In the beginning.
Before there was anything, there was chaos and void, what the Torah of my tradition calls tohu va’vohu.
And – there was God.
At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe.
The Jewish mystical tradition, kabbalah, teaches that when God decided to bring this world, our world, into being, there was no room for creation because everything was God.
God’s first step of creation was to breathe. (inhale, exhale)
God drew in God’s holy breath, contracting the Divine self. From that contraction, tzimtzum, darkness was created.1
And when God uttered the first words: Let there be light, the light that came into being filled the darkness. God’s primordial light, this first light, created on Day 1 of creation (remember, the celestial lights of the sun and the moon are not created, according to Genesis, until Day 4!) was placed into 10 holy vessels.
The mystical gloss on the creation story continues, imagining these 10 light-filled vessels, sent out into the world, bringing God’s holy, perfect light. Had they arrived to their destinations intact, our world would be perfect – without the pain, the suffering, the brokenness, the hurt, the injustice that we see every day.
But alas. That is not how this story ends. Those vessels were too fragile for such a powerful, divine light. The vessels shattered, and the light escaped in the form of holy sparks, scattered throughout the world.
“Adam, the first human being, could have redeemed the world and restored the divine light to its proper place.” However, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and he and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, what your tradition calls the Fall of Adam, he missed out on the opportunity to do this much-needed repair work.2
Where are the sparks now? Jewish tradition teaches that some of them are within you and me. That when God created humanity, as the last act of creation, God created us b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. One way to understand this is that each and every individual has a spark of that Divine Light planted inside our souls.
Some of the sparks are hiding, harder to find.
This myth of the broken vessels, what in Hebrew is called shevirat ha-keilim, comes from the 16th century Jewish mystic, one of the founders of kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known simply as the Ari.
The Ari did not end his myth with the scattered sparks, forever lost to the chaos.
No, the Ari continues, with a charge for humankind. Why are we here on this earth? To find those sparks of light, those shards of broken vessels. To gather them up, to bring them together. To repair the brokenness.
The obligation lies on our shoulders – to find these hidden sparks of light that spilled out from the broken vessels, concealed all throughout our world.
There’s a radical element to this process. Human actions – our actions – can have an effect on the cosmos. “The innovation of Jewish mystical thought was the idea that God’s being changes in response to human behaviour.”3 Jewish mysticism sees humans and the Divine in a two-way relationship – not only are we not mere chess figures to be moved around by an all-knowing, all-powerful God, but our actions can impact God. Our actions can change God. (In fact, when I was preparing for this morning’s preaching, rediscovering these ideas reminded me of Octavia Butler’s terrifying speculative fiction novel The Parable of the Sower, in which the main character Lauren Olamina becomes the leader of a new religion, which she titles Earthseed. The central precept of Earthseed is “Why is the universe? To shape God. Why is God? To shape the universe.
This process – of changing God by gathering up the broken bits of God’s Divine Light from all around the world – is called tikkun olam – literally, repairing (tikkun) the world (olam).
While the Ari did not invent this term in the 16th century, he imbued it with new meaning when he linked it to the breaking of vessels and to humanity’s ultimate mission on earth, our purpose in being created.
In contemporary liberal Jewish circles (like in my community!) and even beyond the Jewish community, tikkun olam has come to be a stand-in umbrella term for social justice, one that is used so frequently it is beginning to lose its meaning. However, the usage of tikkun olam as a term for social justice is less than a century old – although this Hebrew phrase itself is much older.
In the first two centuries CE, the term tikkun ha-olam appears 10 times in the Mishna, a Jewish legal compendium that forms the basis for the Talmud, a major collection of Jewish legal literature. TIkkun ha-olam – literally repair of THE world – appears in this legal literature mostly as a reason for closing legal loopholes around traditional divorce practices. In most of the examples, tikkun ha-olam is invoked as a reason to avoid ambiguity (is one divorced or not? Helpful to know a clear answer to that!). In one case, as Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a contemporary American rabbi and activist, points out, the term is used to prohibit a technically legal practice that would have disruptive consequences for the entire system of marriage divorce. “What is at stake here is precisely maintaining the stability of the Jewish community, the ‘repair of the world.’”4 Tikkun olam for the Jewish rabbis of the second century is not mystical, it is not about radical revolution – it’s about keeping things stable, familiar, and safe.
