Tikkun Olam — fixing the world. It a term which gets thrown around all the time in the Jewish world, usually as a description of Social Action. But, it's important to take a moment and remember, or to learn for the first time, what the term really means, and where it comes from. Although the term is much older than even this, it began taking on its current usage in the late 15th century when a group of mystics in northern Israel began creating what we now know as Kabbalah. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the founder of this new school of thought, developed the new image of creation.
Realizing that, if God is everywhere, if God is everything, then there would have been no place for God to create the world, Luria imagined that before creating anything, God had to perform an act of tzimtzum, or self-contraction. God had to compress God's self, just a little bit, in order to make some space around the edges for something else to be. Then, God sent out spheres of perfect, divine glass, each one filled with divine light, into the void — this was the perfect world which God intended to create.
But, like hot glass plunged into cold water, these vessels couldn't survive in the void, and so they shattered, sending out shards of glass and sparks of light into the emptiness. And this is the world we live in — a world of brokenness and dispersion. Our job, we are told, is to perform an act of Tikkun whenever possible — to repair one tiny piece of the world, and to restore it to the form it had before it broke apart.
This image contains within it a stark contrast between the world as it was meant to be, and the world as we find it now. This — this world around us — is not what God had intended. This isn't the world that God had in mind. And, this is not the only way that the world can be. For at least one precious moment, our world did exist in absolute perfection. All the pieces of that perfection are still with us; someone just has to put them back together again.
That's our job — to repair the world. To put it back together so that it once again resembles the world which God had intended, all along. But, if we're going to do that, then we have to remember that that better world, that more perfect world, really did exist. And that it really can, again. And that this really is our goal.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that Judaism is an antidote to a progressive sense of numbness about the world. He was mostly talking about the good stuff — the human tendency to stop paying attention to something, or to at least stop paying full attention, once we've become used to it. It's the difference between the first and last bite of a delicious dessert — one is overwhelming in its wonderfulness, and its realness. One just kind of is. Through attention, through kavannah, through practice, we have to train ourselves to never let what is extraordinary become ordinary.
But, we can also apply this teaching to that which is wrong, that which is bad in our world. We have to also avoid becoming numb to that which we rightly despise.
It's so easy to get numb, to get cynical. To just write off this world as hopeless, and people as deserving what they get. To not be willing to see that, as far away as it might seem, there is a better world out there, just waiting to be re-created. Just as we have to cultivate our sense of thankfulness and wonder, we also have to cultivate our sense of outrage, and our awareness of wrongness. We have to refuse to accept that "this is just the way things are." We have to refuse to ever fall victim to "well, what can I do about it?"
We have to train ourselves to truly believe that God does not want a world in which people are slaughtered while at prayer. That God does not want a world where people are shot while studying. Or in which people go to bed hungry night after night, while so many of us never experience a belly which is anything less than full. Where children die, or anyone dies before their time. God does not want this.
And we shouldn't be willing to accept a world like that, either. It has to offend us, down to every fiber of our being, that that's the world in which we live. We have refuse to rest until the world that we see matches the world of our dreams. Until we live in the world of God's intention.
That's why Shabbat is so precious. Shabbat is not just a chance to put up our feet and avoid our work. Shabbat is a chance to see the world as it might be: an island of wholeness and perfection, even if necessarily artificially so, in a sea of brokenness. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches, it's not so much that we’re not allowed to work on Shabbat, it's that we have to act as if there were no work to do, nothing to fix or repair, because everything is just as it should be.
That's why I get so frustrated when people talk shop in synagogue on Shabbat. Why I don't want people to talk about what their committees have to do, or something that isn't going as they like in our shul, or in their jobs. We're supposed to allow ourselves a day of not worrying, and of not planning, and of not fixing. We're supposed to allow ourselves that in part because we deserve that much. But, in part because we have to remember that everyone deserves that much, and more.
On Shabbat, we create a world which looks, as far as is possible, like the world of our dreams, and then we leave that dreamworld and head back out into the work-world, we’re both refreshed, but also refocused and recommitted. We have to remember that children in the Sudan deserve to run around and laugh in the back of their sanctuaries, challah crumbs and grape juice (or their equivalent) falling all over their clothes. That parents deserve to have their children — all of them — around their tables, and to never be fearful of the sound of an incoming late-night text. That Jews deserve to gather to pray without security outside their door. As do Muslims, and Christians, and Hindus, and Wiccans. That we all deserve to live a life without pain.
Let us take this Shabbat, and enjoy every precious moment of it. Let us refuse to become numb to the blessings in our lives and then, when Shabbat is over, let us refuse to become blind to the empty spaces in the world around us, so desperately in need of being filled with blessings of their own. Let us refuse to become numb to the shards of our broken world, calling out for repair.
[This is a version of the sermon given by Rabbi Rosenberg on Friday, November 21, 2014]