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And God said, "The World is Good"

An interview with Rabbi David Edelman
by Amy Edelstein


Rabbi David

WIE: In Judaism, as opposed to many of the Eastern traditions, we are encouraged to fully engage with the world as part and parcel of our spiritual path. Why is embracing life in the world seen as such a cornerstone of Jewish worship?

RABBI DAVID EDELMAN: You serve God through the world, by using the world correctly, not by divorcing yourself from the world and living in a cave. When God created the world, he created it as a positive thing. And everything in the world can be used in the service of God. You see, Judaism elevates the physical world into a spiritual entity. For instance, in the way the Jew observes the Sabbath, eating itself is elevated; it's not gluttony to eat a special meal to enhance God's day. And making the blessing over the wine—it's a heavenly thing.

God gave us the Torah, which is God's wisdom and God's desire. It tells us how to live a spiritual life, how to live in the world and how to utilize everything in the world for goodness. They say everything in this world is a reflection of what's in the world above. We love our children so much because God loves his children. We want the best for our children—God wants the best for us. The question is asked, "How can we become close to God?" The Talmud answers, "Mimic God, do what God does." God feeds the world; he has the sun rise in the morning and he puts down rain. So, we also give to others. The world was created in chessed, in kindness. So, be kind to others. God was involved in the burial of Moses; we also take care of the dead. Like this, we follow the ways of God. We look upon wealth as a blessing from God. Look how much you can do with wealth! A person in poverty is like dead—you can't do anything. If you look upon everything God gives us as a blessing, you will always use it in a positive way. And all the vicissitudes of life and the evil things will just fall away because you're occupied all the time with doing positive, godly things.

DE: This world is not a world for angels; it's a world for human beings. And our mission is to bring heaven down to earth. The first Lubavitch Rebbe said that if someone goes and separates themselves from the world to study for the whole day locked up in a synagogue, it may be a wonderful thing to do, but it's a cop-out. That's not what we were created to do; that's not our purpose in the world. We are here with a mission to improve ourselves and to improve the world, and it's a path that's fraught with difficulty.

WIE: Perhaps one of the most frequently quoted passages from the Bible that illustrates man's relationship to the world is the story of Jacob and his dream of a ladder that reaches from earth all the way to heaven. Commenting on this metaphor, Jewish scholar David Ariel writes: "With his head in heaven and his feet firmly on earth, man serves to bring the sparks of the Divine down into the world. . . . When we help another person to ascend the ladder, we finish the work of creation. . . . God stands in need of us because only we can perfect the world." What does it mean to bring the sparks of God into the world?

DE: You see, the Almighty put sparks of God in each of us and in every single thing of creation. And when a person uses the things of the world correctly, it elevates those sparks. We usually don't see much godliness in inanimate objects like rocks, but everything has in it a spark of life.

When we use everything in creation in the right way, when we say a blessing before we eat and before we drink, and when we observe the mitzvot [commandments], we elevate the sparks of God that are in all of creation. When you use something in the wrong way, you are destroying creation. Using your power of speech to lie or using things to do wrong—to hurt somebody or steal from somebody or hate somebody—is taking the sparks of godliness that God put in the world and destroying them. You don't want to do that; you are destroying the sparks of creation.

WIE: How exactly is it that God's holiness becomes manifest in the world?

DE: By action. Every person is motivated in three ways. We call these our three garments: action, speech, and thought. When it says in the Torah, "Thou shalt not steal," it means you can't steal on any of the three levels. Not in your hands, not in your mouth, and not in your mind. And thought—that's the worst, because it's a higher level. You have to work to perfect the higher levels, you have to study and contemplate, you don't just get it all overnight.

WIE: According to the teachings in Judaism, it is incumbent upon all Jews to do everything they can to rectify injustice and so bring God into the world. This obligation is known as tikkun olam, the reparation of the world, and it addresses virtually every aspect of our daily lives—our relationship to family, money, work, social justice, and even childrearing. Can you explain what is meant by "the reparation of the world" and how this sacred commandment is fulfilled?

DE: The concept of tikkun olam, perfecting the world, comes from the very first chapter in the Bible. At the end of the six days of creation, it says, "God has created everything 'to do.' " And it looks like the sentence doesn't end—"to do" what? Now, the great Rashi* explained that God meant that with everything in this world, we must now "do," or "repair," or "make full." You see, God left us a little part in the world that he wants us to do. And that's repairing the world, that's tikkun olam.

For example, God created the Sabbath, and by sanctifying the day, we fulfill that part of the creation of the world. You make kiddush [blessing] Friday night, you pray Saturday morning, you take out the Torah, you refrain from work—you sanctify the day by your actions. And in that way, you help God in the creation of the world. Tikkun olam brings a sense of perfection into the world. By our doing good deeds—by charity, a kind word, helping another person in need, teaching someone—we make the world a better place, a more whole place. That's tikkun olam; you're helping people. And that's the kind of life we have to live.

You see, by doing just things in the world, you are completing God's task on this earth. We say, "Any judge who judges a law correctly is a partner with God in creation." That's tikkun olam. And that permeates every area of your life. Being honest with your fellow person—you can't cheat, you can't steal, you can't lie—all of that is tikkun olam. Otherwise, the world goes awry, it goes crazy; people take advantage of other people, trying to be better than everybody else, it's a dog-eat-dog world. That's the opposite of tikkun olam; that destroys the world. Why were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah completely destroyed? What did they do that was so bad? They said, "Mine is mine, yours is yours. Don't come over to me and I won't go over to you." They were extremely selfish. That was it. And that's the opposite of tikkun olam.

WIE: The great mystic and founder of the Hassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, said, "Man is the channel that brings godliness to the world, but only the perfect individual, a tzaddik [sage], can do this properly. By following the tzaddik and listening to his teachings, the spiritual novice can experience an untarnished vision of the Divine." What is the role of the tzaddik in perfecting the world?

DE: Every person has a responsibility to yourself, to your family, and to your community. But the tzaddik's responsibility is the world. They give direction to the world. God sends down thirty-six righteous people at any point in time to keep the world in existence. Many of them are women. Many of them are hidden. And if you're lucky enough to be under the guidance of a tzaddik, boy, it's so much easier.

YE: There are many smart people in the world, but a tzaddik is one who is sensitive to the soul of another. The most dominant aspect of the tzaddik's persona is his soul, and when he sees another person, he sees their soul. A tzaddik looks in your eyes and he'll see what the source of the problem is, and he'll be able to direct you in the right way.

*Biblical and Talmudic commentator (1040 - 1105)

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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue