CAC teacher Mirabai Starr writes of Judaism’s affirmation of tikkun olam—human participation in the world’s restoration:

There is a kabbalistic story in which the boundless, formless, unified Holy One wished to know its Holy Self, and so it contracted and poured itself into vessels. But the Divine Radiance was too much for these limited containers, and so they shattered, scattering shards of broken light across the universe, giving birth to all that is.

This sounds like modern cosmology, which also asserts that the universe expanded from an exceedingly high-density state, resulting in the full spectrum of material phenomena. I’ve dubbed this vessel-shattering version of the origins of the universe “the Jewish big bang.” It comes from a teaching Rabbi Isaac Luria offered in the sixteenth century to illustrate how form arises from formlessness, how light gets trapped inside darkness, and how the Holy One needs us to participate in the unfolding goodness of creation. Humans, as the teaching goes, were created to excavate and lift the shards of light from the dense predicament of existence and restore the vessels to wholeness.

In mystical Judaism, this teaching is known as tikkun olam, the mending of the world. How are we to do this? The answer is: with every act of chesed (loving-kindness) and tzedakah (generosity). It means observing the directives found in the Torah…. It means cultivating a contemplative practice to nurture intimacy with the Divine, making an effort to welcome the stranger and care for the Earth. It means bending close to listen for what it is our sisters and brothers on the margins might need (and being willing to forgo our notions of what “helping” looks like, since our preconceived ideas of service sometimes get in the way of authentically serving). It means pressing our ear to the land to hear the heartbeat of the Mother, learning to read her pulses, diagnose her ailments, intuit healing remedies. It means slowing down enough to let the pain of the world all the way into our hearts, allowing our hearts to break open, and acting from that broken-open space. It means stepping up with humility, with curiosity, with love. [1]

Our task is to mend the broken world. This is our job: to mend this shattered vessel, to repair the brokenness of the world.  How do we do this? You might ask yourself this every single day, if you’re anything like me. We do this through every act of loving kindness, every act of chesed . And we do this through every act of tzedakah, which is, for lack of a better translation, generosity, hospitality. It’s sometimes translated as charity; it’s an offering of ourselves, even when it’s not convenient and not comfortable. The nice thing about Judaism, and this is true in Islam as well, is that our loving, kind thoughts count too. The actions [count], certainly, of course, but our loving thoughts make a difference. They help mend the world. 

1] Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2019), 138–139.

[2] Adapted from Mirabai Starr, Living School Symposium (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2022). Unpublished transcript.

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