Maybe you’ve heard of tikkun olam. It’s a phrase thrown around a lot in Jewish circles.

Olam means “world,” and tikkun—well, it means all sorts of things. But in this sense, it means “repair.”

So tikkun olam means “repairing the world.” Which is what we’re here to do.

Because, in case you didn’t notice, the world is broken. Even the stuff that looks great isn’t anywhere near what it’s supposed to be.

So some people say, “That’s just the way things are. Live with it.”

Others say, “Let the One who made it fix it.”

And yet others say, “Escape it.”

But Jews say, “Fix it. Whatever you can. Because that’s what you’re here for.”

Where did we get such a crazy idea?

Maybe it’s from Genesis, where it says we were “placed in the garden to serve it and protect it.”

Or from the ancient Midrash that says, “Everything G‑d created in His world was designed to be improved.”

And then there’s an entire chapter and more of Mishnah Gittin discussing rabbinical legislation for tikkun olam. Basically, the rabbis ingeniously employed Torah’s headlights to prevent human society from driving itself off a cliff. (Strange, but societies tend to do that.)

But, for the most part, The way we think of tikkun olam today is the end-product of a chain with three crucial links.the way we think of tikkun olam today is the end-product of a chain with three crucial links—three Jewish revolutionaries of the spirit: Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

Each answered a question. Each answer brought us closer to how we think now.

How was it broken?

© Baruch Nachshon
© Baruch Nachshon

Ari means “lion.” That’s the title universally granted to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. He taught for less than three years in Tzfat, in the Galilean hills of northern Israel, before his early passing in 1572. Few people have had such impact in such a brief time.

The Ari taught in esoteric terms, employing rich metaphor in complex detail. But if we distill it down, through many distillations, we can tell a story something like this:

In the beginning there shone an infinite light. But within an infinite light there can be no finite world.

So the light receded, remaining infinite, but creating a vacuum. Absolute darkness.

And then, from the infinite light beyond and into the darkness within, burst a fine, measured beam of light. A ray of conscious thought. An idea. A ray which held everything—

—all of time and all of space, all wisdom and all understanding of that wisdom, all greatness and might, beauty and glory, wonder and creativity—

—every voice that would ever be heard, every daydream that would ever fleet through a distracted mind, every furious wave of every stormy sea, every galaxy that would ever erupt into being,
every gravitational field of every mass, every charge of every electron, the frantic ant running across the pavement beneath your feet, the basket some kid scored in a park somewhere just now—everything that ever would be and could be—

—all cocooned within a single, deliberate and conscious thought.

And then that thought exploded.

Now there was a world.

You’ve heard of a primal explosion before—the Big Bang. But here we are talking about more than matter and energy.

The universe contains conscious beings, such as ourselves. From where does that consciousness emerge, if not from the very fabric of the universe itself?

So Think of a primal, singular, deliberate and conscious thought, too intense to contain itself. What happens when such an idea explodes?think of a primal, singular, deliberate and conscious thought, too intense to contain itself. What happens when such an idea, rather than gradually developing and expanding, chaotically explodes?

Imagine taking a book and casting the words and letters into the air.

Imagine an orchestra where none of the musicians can hear one another, and the conductor is nowhere to be found.

Imagine a movie set without a director, each actor speaking lines without a clue of their meaning.

That is our world. A book in search of its meaning, an orchestra in search of its score, actors in search of their playwright and director.

Awaiting us to rediscover that meaning. To put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The fragments of that shattered origin are called sparks. They are the divine meaning of each thing—their place and particular voice in the great symphony.

Each spark is trapped within a shell. They are the noise and dissonance that shrouds those sparks when they are thrown violently from their place.

Our job is to see past the shell and discover the spark within. And then to reconnect that spark to its place in that grand original vision.

We call that purification. And the result is called geulah—liberation.

The liberation of humankind is intimately tied to the liberation of those sparks of meaning. Your personal liberation is tied to the particular sparks assigned to your soul.

Once a critical mass of sparks has been reconnected, the entire world is liberated. It becomes a different world. The one it was meant to be.

© Davora Lilian
© Davora Lilian

This was all very counterintuitive for a lot of people.

Both religion and philosophy had allotted human beings a passive role in their world’s destiny. The Creator had made a beautiful world, we had messed it up. It was up to Him to judge, reward, punish and take care of our mess.

And now that was reversed. The Creator was the one who had handed us a mess—so that we could complete the job of perfecting it from within. It is a good world, a very good world—because we are empowered to make it good.It is a good world, a very good world—essentially because we are empowered to make it good.

Effectively, the Ari gave center stage to the actions of human beings.

