First, a story:

A Greco-Roman philosopher met up with a Jewish sage named Rabbi Hoshaya. “If circumcision is so special,” he asked the rabbi, “then why wasn’t the first human being created circumcised?”

As is common among rabbis accosted by philosophers with questions, Rabbi Hoshaya replied with another question.

“What about hair?” he asked.

That threw off the philosopher somewhat. “What does hair have to do with anything?” he asked.

“Well,” explained the rabbi, “I notice you cut your hair, so that must mean hair is bad. But then, you don’t cut your beard, so maybe that means hair is a good thing after all. I’m confused.”

“For that,” the philosopher raised his finger in reply, “I have an answer. The hair on my head grew in my youthful years of folly, so it must be trimmed. The hair of my beard grew in my older years of wisdom, so it stays.”

“Uh-huh, I see,” responded the rabbi. “So what about your eyes?”

“My eyes?”

All that G‑d created in this world, He created to be fixed up.

“Yes. When did you get them?”

“Well, I was born with them…”

“Along with your hands and feet in your “youthful years of folly,” right? So they must also be bad—even though you were created with them. But I don’t notice you cutting them off.”

“I can’t cut those off!” the philosopher protested. “I need them!”

“Oh, so really they’re all bad, just that you can’t get rid of them. Which means that the way human beings are created is not so good after all. Nothing is good—until it gains wisdom.”

“Okay, just where are we going with this?” asked the philosopher, obviously not used to debating Jewish-style.

“Listen,” said the rabbi. “Your answer to my question doesn’t work at all, for many reasons. But I can give you at least a partial answer to your question: Everything that was created in the six days of creation can use some fixing. Take mustard seed—you need to fix it up with a little vinegar, right? Lupine [a bitter Mediterranean legume] needs to be fixed up with some sweetening. Or wheat—lots of fixing up needed there.”

“And even the human being,” concluded the rabbi, “could use some fixing up.”

As the creation narrative of Genesis signs off, “that G‑d created to do.” When He created the world, He left us some work to do, to fix it up.

Midrash Rabba, Genesis 11:6

Simple Language

Tikkun, people tell me, means repair. Academics, for their very important reasons, prefer rectification.

But that’s all nonsense. Simple language is always best. Tikkun means fixing up.

Despite what they tell you, even if it’s not broken, it can still be fixed up.

What’s the difference? Ask a woman who just fixed up her hair just how broken it was when she started. No, the hair was not in need of repair. But it could still be fixed up. The same with Rabbi Hoshaya’s mustard seed example, or lupine, or wheat—or the human being. Despite what they tell you, even if it’s not broken, it can still be fixed up, higher and better.

That’s a very human activity, one that describes us well. We are the creature that finds materials in their raw, natural state, and with vision, ingenuity, creativity and wisdom fixes them up—up to a whole new level. We take sounds and make music, colors and create art, fields and create farms and gardens. Yes, often—far too often—we fix down instead of up. But our purpose in this universe—why we are here—is to fix it up. Very up.

Tikkun and Purpose

Yes, we must admit, much of our world is fractured, fragmented and very messy. But it’s not broken. It’s been disassembled—purposely. The Creator made a world that was designed to fall apart—so that we could put all the scattered pieces together and create a better, more harmonious, self-sustaining world. Which is the most magnanimous gift He could provide us, the ultimate act of love. Effectively, He made us His partners in the creation of heaven and earth.

Now that changes everything.

It means that whatever business you’ve gotten yourself into, whatever chunk of this world has fallen into your lap, whatever sort of a person you are—it’s all with purpose. You are being led to the places that await your soul for their fix up.

It means we are not passive victims of a cruel, cold universe, but partners of its Creator, who breathes His power into us so that we may comb through the very fabric of which this cosmos is composed, coaxing out its warm, inner life.

We believe in the Creator, so we believe in His creation.

It means that this world is not some dark, ugly place from which to escape. It is a good world; so good that as great a mess as it’s become, it’s still worth investing everything we’ve got to fix it. We believe in the Creator, so we believe in His creation. As the Book of Genesis says, “G‑d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.”

