Tikkun Olam: The Spiritual Purpose of Life
–by: Joseph Naft
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 and spiritualization of the cosmos. Luria taught that 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.
We meet similar concepts in other religions. Christ promised to return with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and exhorted people to prepare through love, wakefulness, and charity. In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva vows to forgo final liberation until all beings have been freed from suffering. The Gnostics held that a spark of Divinity resides entrapped within the soul of humans.
Tikkun olam encompasses both the outer and the inner, both service to society by helping those in need and service to the Divine by liberating the spark within. As we are, the Divine spark lies hidden beneath our layers of egoistic self-centeredness. That spark is our conscience, through which the promptings of the Divine Will flow toward us.
By pursuing spiritual inner work to strengthen our soul and purify our heart, we grow more able to bear that spark without shattering, more willing to act on what we know to be right, less willing to act in harmful or grasping ways, and more able to notice the quiet presence of conscience beneath the din of our chattering minds and reactive emotions. The work of transformation, of building a soul creates a proper vessel for the Divine spark, for our unique share of the Divine Will, returning that spark to the service of the One Who made it. By working to perfect ourselves, perfect our soul, and serve society, we each contribute in our own unique way to the perfecting of the world. This is our duty and our calling as human beings.
To contemplate and enter the process of tikkun olam, repairing or perfecting the world, we need to understand the concept of world. All the major religious traditions present a hierarchy of worlds or levels of being, from the one we ordinarily inhabit to the ultimate world of Divinity.
In Kabbalah, for example, the worlds include Asiyah or Action, Yetzirah or Formation, Beriyah or Creation, and Atzilut or Emanation. Beyond and permeating all these is the Ein Sof, the One God, the Boundless and Unconditioned. Each of the worlds corresponds to a progressively higher level of spiritual energy and will, and the related level of soul. The world of Action utilizes the sensitive energy, from which the nefesh soul forms. The world of Formation is built on the conscious energy, the basis of awareness, from which the ruach forms. The world of Creation and Light works with the creative energy, from which the neshama forms. The world of Emanation and Divine Presence brings the high energy of love, from which the chaya forms. And corresponding to the ultimate Ein Sof, touching the yechida soul, we have the transcendent energy.
The basic principle of Kabbalah is that the seeker pursues spiritual practice to transform his or her being and rise through the levels of worlds, to bring his or her own will back to the Divine will, while opening a way for the higher energies to flow down to this world, and thereby advancing the great process of tikkun olam.
For millennia Kabbalists have sought to serve this process, for example by meditating on and opening to the higher energy, the Divine Light, the Light of the Shechina above their head. They allow the Light to spread through them as if sitting in its midst and draw the Light down for the Earth, for life, for their own soul. The possibility of opening to the Divine Light stands within reach of us all, if we are prepared to do the necessary inner work.
For those who can, yet another possibility presents itself, one discussed by Luria’s chief disciple Chaim Vital . With a pure heart and a quiet mind, the person enters contact with the Divine Light and raises the Light up to the Ein Sof, offering the Light to the One God in a sacred act of service wholly hidden in the higher worlds. Only then does the person open the channel for the Light to flow down through his or her soul into our world.
Tikkun olam places our spiritual practice at the heart of the epic, unfolding history of the universe: the evolution and spiritualization of the whole of creation. With each small act of kindness, with each moment of presence and practice, with each effort to see, cleanse, and integrate our inner life, with each heartfelt prayer opening to the higher energies and the higher will, 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 consider the spiritualizing action as reaching toward a new and greater perfection than existed before, toward perfecting this flawed world by imbuing the whole of it with the Divine Spirit.
Because of the freedom God necessarily placed into the world, we can infer that the outcome of the whole process truly remains uncertain, that our free choice to serve the Divine and our planet through fulfilling our highest destiny really matters, that despite our insignificant size with respect to the universe our personal inner work makes a difference. If we can raise ourselves to the station where the Divine can see and act through us, then we complete the momentous work of restoring at least one part to the Whole. And so, with the great Kabbalist, we discover a vision of unbounded meaning: perfecting ourselves, perfecting the world, and helping God.
 Rabbi Chaim Vital, Gates of Holiness, quoted in Kaplan, Aryeh, Meditation and the Bible (Boston: Weiser Books, 1978), pp. 47-56.