Tikkun Olam means healing, improving and perfecting the world. The notion has hit a wave of controversy lately. So here’s a few major points to clear up.

For more, we’ve got oodles about Tikkun Olam right here in this section. Or get the just-released book, Wisdom to Heal the Earth.

1. The Tikkun Olam Myth Myth

Myth: Tikkun Olam is a recent idea in Judaism.

Fact: Tikkun Olam goes all the way back to the father of us all, Abraham. He set out to teach the entire world of the oneness of the Creation, the oneness of its Creator, and how that Creator cares for every creature, big or small.

The story of the creation of the world is told in the Book of Genesis: The story concludes that G‑d created all this “to be perfected.”1

There, too, it tells the story of how the first human beings were placed in the Garden of Eden “to work it and to protect it.”2 Human beings are assigned the task of gardeners and guardians of G‑d’s world, an enormous responsibility.

Read: Who Came Up With Tikkun Olam?

2. The Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are Myth

Myth: Judaism sees the human being as essentially helpless, incapable of changing his world or its future, relying entirely on G‑d for redemption.

Fact: Judaism has always stood for the power of the human being to affect his world, even to the point of arguing with G‑d. We were not placed here as passive objects in our Creator’s hand. Rather, He endowed us all with free will to choose between destroying His world or partnering with Him in to perfect it.3

It is this powerful idea that seeped slowly into European culture, and eventually throughout the world, as the idea of progress.4 Yet the authentic form remains yet more powerful: That we are agents of the Divine to care for and perfect our world.

Read: Am I Responsible For the Entire World?

3. The Tikkun Olam Kabbalistic Distortion Myth

Myth: Tikkun Olam is a distortion of a Kabbalistic idea that has nothing to do with the real world we live in.
Fact: The Kabbalists always saw the human being as an active agent in the ongoing process of Creation. According to our deeds, so is the world re-created at each moment.

In the sixteenth century, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, “the Ari,” developed this idea further, describing how our thoughts, speech, and action create unity in higher worlds, elevate divine sparks and harmonize the shattered fragments that make up this world. He called this both tikkun and birurim (refinement).

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, perhaps the most significant writer of early Hasidic thought, developed this idea of tikkun further. He saw it as a continuation of an ancient Midrashic idea—that G‑d’s ultimate concern is with this lowly world of action in which we dwell. Our job is to perfect this world and allow it to be the place it was meant to be—a masterwork whose Creator is supremely manifest in its every detail.

In recent times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, described how we are at the final stage of our mission in this tikkun, at which we must seize the opportunity to elevate and perfect every aspect of the material world in whatever way is permissible.

Read: Tikkun Olam and the Secret of Tzimtzum

4. The Tikkun Olam Fix-it Myth

Myth: Tikkun Olam means fixing the problems of the world.

Fact: Sometimes the word tikkun means repair. More often it means to improve or perfect.5

Next comes olam—generally translated as world. In its Biblical sense, it refers to all of time. Together, time and space give you a world.

Funny thing, though: Olam is related to the word helem, which means concealment.6 What does concealment have to do with time and space becoming a world?

The answer is that time and space emerge as a world only because a reality beyond them is concealed. Think of turning off the lights to project a movie on the wall. Or wearing thick sunglasses so you can see a solar eclipse.

But the world doesn’t have to conceal the truth to be a world. Like those sunglasses, the world allows us to perceive, appreciate and realize a yet deeper truth. On the contrary, all the problems of the world come about because we don’t recognize the true value and divine beauty of this world.

So tikkun olam truly means much more than fixing the world’s problems. Tikkun olam means to repair the way that our world conceals its divine beauty and thereby improve and perfect it, bringing it to the state it was ultimately meant to attain.

Read: Is Social Activism Destroying American Judaism?

5. The Exogenous Tikkun Olam Myth

Myth: Tikkun Olam is not related to keeping Shabbat, eating kosher food, or other Jewish traditions.

Fact: Every mitzvah a Jew does affects the world at its very core.

Think of a family and their guests sitting around the Shabbat table, speaking Torah, singing, and enjoying each other’s company. Already a nucleus of a perfect world is forming right at that table, and from there it ripples outward.

When Jews choose to eat kosher food and say a blessing before and after eating, they are transforming the act of eating into a divine act, unveiling the hidden divine essence of our world.

The same with every mitzvah. The Kabbalists and Chassidic masters taught how all of them are means provided to us by the Creator of all worlds to release and reconnect the divine sparks of this world to their source above. Each mitzvah is another step towards perfecting the world, another essential piece in the puzzle. Any single mitzvah could be the final turn of the key.

Read: Healing Begins at Home

6. The Massive Tikkun Olam Myth

Myth: Tikkun Olam is achieved principally through massive, global efforts.

Fact: Whatever comes your way, big or small, is an opportunity dropped in your lap by G‑d Himself to repair and perfect His world. Any small act could be the tipping point that will turn the entire world around.

Indeed, Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, “Every person should see himself and the entire world as in a delicate balance, whereby any one deed can tip himself and the entire world towards the good…”7

How can one deed tip the entire world? Because the world is designed with such precision that its every detail is essential to its perfection. Any one small piece of the puzzle may be the crucial piece that brings wholeness to every other piece and to the whole.

The inner workings of our universe and its progress are mostly hidden from us. Yet it is undeniable that the world has progressed beyond anyone’s imagination, especially in recent times, to a point where there need no longer be war, disease or famine. It’s become much easier to imagine that only one more small deed could usher in a world of peace, well-being and plenty so that all humanity will hear the symphony its Creator hears and know this world as He knows it.

Just one more act of beauty and caring, and we could all be there.

Gain an in-depth understanding on the abovementioned material in the highly acclaimed new book Wisdom to Heal the Earth.
Additionally, see an interview with Rabbi Tzvi Freeman as he discusses Tikkun Olam and its newfound relevance