And finally, Tikkun provides purpose to every struggle we endure, hope for every battle we fight, destiny for every uphill journey. The pain is worth it. We are going somewhere. We are fixing up G‑d’s creation. We are preparing it to become the ultimate world, beyond anything that could be imagined.

A Brief History of Tikkun

This idea of Tikkun is innate to the Genesis narrative, and is hinted to in many ancient midrashim. The Kabbalists, unlike philosophers, always saw the human being as an active party in the improvement of the cosmos. But it wasn’t until Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as “the Ari,” the greatest of the kabbalists, that the idea of Tikkun came to the foreground.

The Ari came to Tzfat, Israel, then a major center of Jewish culture and learning, around 1569. He was there for less than three years, but in that time he revolutionized the way we think about everything.

For one thing, he 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 its very core essence of being. They fell, he said, 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.

Our mission is to peel away the outer shell and reveal the beauty it conceals.

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 mitzvahs 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.

Why did he call them “sparks?” He was not suggesting that we could open a thing and examine it under a microscope to discover there a fiery spark. Rather, just as sparks fly out from a furnace and continue to glow from the heat of the original fire, so each object and event contains some hint of its original purpose glowing within.

But there is a distinction: The sparks that fly out from a fire are only sparks as long as they continue to glow. With these divine sparks, the glow may have already extinguished, yet there is still hope that they can be reconnected and shine again. That is the case of those things that have no apparent divine purpose.

Tikkun In Action

Let’s say, for example, it’s lunch time and you are hungry. You’re craving a chicken salad with a freshly-squeezed grapefruit-pineapple drink.

You are hungry for the food, but the feelings are not mutual.

Strange thing is, the feelings are not mutual. The lunch shows no signs of interest in you consuming it—not the grapefruit, not the pineapple, not the salad and certainly not the chicken.

But how could this be? You are a human being, and they are fruits, vegetables and poultry. If you are superior to them, they should be the ones chasing after you to consume them and lift them up to your superior level.

So the Ari explained that, yes, the human being is superior because he is capable of redeeming and reconnecting these divine sparks back to their origin. But the sparks themselves originate in a place far beyond the human soul. We get from them far more than they get from us—once we liberate them.

So now that you are in the cafeteria with your chicken salad and glass of juice, just how are you going to liberate those sparks?

Basically, by eating them as a human being. Which means eating just what you need, and eating with the purpose for which your Creator made you. As the Ari described, 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—life with which you will learn wisdom and do yet more good deeds. The coarse, extraneous elements—the shell—will be rejected and expelled.

Now that cafeteria table becomes an altar, your food a sacred offering.

The same with any activity, whether in thought, speech or action, in everyday needs, in business and in relations with your spouse—in every human activity, in every situation that comes your way, there is an inner divine spark held tightly within an outer, mundane shell. Our mission is to redeem one while rejecting the other. In the language of the Talmud, “The left hand pushes away, while the right hand draws close.”

In this liberation of these divine sparks, the soul itself is elevated, receiving and synthesizing the intense, unbounded fire from which those sparks originate. And from the challenge to redeem those sparks, to pull them out from their thick husk and reawaken them to their true purpose, from this the soul reaches yet higher, to discover its own deep roots, roots that reach to an essence-core beyond even the origin of those sparks.

Populist Tikkun

As occurs with many a maverick luminary, the Ari’s teachings were poorly understood in his time. They were rapidly popularized—but their meaning was often twisted and distorted into the opposite of their intent.

Tikkun, to the Baal Shem Tov, was the means by which the common man and woman could find life.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer—popularly known as the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of a Good Name”)—was a man with a vision of what the Ari had truly meant, and how it was to be implemented. Tikkun, to the Baal Shem Tov, was much more than an esoteric teaching. It was the means by which the common man and woman could find life, happiness and meaning.

The Baal Shem Tov taught from the town of Medzhybizh, Podolia, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 18th century. He taught the seeker, the scholar, the simple farmer and the small child to serve their Creator with love and joy.

