by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving
The concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, is ever-present in modern Judaism. For many, the act of repairing the world, of rooting out injustice, is a core piece of their Jewish identity. It’s a value that motivates the way they live and interact with the world.
The Kabbalistic concept of tikkun olam is based on a story of creation not found in the pages of the Torah. This creation story tells of a light that is so good and so powerful that when God tried to contain it in physical vessels, the light shattered the vessels, sending shards of light all across the world. So God created humans and gave them the task of gathering all the shards. This, according to the Kabbalists, is tikkun olam.
I always thought that tikkun olam meant putting the pieces exactly back as they were before. It turns out I was so wrong.
I recently participated in an art workshop at the Kenissa Cross-Training, led by Jessica Tamar Deutsch, the artist behind The Illustrated Pirkei Avot. As she read the story of creation to us from Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, those of us in the workshop painted together on a large communal canvas.
When Jessica stopped reading, she began tearing up our masterpiece. If you captured our faces at that moment, you would have seen a mix of panic and frustration. We just painted the story of creation! How could she rip up our artwork?!
But then, she reminded us of the Kabbalists’ story of creation. We were not tearing our artwork, rather we were continuing to portray the creation.
She then tasked us with creating a portrait of someone else in the group using the shards of our original artwork.
In that moment, I had a break-through. The task of tikkun olam is not to put the pieces back to the way they were before. The task is simply to gather them. What we do with them is up to us. To use the shards to create – or re-create – something completely new from something timeless is both an act of creation and an act of tikkun olam.
Then I realized: this is exactly what we are doing at Mayyim Hayyim. We are engaging in tikkun olam—not just because we are doing good works to make the Jewish world a more welcoming, inclusive, and vibrant place, but also because every day, we engage in the act of gathering in order to make the world a better place.
The word mikveh literally means “gathering.” Here at Mayyim Hayyim, there are gatherings of so many kinds: gatherings (two, to be precise) of natural water; countless gatherings (well, actually, 1,600 in the past year) of people who come to heal and celebrate; an ongoing gathering of ideas about how to make Jewish life more inclusive and accessible; and, perhaps most importantly, a gathering of all the shards of time, ritual, people, and tradition, re-formed into something new: this mikveh – your mikveh – a beautiful piece of (re)creation.
Rachel Eisen is the Director of Annual Giving at Mayyim Hayyim.