a fire are only sparks so long as they continue to glow. With these divine sparks the glow may have already extinguished. Yet there remains the hope that they can be reconnected and shine again. That is the case of those things that have no apparent divine purpose.
Repairing the Internal World
In The Ari’s interpretation of Tikkun Olam your obligation to repair the world begins from within, to do each thing every day with intention in order to fulfill your purpose. Even the simple act of eating is an opportunity to practice Tikkun Olam.
Basically, by eating a meal as a human being, which means eating only what you need, and eating with the purpose for which your Creator made you. As the Ari described, when you focus your mind not on the food itself but on the nourishing, divine spark it contains you visualize how the goodness of the food is absorbed by your body and gives you life — a life with which you will learn wisdom and do more good deeds. The coarse, extraneous elements will be rejected and expelled. Now that dining room table becomes an altar and your food the sacred offering.
The same goes with any activity, whether in thought, speech or action, in everyday needs, in business and in relations with your family and loved ones. In every human activity, in every situation you encounter, there is an inner divine spark held tightly within an outer mundane shell. Our mission is to redeem the former while rejecting the latter. As it’s stated in the Talmud: “The left hand pushes away while the right hand draws near.”
In the liberation of these divine sparks, the soul itself is elevated, receiving and synergizing the intense and unbounded fire from which the sparks originate. And this call to redeem those sparks, to pull them out from their external protective pod and reawaken them to their true purpose, the soul reaches ever higher and discovers its own deep roots; roots that reach to the core of the essence beyond the origin of those sparks.
Repairing the External World
In the twentieth century the interpretation of Tikkun Olam began to turn outward. It was no longer enough for the individual to embrace and enhance their internal relationship with the divine. Many saw the call to repair the world for those around them. This concept became especially popular with the Jewish Reform movement.
Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California, was among the first to invoke the language of Tikkun Olam in the United States in the 1950s. Bardin re-interpreted the Aleynu prayer, mentioned above, to refer to the obligation of Jews to work for a more perfect world.
Numerous Jewish organizations seek to relieve the suffering of all people in need, regardless of religion, ethnicity or nationality. The principles of Tikkun Olam, they argue, are universalistic in their humanitarian commitments. However, some believe that the primary obligation of Jews is to fellow Jews, and that the notion of Tikkun Olam as a universal concept is a distortion of Jewish values. On the other hand, those who advocate an approach to social, economic, political, and environmental justice, argue that Tikkun Olam does not limit its concerns to fellow Jews. They teach that it is precisely the centuries-old ethical values of Jewish religious tradition that a concern for all the people of the world is the imperative. In their view, Tikkun Olam is ultimately another name for the rich tradition of concern for the vulnerable, the powerless, and the marginalized. According to this perspective, such a view is as old as the religion itself. Therefore, according to the Torah, it is our obligation not only to love our neighbor but “Instead treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34).
The Choice is Yours
Ultimately, how you decide to engage with Tikkun Olam is your own personal choice. Whether you focus on your daily tasks and activities, practicing a mindfulness that keeps you engaged as a member of the cosmos or if you decide to volunteer and go out and repair the world for others, you will be participating in an ancient Jewish tradition that has been in practice for centuries. The world and the cosmos were created in a mere seven days but we have a lifetime of work to do to keep it in good repair. However you choose to engage with Tikkun Olam, be ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work.