By his time, many scholars and rabbinic leaders were deeply immersed in the teachings of the Ari. But in their understanding, the way to fix the human body was by breaking it—by fasting and punishing it—and the way to teach the common people was by breaking their spirit, instilling in them a fear of hell.

To the Baal Shem Tov, Tikkun meant finding the good wherever it could be found and celebrating it. His disciples would wander from town to town, observing the good deeds of the simple folk, and telling them how much G‑d cherished them. Fixing could be done without breaking and throwing down the shell, but rather, by embracing and lifting up the fruit.

Wherever a soul travels in this world, the Baal Shem Tov taught, it is led there to find the sparks related to this soul, sparks that have been waiting since the time of Creation for this soul to arrive. Without realizing, this precious soul is purifying the world, with deeds, with words, and with thoughts.

Bringing Tikkun Down To Earth

After the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, his heir, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, led a generation of teachers and leaders who spread these teachings throughout the Eastern European Jewish world. One of those teachers, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, developed a practical method for implementing the Baal Shem Tov’s call to serve G‑d with love and joy. He called it Chabad, which is an acronym for the Hebrew words Chochmah, Bina, Daat—meaning, Wisdom, Understanding and Knowing. These, he taught, were the key to the heart. It was through deep contemplation that a Jew could awaken love of G‑d in his or her heart.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman also provided the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings a strong basis in traditional Jewish law, known as halachah.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman brought Tikkun back into the context of our material world.

He pointed out, for example, that the Hebrew words for forbidden and permissible actually mean bound and unbound. When the halachah determines that an object or action is permissible, that tells us that the divine spark within it is unbound and ready to be redeemed through our actions. When it is forbidden, we know it is so bound up that no positive action can release it. It can only be redeemed by withstanding the challenge it presents, or through the sincere regret and return of someone who succumbed to its temptation.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman also brought Tikkun back into the context of our material world. When the kabbalists spoke of Tikkun, they were speaking of us creatures bringing greater light into a divine world far beyond our own. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, of course, did not reject that, but he connected it back to our world as well. What goes up, only goes up in order to come back down. He returned to the statements of the Talmudic sages that place our material world at the center of all things:

From the beginning of creation, G‑d’s presence was most felt in the lowest world.

Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 5:1

Before G‑d created this world, He created worlds and destroyed them, created worlds and destroyed them. He said, “These I don’t like. These I don’t like.” Then He created this world. He said, “This one I like.”

Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 3:14

Since the time the world was created, G‑d desired that He should have a home among the lower beings.

Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 7:1

Rabbi Schneur Zalman took that further: The entire creation is only to fulfill G‑d’s desire to have a home—meaning, a place where His very essence of being can be expressed—in the lowest of all possible worlds.

Yes, it is a lowly world, far beneath the worlds of the angels, of souls and of infinite light. It is a coarse material world, where darkness thoroughly eclipses light and evil swallows alive all good so that the wicked rule and the righteous suffer. It is so lowly that it receives only enough divine energy so as to exist, but no more. It is the lowest of all possible worlds. And for that very reason, it is here that the Creator most desires to be found. Here lies the purpose of Tikkun.

How does it unfold? Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained: Each soul is sent to this world with its mission assigned. It is given a body, along with an interface with that body which will be its personality and character. And it is given a share of this world. Within all these lie the divine sparks to which this soul’s destiny is tied. The soul enters this world, does its job, leaves and returns until all its sparks are redeemed and reconnected with their origin.

Once all the souls have completed all their work, Rabbi Schneur Zalman concludes, then the world is complete. Now, the Infinite Light from above can come to rest within it. No longer will it appear as just a material world. Rather, it will become the most perfect lens through which we can perceive the beauty of the divine, far beyond anything that can be perceived in any higher world. Because the highest can only be expressed in the lowest.

