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Tikkun ha-Olam: The Restoration of the World

The symbol of Tikkun ha-Olam embodies the most distinctively Jewish, as well as the the single most important ethical injunction of the Kabbalah: the command that humanity must restore and redeem a broken and fallen world (see Shevirat ha-Kelim). As articulated by Isaac Luria in 16th century Safed, Tikkun is a symbol with both metaphysical and theological implications. Luria and his disciples understood every event in the created universe, indeed the very act of creation itself to be an introduction and prelude to Tikkun ha-Olam. For them it is only as a result of the world's restoration that both cosmos and God can be said to be complete.

A wide array of Kabbalistic symbols informs the Lurianic understanding of Tikkun ha-Olam. Each of these play a pivotal role in Lurianic thought, and each provide us with insight into the conduct of a meaningful and ethical life.

The Unification of God and His Shekhina: An erotic union between the masculine and feminine aspects of God is an important Kabbalistic symbol which predates and was incorporated into the Lurianic symbol of Tikkun. The Zohar holds that God's feminine aspect is exiled on earth as the "Shekhinah" and that she must be reunited with "The Holy One Blessed Be He." The unity between the masculine and feminine aspects of the godhead was broken by the sins of mankind, and the exile of the Jewish people, and is maintained by the "Other Side". Through the observance of the mitzvot and divine worship, humankind is able to reestablish the union between God and His Shekhina, symbolized as the union between the Sefirot Tiferet and Malchuth.

The unification of divine masculine and feminine aspects of the godhead can be understood as symbolic of the blending of the opposites, which, according to the Kabbalists, is part of the perfection and harmony of the universe. In psychological terms it can be understood as the reunification of the feminine and masculine aspects of a divided self.

The Trees of Life and Knowledge: According to Midrash HaNeelam in the Zohar, the Sefirot were revealed to Adam in the form of the twin trees of Life and Knowledge. Through his sin, Adam separated these trees, thus placing a division between life and knowledge. This division resulted in a fissure within both God and the world, and prompted Adam to worship the tenth Sefirah (the Shekhina, God's manifestation on earth) without recognizing its unity with higher, more spiritual forms. By worshipping the Shekhina, Adam became attached to the temporal, material world, represented by the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil), and ignored the "Tree of Life" (the sefirotic values embodied in the Torah).

The goal of Tikkun ha-Olam is to heal the fissure between life and knowledge. Through observance of divine commandments, the individual reattaches himself to the Sefirot (Godly values) and hence effects a reunification between "knowledge" and "life."

The Transition from Exile to Redemption is an important metaphor for Tikkun ha-Olam. The exile of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, the exile of the Jewish people in Egypt, Babylonia and later throughout the world, were understood by Luria and his followers as manifestations a cosmic process. At various points in history (the sinaitic revelation being the most prominent among them) the Jewish people had an opportunity to complete Tikkun ha-Olam, however, on each of these occasions the Jewish people chose to align themselves with the Other Side and failed in their mission. Currently, the purpose of the Jewish diaspora is for Jews to collect sparks from all over the world. When this occurs, both historical and cosmic exile will be overcome, Zion will be restored, and the evil Kelippot eliminated.

The Mitigation of Judgment by Kindness: The development of the world is understood by the Lurianists and other Kabbalists as a dialectical blending of opposites. One opposition, which plays a critical role in the Lurianic conception of Tikkun ha-Olam, the moral dichotomy between Chesed (Kindness) and Din (Judgment) was singled out by the Kabbalists for special consideration. According to the Zohar, earlier worlds were destroyed because the aspect of severe judgment within them was not mitigated by kindness and beneficence. The temperance of judgment by kindness (and vice versa) is the foundation of the Sefirah Rachamim (Mercy, Compassion) which the Kabbalists came to equate with Emeth, "Truth." The pursuit of a balance between Kindness and Judgment (a balance which according to Cordovero must be weighted slightly in the direction of kindness), is a critical aspect of Tikkun ha-Olam.

The Raising of the Sparks (Netzotzim): The symbol of a divine spark encased in earthly matter is an ancient Gnostic symbol, which takes on new life in the Kabbalah of seventeenth century Safed. In the Gnostic version, a spark of divinity is entrapped in an alien and evil world, and imprisoned in the soul of man. According to the Gnostics, the individual's knowledge (Gnosis) of the spark within himself results in its being liberated from this world, and the Gnostic adherent abandons both body and self to join the infinite pleroma.

In contradistinction to the Gnostics, Luria held that when the spark of divine light is freed, the world is reintegrated and restored, rather than escaped and discarded. According to the Hasidim it is the individual's divinely appointed task to not only liberate those sparks that are entrapped in Kelippot within his own body and soul, but also those sparks in the world that he or she encounters along life's way. Through proper ethical and spiritual conduct the individual is able to free the holy sparks from the Kelippot which contain them, enabling the exiled divine light to return to its source, thus promoting the completion of Tikkun ha-Olam. The "raising of the sparks" implies that there is something of spiritual value in all things, and it is man's daily task to discover and bring out the value in the material world, thereby transforming that world into a spiritual realm. Tikkun ha-Olam will only be complete when the last spark has been raised and the entire world informed with spiritual meaning and value.

The Lurianic Kabbalah is treated in detail in Sanford Drob's Symbols of the Kabbalah and Kabbalistic Metaphors .

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All material on New Kabbalah website (c) Sanford L. Drob, 2001.

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