Elsewhere in the Mishnah, the rabbis use the phrase mipnei tikkun ha’olam, for the sake of the repair of the world, to forbid practices that may lead to negative consequences, such as paying an excessively high ransom to redeem captives, lest this willingness to overpay lead to a rise in the prices of ransoms – or even an increase in kidnappings.5 Again, the purpose of this phrase is for the protection and safety of the community.
Rabbi Jacobs looks at these cases and others in the mishna and determines that “we might translate mipnei tikkun ha-olam as ‘for the sake of the preservation of the system as a whole.’”6 The rabbis feared change, and sought to protect their community from upheaval, to prevent the breakdown of the entire system.
When have you chosen familiar safety over change? (menti)
(slide 8 )
Today, in the 21st century, tikkun olam has become shorthand for social justice – whether direct service projects, volunteering, philanthropy, or activism. Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, of blessed memory, critiqued those who too simplistically equated Judaism with a particular set of political values. “A teaching about compromise, sharpening, trimming and humanizing rabbinic law, a mystical doctrine about putting God’s world back together again, this strange and half-understood notion becomes a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain.” Contemporary Judaism has taken this idea of tikkun olam – really, a few different ideas of tikkun olam from various points in Jewish history and thought – and removed it of its particularity, of its religious nature, whitewashing tikkun olam to be something that can fit any idea, any problem, that we see.
Last Sunday, Pastor Miak preached about the role of social justice in the church – is it an essential part of who we are as religious beings, and as faith communities, or is it “extracurricular”? I’d love to imagine Rabbi Wolf in conversation with us today on this question. He’s critiquing those communities in which social justice becomes the be-all and end-all of religious life – erasing the religious part of it, erasing our spiritual selves, our ritual commitments, ignoring God, forgetting the Divine. But neither, for Rabbi Wolf, is social justice an extracurricular activity. Something optional that we can choose to do because it enriches our lives and is fun. No, for Judaism, social justice – tikkun olam – IS a religious activity, one that is rooted in our sacred texts and in our religious commitments to our fellow humans, in our understanding of how God works on earth and in us.
In Judaism today, we use the language of tikkun olam, and the story of shevirat ha-keilim, the breaking of the vessels, to provide a religious language for confronting the brokenness in the world.
What brokenness are you holding in your heart? Your personal life?
What brokenness do you see in the world?
Our religious imagination invites us to envision – what will be when we collect all those broken shards and points of light and unite them together? What might it look like if we took all those points of brokenness – in our hearts, in our world, all the pain that we are holding in this room, those of us joining online – and fixed it?!
(PAUSE TO IMAGINE)
In my training as a community organizer, we talk about two different worlds: the World-As-It-Is and the World-As-It-Should-Be.
The world-as-it-is – the world we live in now, with all of its imperfections.
The world-as-it-should-be – the world that might be if we united those sparks, if we fixed that brokenness. The world that the activists among us are working towards every day.
In Judaism, we have Hebrew terms for these, rooted in our religious imagery – olam ha-zeh (this world, the earthly physical world) and olam ha-ba – the world-to-come, the time of the Messianic Age yet to come, or perhaps also heaven, the world to come after we live this earth. But the notion of tikkun olam invites us to consider that maybe olam ha-ba doesn’t have to be only after we die, but something achievable here on earth.
What will the repaired world, the world as it should be, look like?
What words might you use to describe the world as it should be?
When Miak and Pauline first shared with me about the sermon series for these weeks, the image of kintsugi stuck with me. Kintsugi is the best visual I can imagine for what those mystical vessels might look like after we’ve collected all the pieces scattered around the world. When we imagine that world as it should be, olam ha-ba, utopia, the world after the completed process of tikkun – whatever language we might use to name that hoped-for time far off on the horizon – does it look like the damage was never there? Do the scars of our collective pain and suffering, built up over centuries of indifference and injustice, merely fade away, leaving no trace of what we have endured, together? IF the kabbalists, the Jewish mystics were right, and our actions CHANGE GOD – when those vessels holding God’s Divine Light are finally brought back together – of course they will bear the fingerprints of the hurt we hold, the ways we humans hurt each other and God’s vast creation. The vessels will show the scars of all the times we tried to get closer to God – and failed. When I imagine those repaired jars of light – this is what I see. The gold between the cracks is God’s light shining through – God’s light that we made manifest on earth by doing the impossible work of tikkun.
In Jewish time now, as you count from Easter to Pentecost, my community is counting from Passover to Shavuot. And just a week after the end of Passover, after the Jewish community celebrates freedom and renewal, we also pause to remember and to mourn, on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This day took place just this past Tuesday. The Holocaust – one of the most painful historical examples of the brokenness in our world, and the capacity of humans to hate, to stir up fear, to hurt, and to kill. And at what cost? At the cost of 6 million Jewish victims, up to 15,000 gay men, and millions of others, including ethnic Roma and Sinti populations, Soviet POWs, and political dissidents. Not only were all those lives lost, with all of their gifts, their human uniqueness, their stories, their jokes – but their futures were lost too. The children they might have, the students they might teach, the inventions they would create.
The horrors of the Holocaust led many to question – where was God? Could any of the sparks of God’s Presence, God’s Light, be found in those dark years of 1939-1945? How can the reality of the Holocaust coexist with a belief in a God that is omnipotent/All-Powerful and benevolent? Either God couldn’t do anything…or God didn’t want to do anything. Post-Holocaust Jewish theology sought to answer these questions.
One answer comes from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, a German-born Orthodox Jew and Holocaust survivor:
The hiding God is present; though man is unaware of him. He is present in his hiddenness. Therefore, God can only hide in this world. But if this world was altogether and radically profane, there would be no place in it for Him to hide. He can only hide in history. Since history is man’s responsibility, one would, in fact, expect him to hide, to be silent, while man is about his God-given task. Responsibility requires freedom, but God’s convincing presence would undermine the freedom of human decision. God hides in human responsibility and freedom.
During the years of the Holocaust, God was hiding. It was not on God to stop the Holocaust. It was on humans. And while Rabbi Berkovits doesn’t say so here, I’ll add that we can find those sparks of God in human actions – in the concentration camp prisoners who stole a potato and some margarine – not to eat, but to light in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, in the acts of resistance and bravery, in the gestures of human kindness extended to fellow prisoners, in the brave people we call Righteous Gentiles who risked their own lives and the lives of their families to save their friends, neighbours, or even total strangers.
In the years following the Holocaust, there were debates about when it should be commemorated and mourned. Should it be on an existing day of mourning? Should it be on January 27, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day is, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau?
Ultimately, the leaders of the Jewish community chose the Hebrew date the 27th of Nisan, the week after the end of Passover, which typically falls in April. Why this day?
This day marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In April 1943, the Germans began the liquidation – the total deportation to concentration camps – of all the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto of Warsaw, Poland. The young Jewish leaders of the ghetto underground resisted – not spontaneously, but after months of careful planning and strategic preparation – even though they knew their revolt would be ultimately futile, and death was inevitable, they fought back, refusing to go quietly like lambs to the slaughter. Fully alive until the moment of their death. While this was the largest and longest Jewish revolt under Nazi occupation, lasting nearly 4 weeks, it was not the only resistance effort during those dark years.
Now, what does all this talk of the Holocaust have to do with our sermon series of “fully alive”? The Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance was specifically chosen to be a day when we fought back. When we said no to death. Too often, when talking about the Holocaust, and telling the stories that need to be told – the stories of death and destruction, of dehumanization and despair – we omit the stories of life. Of the ways that people were able to maintain their own humanity, and see the humanity, the Divine sparks, within their fellow prisoners. The stories of the clergy, the rabbis, pastors, and priests, who continued to care for their flocks even under terrible circumstances.
One such rabbi was Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first ordained woman rabbi, who continued to preach, teach, and inspire her fellow inmates in Theresienstadt until her death. The stories of Jews who fought back, who resisted – who found a way to do tikkun, to repair, to take a step, whether meagre or bold, towards the world as it should be. The resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Regina Jonas, and all of the other unknown stories lost to history – they each did their part to find God’s Presence, to bring it to light, even in the darkest of times.
Rabbi Shira Stutman speaks about our obligation to remember the Holocaust. Why is this act of memory imperative? Not as a sole act, but we remember so that…Our remembering has a purpose. We remember so that such acts of hate never happen again. We remember so that we can live in ways that bring honour to the memories of those who lost. We live, fully, because they cannot.
One of the concluding prayers in our daily Jewish liturgy is called Aleinu – meaning, it is on us. The Aleinu prayer speaks to the obligation that rests on each of our shoulders to live, fully, to participate in the neverending work of tikkun olam, to making God’s Presence known and visible on earth, now.
Judy Chicago, an American Jewish poet, wrote these words, a poem called “Merger,” echoing the themes of the Aleinu prayer, a vision of what our world might be like.
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.7
May this be God’s will.