By Yaakov Ort – Chabad.org
Is the created world as we know it essentially broken and bad from start to finish, or is it fundamentally beautiful and good from beginning to end?
Should we aspire to make the planet a better place, solving one big problem at a time, or should we focus on helping G‑d create a radically different world?
Either way, is it not only audacious but absurd to believe that an individual can be responsible for the whole world, and all the more so, for the perfection of G‑d’s creation?
In Wisdom to Heal the Earth, the latest book by Chabad.org senior editor and acclaimed author Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, we return to the roots of humankind’s collective mission to heal the world, physically and spiritually, reconnecting that mission to its Biblical, Midrashic and Kabbalistic sources—all as articulated and made sublimely practical in the teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
The book, produced by Chabad.org and published by Ezra Press, an imprint of Kehot Publication Society, expresses the Rebbe’s teachings in a new light—as deeply grounded counsel for every individual striving to find meaning, spirituality and purpose in his or her engagement with a rapidly evolving and increasingly high-tech world. To the Rebbe, every daily act and every earthly struggle is set aflame with meaning. Each detail of every life burns with purpose—vital purpose, in the final uphill battle of humankind to attain its ultimate goal.
Chabad.org senior editor Yaakov Ort sat down with Tzvi Freeman to discuss his new book.
YO: I’d like to start by focusing on the book’s title: Wisdom to Heal the Earth. What are the most important ways that the world needs to be healed, and what does a healed world look like to you?
TF: Healing isn’t accomplished with a Band-Aid, by masking the problems or just treating the symptoms. Real healing means to ensure that the illness cannot return. So a truly healed person is one who is living at a whole new level of health, beyond the state that allowed illness to begin with.
So, too, with the world. If we focus all our energies on putting out the fires—containing conflicts, providing foreign aid, reducing the carbon footprint—yes, those things are important and vital, but we haven’t really healed anything. To heal life on Planet Earth, we need to get to the core of the problem and find a solution at its source—so that none of these problems could possibly return.
The core of the problem is our attitude, our state of consciousness. We look at our world and we say, “This is a wild jungle with neither master nor meaning. How can I get all I can out of it before some other beast does? How do I avoid being eaten by some beast bigger than me?” As though all of life is a zero-sum game.
One of the Rebbe’s strongest points was that the world is not a meaningless jungle. It’s a masterfully exquisite garden. And we are both students and partners of its Creator.
In this garden there is an underlying harmony, an inherent peace. In its every detail, you can detect the soul of the master gardener. When you recognize and appreciate that, you naturally tread carefully and responsibly. You do all you can to not only preserve the garden but to understand it better—so that you can further nurture and even enhance its beauty.
So a healed world, first and foremost, is one whose every inhabitant sees this world for what it truly is: A divine garden. And so, of course, we treat it that way. And we live in harmony with that divine beauty.
YO: Your first book, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, has become somewhat of a Jewish classic. You’ve written a few more since then. Is this book similar or distinct from your previous books?
TF: It’s both similar and very different, in both format and content.
On the one hand, I found the format of bite-size “meditations” very effective. I want people to not just read, but ponder the thoughts. This format makes the thoughts memorable and easier to digest.
On the other hand, there are key concepts that require a longer form of prose. So now there are short essays that serve as introductions, providing greater scope and depth to each chapter of meditations.
Also, with the help of several scholars, we’ve managed to document the sources for the bulk of the material for those wishing to further explore the Rebbe’s teachings.
YO: Every parent I know wants to leave a better world to his or her children, but many people today wonder if that’s possible. Most educated people believe that if, in fact, the world can be made better, the agents of change are going to come from the realms of science, economics and politics—not from religion. What then do you mean by Wisdom, and what is Wisdom’s place and role in healing the earth, in confronting the challenges of the 21st century?
TF: The Talmud has something amazing to say on this. It tells us that every person is an entire world. That each one of us must think of ourselves as Adam, the first human being—a single individual responsible for the entire world.
That’s not just a metaphor. The Rebbe, in the tradition of the 16th-century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague, took that very literally. He understood it as a radical redefinition of the term “world.”
