Howard Schwartz is a professor of English at University of Missouri-St. Louis, a Jewish folklorist and mythologist, and author of, most recently,
Illustration by Kristina Swarner from Gathering Sparks
by Howard Schwartz (Roaring Brook Press, 2010)
Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism and
Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales.
What is the origin of tikkun olam?
While most modern Jews interpret the term—meaning “repair of the world”—as a synonym for social action, what they don’t know is that this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition, the creation of the renowned 16th-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari.
Did the Ari originate the term?
No. Tikkun olam first appeared in the Mishnah (2nd century CE) and meant “guarding the established order.” It is also part of the Aleinu prayer: “perfecting the world under the rule of God.” Later, in the 12th century, Maimonides spoke of tikkun olam in the context of rabbinic rulings and customs that would “strengthen the religion.”
How then did the Ari’s use differ?
In these earlier definitions, it is God who is doing the repairing. The Ari was the first to propose that the Jewish people are God’s partners in repairing the world, and he did so by constructing a cosmic myth around the term, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Messianic Era.
Please summarize the myth for us.
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.
Did the Ari invent all the myth’s aspects?
Quite the contrary: Every aspect of the Ari’s myth can be found in earlier biblical, rabbinic, and mystical Jewish interpretations and principles. For example, the Ari elevated the concept of tzimtzum, the idea that God contracted to make space for Creation. This perspective assumes that God’s presence occupies physical space—a biblical teaching. God told Moses to build a tent of meeting, but “Moses was unable to enter the tent because a cloud had settled upon it and the presence of God filled the Tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34-35). Similarly, the shattering of the vessels recalls Moses’ rage when he saw the golden calf and “hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 32:19). So too were the holy vessels of the Ari’s myth like the heavenly tablets—crafted by God.
Scattered sparks also appear in Ezekiel 10:2, in which angelic figures scatter fiery coals from the Temple altar over the city of Jerusalem (“Fill your hands with glowing coals from among the cherubs, and scatter them over the city”) and bring to mind the Israelites who gathered the manna that fell from heaven (Exod. 16:17). Just as the manna fell to nourish the body, so the holy sparks serve to nourish the soul.
A midrash about the light created on the first day inspired the idea of primordial light inside the vessels. Here the ancient rabbis noticed an apparent contradiction: On the first day of creation, God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3); and on the fourth day, God created the sun, the moon, and the stars (Gen. 1:16-18). If God did not create the sun until the fourth day, they asked, what was the light God called into being on day one? The rabbis identified it as a primordial light—perhaps the light of paradise, or the light that emerged when God wrapped Himself in a garment of light (Psalms 104:2).
What, then, happened to this light? According to the Talmud and other rabbinic sources, God withdrew it from the world, and it became known as the ha-or ha-ganuz, the hidden light. Some said the light was taken back into paradise when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. From the perspective of the Zohar, the 13th-century foundational text of Jewish mysticism, this light is hidden in the Torah: Whenever a person studies the Torah with great concentration, a ray of the primordial light will illuminate both the Torah and the person, reflecting his/her new understanding of it.
In the Ari’s myth, the primordial light God sent forth on that first day is the same light scattered around our world as holy sparks, which each of us is called upon to seek out and gather.
How do we go about finding and gathering these mysterious, elusive sparks?
The Ari explained that the sparks are raised up whenever the Torah is studied or one of God’s commandments is fulfilled. This is a radical explanation of why we perform the mitzvot. Whereas before these rituals and prayers were regarded purely as God’s commandments, the Ari now attributed a beneficial spiritual effect to them: Studying the Torah as well as observing its laws and partaking in all other devotional and loving acts are the means to gather the sparks, and thus engage in the great mitzvah of tikkun olam.
How might the Ari’s life have influenced his interpretations?
The Ari lived in the 16th century, not long after the expulsions of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. He was well aware of the great dislocation that had followed in the aftermath of that trauma. Jews who for generations had been part of an advanced Sephardic culture on the Iberian Peninsula were suddenly scattered throughout the world, living in foreign and unfamiliar lands. Until they learned of the Ari’s myth, many of these exiles found themselves isolated and spiritually bereft. The notion of tikkun olam brought them almost immediate consolation and a sense of purpose by explaining why God had dispersed them—to gather the holy sparks that had fallen on these distant lands. Learning that their exile was part of God’s plan for tikkun olam also raised their hopes for an ingathering of all Jews with the coming of the Messiah. Little wonder that, within a year of its formulation in the Galilean town of Safed, the Ari’s myth had spread throughout the Jewish world.
Does the Ari’s myth give Jews a special role in the repair of the world?
The Ari viewed Israel as having a singular destiny based on God’s covenant with the Jewish people. However, the idea of God creating humans to remedy a Divine error suggests a more universal meaning: A repaired world can be realized only if the whole of humanity engages in collecting the sparks.
Did this myth continue to evolve?
Yes. Consistent with the ongoing myth-making process in Judaism, after the Ari’s death, his teachings, known as Lurianic kabbalah, became the leading expression of kabbalah, deeply influencing Sephardic and Hasidic mystics. Their commentaries sometimes embellished the Ari’s myth. The hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745–1815), for example, stated that “when the task of gathering the sparks nears completion, God will hasten the arrival of the final redemption by Himself collecting what remains of the holy sparks that went astray.” Later, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889–1943) linked the Ari’s myth to a famous midrash about prior worlds that God is said to have created: “At the time of creation, God created worlds and destroyed them. The worlds created and destroyed were the shattered vessels God sent forth. Out of those broken vessels God created the present universe.”
How do you account for the continued appeal of tikkun olam?
The concept of human partnership with God to heal heaven and earth is both engaging and energizing. In a sense, tikkun olam expands God’s original covenant with the Jews at Sinai by adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to our ethical and moral obligations. The Ari was a rare genius who understood the need for a guiding myth for the Jewish people and joined together an array of Jewish legends to create a single, seamless, unifying myth. This myth’s integration of mind, body, and spirit has given tikkun olam its timeless appeal.