Today, the phrase tikkun olam is understood to mean “repairing the world” and has become synonymous with various social action and social justice activities. However, the term has broader implications regarding Jewish understanding of our purpose in the world and our relationship to God. In some cases, the term refers to the physical world; in others to the societal order, and in still others to the dream of a fully realized divine manifestation. The modern conception of tikkun olam has its origins in a new reading of the phrase from the Aleinu prayer, combined with Talmudic and Lurianic mystical interpretations.
Mishnah. Tikkun olam is a post-biblical term that does not appear in Torah. Its first usage is in the Mishnah (c. 200 CE) within a context of God repairing the world, preventing social chaos. While preserving the social order might sound politically conservative, tikkun olam was progressively applied to ensure that those who were most vulnerable would be able to live full lives rather than be restrained by a system that favors the more powerful.
Aleinu. The Aleinu prayer became part of the daily liturgy, recited at or near the end of every service, c. 1200 CE. In the second section of the prayer, we find the line “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai” indicating the goal of Jewish existence is “to establish/fix/perfect the world under the rule of God”. The language of the prayer has been controversial, particularly in the medieval period, as the worship of the Jewish God was seen as being imposed on all others. Our modern interpretation professes that that we “fix the world” by working toward the manifestation of divinity in every corner of the world, or helping to establish “Godly” qualities throughout the world, and does not require the elimination of other means of religious worship.
Kabbalah. The 16th-century Jewish mystic and Kabbalistic teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari, elaborated a cosmic myth which also obligated us to assume a partnership with God to repair the world. Jewish folklorist, mythologist, and author Howard Schwartz summarizes the myth:
At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring the world into being, to make room for creation, He contracted Himself by drawing in His breath, forming a dark mass. Then God said, Let there be light (Gen. 1:3) and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
God sent forth the ten vessels like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. But the vessels—too fragile to contain such powerful Divine light—broke open, scattering the holy sparks everywhere.
Had these vessels arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. Instead, God created people to seek out and gather the hidden sparks, wherever we can find them. Once this task is completed, the broken vessels will be restored and the world will be repaired.
Our task is to find and gather these mysterious, elusive sparks of light. The Ari proposes a radical explanation of why we perform the mitzvot, commandments; when we perform a mitzvah, we separate what is holy from what is profane and release the light within. The Kabbalistic myth helps fire our imagination as we strive to fix what is broken. Today, our partnership with God in repairing the world can be manifest in many ways.