This world is actually many, many worlds. It is one world for the cow in the field, another world for the tree in the forest, another world for a tribeswoman in Africa, and another world for Joe Cohen in New York. Each individual consciousness is the center of his, her or its world, which comprises everything that revolves about and affects that center.
Then there’s another step. There’s an ancient Jewish belief, ensconced in the Mishnah, that absolutely nothing is superfluous in G‑d’s world. No person, no living being, no object or event enters your life without purpose—divine purpose. Every detail is essential in reaching the ultimate goal to which this world is heading.
So you can think of your world as a massive, organic web of individuated consciousness, in which the movement of any node reverberates and shifts the state and modality of the entire web. Each movement is the movement because every movement is essential. But there’s only one node that has volition, and that’s you.
Of course, that could seem an irresolvable paradox. How could each one of us stand at the center of the world? And I deal with that in the book. But it helps us understand a statement of Maimonides that the Rebbe often cited: that every person must see himself and the entire world as sitting on a finely balanced scale. Any deliberate action on your part could tip the entire scale to one side or the other.
The point is that whatever G‑d has dropped in your lap, that’s the most important thing in the world. And right now is the most important moment to do it. It may look small and insignificant to you, but if you take care of it with integrity, putting yourself aside for the moment, then it could be the tipping point needed to transform the entire world.
YO: You’ve devoted your life to disseminating the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings in words and images that people can understand and be motivated by, and this is now your fifth book. What’s so different and special about the Rebbe’s concerns and approach that have so engaged your imagination?
TF: When the roots run deep, the tree grows strong, tall and wide. The Rebbe’s teachings have deep and ancient roots, and he had the education, the wisdom and the vision needed to apply that wisdom to the modern era.
He was eminently qualified—a great scholar in Talmudic studies, Jewish philosophy and mysticism, while at the same time a graduate of the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne—and a leader and advisor to every kind of person, including men and women of great power and influence.
Perhaps most importantly, he was a man who demonstrated the kind of love for his fellow human beings I’ve never seen elsewhere. He possessed a kind of humble dignity, integrity and transcendence that made you understand what Moses must have been like.
Look, we all face personal issues today that seem unprecedented. And the global issues appear frighteningly beyond human solution. It’s liberating to know that none of this is entirely new.
The problems may be of greater magnitude and complexity, but the human condition hasn’t essentially changed. It’s just that it takes an almost superhuman insight to see how solutions of the past can resolve problems of the present. Which is what the Rebbe provides.
YO: How does the Rebbe’s advice differ from that of others?
TF: Take a look at the solutions concocted by human reason implemented in the 20th century, such as fascism, Marxism, racism and Nazism. These were radical solutions in the original sense of the word; they tore themselves out from the roots of the past and built towers without foundations. So naturally, they fell—and with a loud bang.
Environmentalism is a positive movement that made the same error. Rather than gluing the movement to Biblical roots, its leaders decided to forcefully divorce those roots and attempt to grow something new out of the air. And the movement has suffered considerably as a result.
Spiritual solutions have been offered as well, but very rarely with a practical agenda.
On the other hand, here we have a kind of wisdom that is at once both spiritual and down-to-earth, ancient and relevant, mysterious and practical.
What aches me is that the Rebbe’s teachings remain so inaccessible except to a small few. That’s what drives me to get these nuggets of wisdom and counsel out there in a format that all can digest.
YO: Much of the book focuses on providing a broader and deeper understanding of the core Kabbalistic concept of Tikun Olam. Can you briefly summarize what it is and why it is meant to be a key driver of all human effort?
TF: From Genesis to the Midrash and the later Kabbalists, we find the human being in a pivotal role within Creation. When you look objectively at the original sources, you see that the general understanding was that with the creation of the human being, the divine act of creation did not end, but was extended. The world was created incomplete in order for us to participate in bringing it to its ultimate perfection.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the 16th-century Kabbalist known as “the Arizal,” took that much further. He described our world occurring as the artifact of a deliberate shattering, or implosion/explosion. Everything we encounter is sustained by a spark that fell from that initial divine cataclysm, and our job is to reassemble and reconnect the pieces, imbue them with a new divine consciousness, and thereby create a form that will hold permanently.