Tikkun Now

In the Russian shtetl, what did “creating a home for G‑d in this lowly world” mean? For one thing, it meant that the common, simple man or woman was not to be disdained or ignored. They were to be embraced for their simplicity, which reflected the simplicity of G‑d’s true oneness. But the spiritual activities of Chabad were inner-directed, both within the chasid and within the shtetl. It was about reviewing and struggling to absorb the esoteric works of the Chabad rebbes followed by many hours each day in deep contemplation and prayer, in a labor of love to bring the divine knowledge from the mind into the heart, so that the ecstasy of the heart would overflow and transform the animal soul that pulsates within it. That was the lower world: that beast within the human heart. It had to be transformed, to become a divine beast.

For the Rebbe, fixing up the material world meant the whole big world.

But by the time the Rebbe took the steering wheel in his hands, the walls separating the Jew from the world had all come tumbling down. There was no more shtetl, no more ghetto. The whole world was open before us.

And so, for the Rebbe, fixing up the material world meant that entire, big and scary world out there, every last country of it. Only that for him, none of it was scary. It was all G‑d’s creation, His garden.

You could almost say that everything until now had been only a rehearsal, battle practice for the final victory. And now, the paratroopers were landing on foreign soil. Everywhere.

Now, redeeming the sparks lost in the darkest, most materialistic realms meant approaching a Jew in Times Square who barely knew he was Jewish, wrapping tefillin on his arm and head, followed by, “Say after me, ‘Hear O Israel, G‑d our G‑d, G‑d is One.’”

It meant teaching a little Jewish girl who attended public school far from any Jewish community to light a candle on Shabbat eve, a light that would eventually illuminate an entire household.

It meant searching out a Jew who had escaped the suburbs to meditate on an ashram and serving him a Passover meal somewhere up in the Himalayas.

Making a dwelling for G‑d in the furthest places entailed major risks and sacrifices. It meant sending innocent young couples out to every place a Jew may roam—whether that be Nigeria or Thailand, Katmandu or Las Vegas. What Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal Shem Tov and the Ari had taught suddenly meant here, now, down on this earth. Tikkun had hit the hard, concrete pavement.

What were these young couples to do in these places, where, until now, no observant Jew had dared to tread?

They were to become part of the community—no one went on a round-trip ticket, everyone went to stay put until Moshiach comes. That’s the way Tikkun is done: Not from afar, but from within.

It was all about down-to-earth action.

They were to raise a chassidic family there, without any compromise, as pure as the shtetl. And they were to seek out their fellow Jews, wherever they may be, and invite them into their homes, embracing them with love and treating them with dignity regardless of their lifestyles, answering their questions and encouraging them to learn more.

It was all about down-to-earth action. There was a ten-point mitzvah campaign—to “just do it.”

“Don’t argue with a Jew,” the Rebbe told us. “It’s not about philosophy or theology. Find the mitzvah for which this Jew’s soul longs. One mitzvah will pull along another in its wake, and eventually the Jew will want to learn, ‘Why am I doing all this?’ Lives will be transformed.”

It wasn’t just those chassidic families. The Rebbe asked this of every Jew and every human being with whom he came in contact. The message, always: You have a job to do. The circumstances in which you find yourself, the community in which you live, your place of work and the skills and talents G‑d has given you—they are all screaming out to you to do your job. And what is that job? To turn this world on its head.

Tikkun Transformed

The transformation left many older chassidim gasping in the dust. For over a century and a half, Chabad had been about theological contemplation and “labor of the heart.” Now, beginning in the 1940s, the Rebbe introduced something the likes of which had never been seen before: A worldwide organization dedicated to reaching out to every Jew and pulling them back in. Not that any of that contemplative, inner labor was ever left behind. It remains the curriculum of every Chabad student. It was simply extended outward, downward and into the world.

An outside observer would explain simply: These were urgent times. Six million had been lost, yet more in Russia, the rate of assimilation in the West was accelerating, and if you wouldn’t do something drastic fast to save world Jewry, there wouldn’t be any Jews left to save.

But if you stood at the Rebbe’s farbrengens—the gatherings at 770 Eastern Parkway, where students and chassidim would sit or stand for hours and listen to his talks, sing chassidic melodies, say l’chaim and listen some more—there you would pick up an entirely different story. The inside story.

