Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World
Given what we’re facing in January with the inauguration of the Orange Vulgarian, and the fact that both Christian & Jewish holidays are almost upon us,1 I thought now would be a good time to post the story below, about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (also see myjewishlearning.com).
Anyway, the story was the beginning of the very first chapter of a book called Living Judaism that I’d looked at on Amazon a few years ago. I was completely enchanted by the mental imagery and positive message, so I put the Kindle version on my wish list. The book finally went on sale earlier this month (sale is over now, sorry), so I bought it.
Twitter DM discussions I’d had yesteray with two friends—one Jewish, one not—made me think of the story yet again, so I copied & pasted it for them. Because it reminds me very much of the Sufi approach to God/religion, I think it’ll appeal to followers of all three of the Abrahamic faiths, as well as people of other beliefs (or no belief) who can simply read around the God parts and appreciate the message it conveys about the importance of being each other’s (and our planet’s) caretakers, showing kindness, and making both individual & group efforts to alleviate suffering.
I’m equally sure that, just like Sufi stories, it contains many layers of meaning and each person will take from it according to his/her own level of understanding. Believe it or not, even Wikipedia cooperated by having the perfect photo for this story—there is a TON of symbolism related to mirrors (reflection/light/soul) and earthenware vessels (body).
[NOTE: Obviously, I’m neither Jewish nor a scholar of Judaism, so if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please don’t hesitate to let me know.]
An old Jewish legend:
In the beginning—before the beginning—God’s light filled the entire universe.
When God decided to create the world, He had to withdraw some of His light from the universe, so that there would be space for the land and the seas, the trees and the corn stalks, the butterflies and the lions, the ladybugs and the sea otters.
So God breathed in some of the Divine light, so that there would be room for all the things He wanted to create.
But what was God to do with the light—with the light of His Being that had filled the whole universe—now that He had breathed it in?
God put the light into jars, heavenly vessels that would hold His radiance.
And then God began to create: the sky and the earth, the dry lands and the waters, the fiery sun, the shimmering moon and the twinkling stars, the forests and the deserts, the creepy crawly things and the birds of the air, the fish of the seas and the animals roaming from here to there.
Everything was going so well. Creation was shaping up just perfectly. God was having a wonderful time!
But in the heavens, there was trouble.
God’s light, which He had put into the vessels, could not be hidden away. For no vessel—not even a heavenly vessel—could contain the radiant light of God. The glory of God’s splendor was accustomed to filling the universe, not being hidden away in little jars.
So it wasn’t too long until—with a blazing flash—God’s light burst out of the heavenly vessels.
The force of the mighty impact caused the jars to shatter into millions of little pieces.
And the light itself splintered into billions of little sparks.
The broken pieces of the vessels fell to the newly formed earth and became the ills and the evils that beset the world—little pieces of anguish and travail that, one day, will have to be collected, repaired, and made whole again.
And what happened to the billions of little shards of light?
Each of the little shards of light, the sparks of God, became the soul of a human being.
That which makes the lump of clay that is a human body into a living, breathing, person—a person capable of thinking and knowing, reasoning, and remembering, a person capable of doing justly and feeling compassion—is the soul. And the human soul is a tiny piece of God, a tiny fragment of God’s light, a spark of the Divine that burst forth from the heavenly vessels and showered the universe.
God declared that the crowning works of creation were these human souls—man and woman, created in His image, created with a spark of His Divine Being. And to man and woman, God assigned a divine task and a sacred mission.
Each person, then and now, is to joyfully share the universe with God, to be His companion and helpmate, His resident caretaker and earthly steward.
And each person, then and now, is to be a partner with God in healing and transforming the universe: picking up the little pieces of the shattered vessels, repairing them, and making them—and the world—healthy and whole.
Among other things, in Islam we’re urged to give sadaqah, which is a voluntary form of charity (as apposed to zakat, which is obligatory and one of the Five Pillars of Islam). Sadaqah can be something as simple as a smile & kind word, as long as it’s given sincerely, humbly, with good intention and as discreetly as possible:
In the Quran
According to Quran, sadaqa leads into the purification of the benefactor. Quran says that sadaqa should not be necessarily be in a material form and can be a “voluntary effort”, or a kind word. This is in agreement with a narration attributed to Muhammad which says “every good deed is a form of sadaq.” Kind words and “compassion” are better than sadaqa accompanied by “insult”, from the viewpoint of Quran, and it is better for the donations to be offered “discreetly” to those in need rather than doing it in public in order to be acknowledged by them. The Quran also criticizes donating aimed at appearing generous or compromising the value of sadaqa by “ostentatious public behavior” done just to “render a normally charitable act purely self-serving.” Quran suggests that sadaqa is not meant only to support the poor, but also can be donated to others who “were not visibly in need” and also who either needed assistance to enhance their life or required to be directed towards new jobs and “economic opportunities”.
In the narrations
According to some hadiths, “a kind word and smile” can be considered as sadaqa and the best form of it is “passing on knowledge.” Also, Muhammad said in a hadith that sadaqa removes seventy gates of evil.
So, yeah, we’re not that much different from Jews & Christians (though I’m sure there are plenty of people who would swear otherwise because “ZOMG [insert awful thing some Muslim has done somewhere as representative of all]” 🙄). I’m sure other (non-Abrahamic) religions urge similar good deeds and, as most people here know, one doesn’t have to be a believer in any religion to do good and improve the lot of those in need—it’s a universal responsibility, as far as I’m concerned.
Now if we could all just STOP our bloody tribal bickering and jostling for supremacy, and start caring for each other in earnest (instead of just for ourselves and our own), then maybe we could actually repair the world, and in so doing save ourselves from ourselves.
Anyway, Happy Holidays to all! Be safe and enjoy yourselves.