The Arizal called that process birurim and that ultimate world tikun. It is the Creator’s way of granting us a partnership in His act of creation: He creates from the top down, and we, His creations, refine and recreate from bottom up.
The Chassidic masters took that much further. Particularly in Chassidut Chabad, the major focus of all spiritual and material endeavor is not getting to heaven, but the tikun of this very earthly world. “World” in Hebrew is olam, which is related to the word for “concealment,” helem.
So Tikun Olam means to repair or refine the concealment of this world. It means to remove the dust, harmonize the noise, allow the pores to breathe and open the windows so that the sunlight can shine through, the music can be heard, and the world can be recognized for what it truly is—a divine symphony heard and appreciated by every living being.
Since that is the entire purpose of humanity’s creation, there cannot be anything we do that is outside of that purpose. Every human activity either delays that tikun or furthers it.
The Rebbe was adamant that this tikun is fundamentally complete. The basics are already in place. At this point, it could be any one action that could be the tipping point. That’s why there was such urgency in his voice and such emphasis on the value of every deed of every individual.
YO: To what degree is Tikun Olam an exclusively Jewish pursuit, and to what extent it is meant to be universally applicable in motive and action?
TF: Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that one of the vital contributions the Jewish people are able to make to the world is what he called “the dignity of difference.” That’s because a global shtetl is not made sustainable by homogenizing all ethnicity, or by finely granulating humanity into detached, self-defined individuals, but by each community taking pride in its distinct contribution to the patchwork of nations, while recognizing and respecting the differences of unique contributions of others.
So, yes, the Jewish people have a distinct role in Tikun Olam. We have a Torah, mitzvot, Jewish customs and a distinct heritage. A Jew refrains from work on Shabbat, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, sitting with family and guests for a special meal to celebrate the creation of heaven and earth.
A Jew has a special diet, which also plays a role in his or her Tikun Olam. Fixing and perfecting the world, after all, begins with yourself, your family and your community.
But those rules are particular for Jews. Other peoples and cultures have their distinct ways of bringing the One Creator of heaven and earth into their lives.
Nevertheless, all of us have this in common: All of us are responsible to leave behind a world in a better state than we found it. We have to be aware that life is a divine gift—every life—and that planet Earth is our responsibility.
Really, every individual has his or her particular role and responsibility in this grand mission. We have to know that whatever our Creator has dropped in our lap—no matter how small and insignificant it may seem—it’s our mission, and it may just be the mission that tips the bucket.
YO: What are the three most important changes in perspective or behavior that you hope your readers will be left with after completing Wisdom to Heal the Earth?
TF: Individual responsibility, a higher awareness and a sense of urgency.
My generation, the boomers, generally gets a bad rap for chucking individual responsibility and resting upon the hard work of others. Personally, I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but whatever the case, it’s up to us to get the message out: Nothing good happens as long as you’re relying on someone else to get it done.
As soon as you reach the age that you begin to think for yourself, you need to think of how your presence affects the world around you. Are you here just to grab and to get, or to give and make real change for the good? Even before that, children have to be given a sense that their actions matter, that they, too, are valuable contributors to society—in some ways even more than adults.
You get out into the world, and let’s say you’re a businessperson or an entrepreneur. You have to stop and ask yourself, “Am I really contributing fair value? Am I being a responsible, contributing member of my community and the global community?”
If you’re a parent, your life is wrapped up with responsibility to your kids. If you’re a teacher, well, hey, you’ve got more responsibility towards society than all the presidents and prime ministers in the world.
As for higher awareness, that’s key. Materialism is a philosophy—a religion, actually—that is both absurd and destructive. We are conscious, living beings in a world created out of consciousness. If we can’t sense that in our daily lives, then there’s no firm basis to whatever progress we make.
What’s the point of saving the ecology of the planet if it all appeared by some material accident? What’s the value of human life, or its meaning or purpose if there is nothing there more than a carbon-consuming mechanism?
But at the same time, that higher awareness can’t be stuck on spirituality alone. The point of enlightenment, awareness, higher consciousness—whatever you want to call it—is to bring that down to earth. To store it as fuel to heal the Earth, and make this truly the best of all possible worlds.
Wisdom to Heal the Earth can be purchased online here and at Jewish bookstores everywhere.