“We are gathering the very last sparks, the most concealed and tightly held.”

“We are the last generation of this exile, the generation to greet Moshiach,” the Rebbe would say. “We are gathering the very last sparks, the most concealed and tightly held. We are making the final touches, polishing the buttons. These are the last preparations for a world as it was meant to be. And to do that, you cannot stay within the four walls of your yeshiva or your synagogue. To do that, you must go out into the world, with all your essence and being, and there be a beacon of light, a gatherer of sparks.”

Chabad is not two worlds. It is all one, and the only way it can be understood is as a single whole—albeit, working in two opposite directions: from the top-down and from the ground-up. Chabad is about bringing the highest light of the divine to every corner of G‑d’s world, and it is about discovering and redeeming the divine spark hidden within all that exists. At one time, that was achieved only spiritually. In our times, it became as literal as imaginable.

The Last Tikkun

It’s strange, but what I am about to say was never stated explicitly, yet all who have been steeped in the Rebbe’s world have tacitly understood the same thing. It was implied, again and again, from so many different angles. At some point, it has to be stated loud and clear.

Certainly, every human being on this planet has his or her role to fulfill in its Tikkun. But the Maker of All Souls had deemed that a Jewish soul was meant to heal the world with the light of Torah. Yet, if so, why would He toss such a soul into a world where it would have no idea that there could be anything spiritual or meaningful to discover in the whole of Judaism?

It could only be that this is the exclusive means to recover those final, lost sparks.

It could only be that this is the exclusive means to recover those final, lost sparks. Like a homing pigeon sent on a journey to return with precious jewels, so the souls of Israel are scattered among the nations of the world, among every sort of ideology and idealism, lifestyle and compulsion, ashram and cult, rat-race and escapism. So deep must they plunge that it takes the army of a tzadik, a battalion fighting with all their guts, to pull them out of there, so they can bring those jewels back home.

Some sparks can be returned home with a simple mitzvah. Some can only be extracted by cracking a hard nut and tossing out a pile of trash. And some—those “tied down,” as Rabbi Schneur Zalman described them—only by putting every ounce of your strength into getting out of where they’ve pinned you down.

There is a teaching that says this—almost:

The only reason G‑d spread the Jewish People among the nations was so that they could gain converts. As the verse says (Judges 5:11), “I have planted you among the nations.” If a man plants seed, does he not expect to reap a hundred bushels of seed for every bushel planted?”

Talmud Pesachim 87b

Asked Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “Can we take this literally? How many converts have there been in history? Could we possibly be in exile from our land for 1800 years for this reason alone? If this were meant literally, the world should be filled with Jews by now!”

“Rather,” he answered, “the converts to which the Talmud refers are none other than the lost sparks. By spreading us out among the nations, we wrestle out those sparks from their place, on their own territory, so that their redemption is a real and lasting one.”1

Rabbi Schneur Zalman may have seen it, but how many others could have understood how far this would go, to what places we would have to travel to rescue those sparks, how deep those souls would have to plunge to find them, and what extreme means would be needed convince the homing pigeons to return home.

In 1967, the Rebbe spoke about how the souls had begun to return home. In the 1980s, he talked about the walls of the exile crumbling before us. In 1991, he said that all the sparks necessary had already been gathered, and there was no reason Moshiach had not yet come. He continued saying that in 1992, all the time continuing to teach us how more sparks were to be redeemed.

In our private lives, much work remains to be done. But the world is ready. It is we who must awaken a longing to come home.

If we would recognize what this world really is and who we really are, how high we could be and what a world we could be living in, how we are but silkworms trapped in the darkness of our cocoons, miners trapped in a cave so long that we have forgotten the light of day, a bright, glorious day that awaits us—we would be pounding our fists on heaven’s door, demanding to see the fruits of our labor, demanding it now and no later.

In the meantime, keep working. Work hard. For we are G‑d’s partners in the creation of heaven and earth.