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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Tikkun Olam

Reader sin asks a timely question in a thread below: What does "Lo alecha ha-m'lacha ligmor, v'lo atah ben chorin l'hibateyl mimenah" mean? And what language is it?

You might have noticed the phrase is part of my blog description in the upper left corner of the new blog design. The language is Hebrew, and while I'm no scholar, I've seen it translated thus:

It is not up to you to complete the work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to refrain from doing it.

The phrase comes from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which is part of the Mishna, the Jewish oral law. Ethics is the only section of the Mishna that exclusively discusses moral pronouncements of the sages.

The phrase in question is often associated with the concept of tikkun olam:

Isaac Luria, the renowned sixteenth century Kabbalist, used the phrase “tikkun olam,” usually translated as repairing the world, to encapsulate the true role of humanity in the ongoing evolution of the cosmos. In his view, God created the world by forming vessels of light to hold the Divine Light. But as God poured the Light into the vessels, they catastrophically shattered, tumbling down toward the realm of matter. Thus our world consists of countless shards of the original vessels entrapping sparks of the Divine Light. Humanity’s great task involves helping God by freeing and reuniting the scattered Light, raising the sparks back to Divinity and restoring the broken world.
With each small act of kindness, with each moment of presence and practice, with each effort to see, cleanse, and integrate our inner life, we build the new world and serve the Divine Architect of meaning. Rather than view tikkun olam as a return to the perfection that existed before God created the universe, we may consider the spiritualizing of the world as reaching toward a new and greater perfection than existed before, toward perfecting this imperfect world by imbuing the whole of it with the Divine spirit. Because of the freedom God necessarily placed into the world, we can surmise that the outcome of the whole process remains uncertain, that our free choice to serve the Divine and our planet through fulfilling our highest destiny really matters, that despite our vanishingly small size with respect to the universe our personal inner work makes a difference to the whole. And so we discover a vision of unbounded meaning: perfecting ourselves, perfecting the world, and helping God.

Especially in light of recent events in Iraq, the concept of "healing the world" seems ever more important. None of us can finish the task before us, but it is up to all of us to try.


[Update: made some minor edits.]

May 11, 2004 | Permalink


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Thank you,
I am hebrew naive and if I didn't ask, I would probably think it was Klingon. I knew it had significant importance to you. Thanks again.

Posted by: sin | May 11, 2004 2:36:27 PM

Thank you

You're welcome, and thanks for asking.

if I didn't ask, I would probably think it was Klingon.

I'm not so geeky as to know Klingon!

I knew it had significant importance to you.

It certainly does. My family converted to Christianity after escaping the pogroms in Ukraine at the turn of the last century. I don't really know much about my Jewish roots, but tikkun olam certainly strikes a chord with me as a Quaker.

Posted by: NTodd | May 11, 2004 4:59:27 PM

Thanks for the explanation, and a very timely little homily it is too. Funnily enough, I recognised Tikkun Olam as the name of a fictional organisation in a Doctor Who novel from a few years ago... (blush) I guess that shows my geek credentials.

Posted by: TheaLogie | May 12, 2004 7:40:52 AM

TL - heh, I hadn't made the Doctor Who connection. Apparently I'm not as geeky as I thought--hopefully they won't take my credentials away.

Posted by: NTodd | May 12, 2004 11:57:48 AM

Speaking of Tikkun Olam ... I wonder if anyone would like to place a link to my Human Trafficking website on their own webpage. By spreading the word about some of the horror that is being perpetrated in the world today, we can make a small contribution toward eliminating it. The URL is gvnet.com/humantrafficking

Posted by: Prof. Patt | Aug 25, 2004 8:36:19 AM

Professor - your wish is my command...

Posted by: NTodd | Aug 25, 2004 1:38:22 PM

Great post, I look forward to reading what you're planning on next, because your blog is a nice read

Posted by: Bokep | Feb 3, 2010 8:09:26 AM

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