The idea of tikkun seeped rapidly into every facet of Jewish thought and affected every Jewish movement, directly or indirectly. Jews no longer saw themselves as passive servants of G‑d’s judgment, but as active players, whose redemption, and the redemption of the entire world—indeed, the entire cosmos—lay in their hands.

Every mitzvah they did gained new meaning. Every prayer, every word of Torah study—each was now not just a good deed to be rewarded, but another step towards the ultimate geulah of the entire world.

The Ari was a halachist—an expert and authority in Jewish law—and he saw all of Jewish practice as a crystallization of Kabbalah. Tikun in action.

The idea of tikkun also spread to the intelligentsia of 17th-century Europe, who were fascinated with all things Hebrew, and especially the Kabbalah. It was at that time that people first began to speak in terms of human progress, of building a better world through social action and advances in the natural sciences.

As historians have pointed out, it is difficult to identify any source for these notions—certainly not in Greco-Roman philosophy, nor in the doctrines of the Reformation—nowhere other than the Kabbalah, and specifically the teachings of the Ari.

The idea of tikkun entered the world through the Ari, but it remained the property of mystics and masters. It was widely misunderstood, distorted, and even abused. It took another 170 years before it gained practical application in the life of the everyman.

Who will fix the world?

© Davora Lilian
© Davora Lilian

Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer was popularly known as the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of a Good Name”). He taught that every person is a master of tikkun in his or her own world.

Not only the seeker and the scholar, but also the simple farmer and the busy merchant. Even the small child.

By his time, the greatest Talmudic scholars and rabbinic leaders were deeply immersed in the teachings of the Ari. But many of them also believed the only 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.

The Baal Shem Tov provided a subtle but landmark shift of emphasis. It was less about breaking the shell and more about embracing the fruit—and letting the shell fall away of its own.

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 heartfelt prayers, the sincere mitzvahs and the good deeds of the simple folk, and telling them how much G‑d cherished them and their deeds.

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

What does the world look like once it’s fixed?

© Davora Lilian
© Davora Lilian

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi lived—like most Jews of the time—in Eastern Europe. Yet the reverberations of the French Revolution rang throughout his world.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was also a revolutionary, but a traditional one. More than anyone, he was responsible for conveying the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov into the modern world.

Strange as it may sound, by grounding the teachings of the Ari and the Baal Shem Tov in Midrash and Talmud, and ultimately in the language of Jewish practice, he turned the spiritual quest of humankind on its head.

Our mission in life, Our mission in life is not to get to heaven. It is to bring heaven down to earth.he taught, is not to get to heaven. Or to become heavenly beings. It is to bring heaven down to earth.

Earth—not the worlds of angels or the worlds of souls or some reified, divine world of light—but this material world where darkness reigns and truth is hidden. This is the place where the Grand Artist wants to be found.

From the beginning of creation, G‑d’s presence was principally in our world, 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 us, the lower beings.

—Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 7:1

Why would an omnipotent G‑d will to dwell in darkness? What desire could He have in a place where He is found only through painful struggle and dogged effort?

The answer is in the process of tikkun itself:

What happens as we succeed, as we collect those letters and string them back together to form their original words and sentences?

Their collective meaning begins to reappear. A story begins to unfold. An underlying harmony, a symphony—not of our invention, but of our discovery.

What happens when the darkness opposes us? When we persist despite all the lies it spews at us? When we refuse to surrender because we have faith in a deeper truth?

Then a yet deeper light is revealed. One the Author could not say. One that could be discovered only through our stubborn faith and toil.

That is the ultimate light, a greater light than shone at the very beginning. Because we have grabbed the darkness by its neck and forced it to shine more truth than any light could shine.

In effect, The primal thought from which this world was conceived has dissected itself, discovered itself, and put itself back together again.the primal thought from which this world was conceived has dissected itself, discovered itself, and put itself back together again.

Tikun, then, does not mean merely repair. In fact, throughout early Jewish literature it rarely does. It means to improve. To fix up.

Because in that process, the story discovers not only its own meaning, its own beauty. It discovers its Author. The very essence of its Author that could not be expressed in any spiritual world.

Where? Within itself. Its darkest self.


When you trace tikkun olam back to its source, you get a whole new picture of what it means. It turns out to be far more revolutionary than you would have imagined.

Tikun olam is about much more than justice and an end to suffering. Those are symptoms. Tikun means to fix the cause.

The cause is that we don’t know where we are.

We think we are in a world that just is. Or some dark hole to escape.

The first and last step of our tikkun is to awaken to the realization that we are actors in a great drama, players in a master symphony. That we are here with a mission, a responsibility to a Higher Consciousness that brought this place into being.

With that awakening alone, the world would be redeemed.

With With that awakening alone, we would discover that we never left the Garden.that awakening alone, we would discover that we never left the Garden. We only lost awareness of where we stand.

We stand within infinite light. For even the darkness is light.