In the midst of the parshiot of building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, once again I’m enjoying the insights of the Malbim, a unique nineteenth century sage and leader. In these sections he reveals especially deep meanings underlying the Mishkan and its various vessels.
The principal concept is that of עולם, Olam, world or universe. He teaches that there are two primary universes, עולם קטן, Olam Katan, the small world, which is each individual person, and עולם גדול, Olam Gadol, the greater universe, which can also be called אדם גדול, Adam Gadol, the greater man. These are actually equivalent in that they can be isomorphically mapped into each other. Between the two, also isomorphic to both, is the משכן, Mishkan, literally the dwelling place, where our ritual acts connect the two, enabling the vital, life-giving flow of energy from the Divine Infinite into the secular and finite, as well as enabling our otherwise limited actions to benefit the world at large.
Contemporary Judaism is so deeply divided between these two worlds that each side has great difficulty finding any value in the other. Each, both the religious and the secular, is increasingly dominated by its extremists, with all the resultant problems that implies. Instead of the worldly and the religious spheres enhancing each other, all too often they’re at war.
One specific area that this drama plays out is תיקון עולם, tikkun olam, the repair, or better, the rebalancing and re-tuning of the world. The liberal denominations have lately come to claim social justice and ecological awareness as their very own, often substituting these values completely for the ritual observance of mitzvot. The extreme, perhaps dominant wings of today’s orthodox world dismiss those concerns as narishkeit, foolishness and place total emphasis on ever stricter, many would argue needlessly strict, ritual observance. In doing so, each rejects and delegitimizes the other, destroying the fabric of עם ישראל, the Jewish People.
The fact of the matter is that both are vital. Mitzvot and halacha largely are the technology of תיקון עולם קטן, repairing the inner, individual person, the microcosm. They connect us to the divine energy and the divine wisdom which empower us to work effectively, not just make useless, feel-good gestures, to bring real improvement to the עולם גדול, the greater, macrocosm world.
This double-layered תיקון, completion, is our mandate as Jews and our opportunity to partner with The Creator in putting the finishing touches on the world. It’s sad enough when we overlook one side or the other of our task, but it’s outright tragic when we self-righteously reject one or the other because we don’t like the folks “on the other side” advocating it. Only by reaching out to, honoring and learning from each other will we return the שכינה, the Holy Divine Presence to visibility in this dual-scaled world.