What is Tikkun Olam?

The phrase "Tikkun Olam" literally means "world repair." It is commonly used to refer to the pursuit of social action and social justice. However, few realize that the phrase and the concept behind it originate in kabbalah, in the teachings of the 16th century mystic Isaac Luria.

According to Luria, in order to make room for the world to be created, God needed to contract. That contraction is called tzimtzum. Kabbalists consider tzimtzum to be a great act of love. Think about the times in your life you've "held back" to make room for someone else to grow. God then created special vessels to contain the Divine light God would use to create the world. However, God's light was so vast, many of the vessels shattered, scattering shards all over creation. While most of the light returned to its Divine source, some attached itself to the broken shards. Kabbalists believe that these shards are all that is bad in the world, these broken pieces in which sparks of light are trapped.

Our purpose, therefore, is to help gather the lost light. That is the entire purpose of the mitzvot, commandments. Whenever we perform a mitzvah, we separate what is holy from what is profane and release the light within. Every day we have an opportunity to collect shards and release their light.

In many ways, the way we use the phrase "Tikkun Olam" today does capture the original intention. When we speak of tikkun olam, we are speaking of fixing what is broken in our society. On MyJewishLearning.com, it is written that tikkun olam "appears to respond to a profound sense of deep rupture in the universe, which speaks as much to the post-Holocaust era as it did in the wake of the expulsion from Spain and other medieval Jewish disasters."

For the kabbalist, ultimately tikkun olam repairs not only what is broken in the world but also what is broken in God. It is difficult theologically to consider what it means for part of God to be broken, after all God is perfect, right? However, Jewish tradition allows for us to constantly question and wrestle with God, to have the confidence and chutzpa to believe that sometime we know better! Perhaps one way to understand the idea of a broken God is to imagine that it is God's reflection in the world which is broken, not God Godself. It is as if the shards scattered throughout the world are fragments of a sacred mirror which reflects the Creator.

Whether our objective in the end is to repair God's Image in the world, or to repair God's Image in ourselves, we remain united in our pursuit of tikkun olam. Temple Isaiah has had a long history of social action, a torch that has been passed through many generations and which we plan to carry far into the future.

To read our 2010 - 2011 Tikkun Olam: Social Action Brochure CLICK HERE