Changing the World, One Mitzvah at a Time


Shemini Atzeret, Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17

With all due respect to U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 regarding so-called "occupied territory," let me explain what these words really mean.

When my granddaughter, Ariel Daizy, comes to our house for a Shabbat or Yom Tov, the house becomes — in the most delicious and sweetest sense of the word — occupied territory. You can't make a move without running into a Fisher Price item.

So I asked my wife: Where is there room for all of this? Her answer was stunning and simple: Less room for you is more room for her. Fair enough. So I thought that a similar conversation can be engaged this week concerning Bereshit — "In the beginning."

Here's the question. If God is omnipresent and all-encompassing, where is there room for the world? To put this in theological-speak: If God is infinite, how can there be room for the finite? This may not be a question that vexes you or makes you go ballistic, but I invite you, just for a moment, to "go Kabbalistic" with me.

The Infinite Contracts
The Kabbalists — those folks steeped in the mystical and intuitive side of our tradition — posit a difficult but intriguing notion. It's called tzimtzum, which is loosely translated as "contraction." This approach suggests that God, as it were, willfully and volitionally contracted and withdrew in order to make room for the world and all that it contains. In this sense, contraction is not depletion or diminution as much as it is the ability to be creative and expansive.

Indeed, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his masterful essay "Majesty and Humility" reminds us that when you engage in tzimtzum as an individual, one gives birth to an authentic Jewish ethic rooted in the attribute of humility. And as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Judaism's pre-eminent Mussar teacher reminds us, humility does not mean that I am a "nobody," but it means that I make room for you because you are a "somebody."

As the drama of creation unfolds, we encounter a verse this week with which we are all familiar. We say it each and every Friday night on Shabbat.

As we raise the cup of wine and declare the Kiddush, we quote a verse that appears in the Creation story: Asher bara Elokim la'asot, or "He, God created to do."

Question: If it's created, isn't it ipso facto done? From here, our talmudic sages derive the principle that we are God's partners in creation. The Kabbalists, with their usual daring and boldness, extend the principle. Not only are we partners in creation; we are its polishers and perfecters. They call this notion tikkun olam, and it is one of the most relevant and radical of thoughts in the religious consciousness. God creates, pronounces judgment that "it was good," and then calls, challenges and commands humankind to make it better.

Our great Sinai tradition beckons you and me to hear this call — and our greater Philadelphia community challenge s you and me to answer this call — the call of tikkun olam. Go to the Federation's Web site ( concerning the community-wide Mitzvah Mania Day. A plethora of opportunities exists for you, your children and your grandchildren to roll up your collective sleeves, and become partners in the necessary and noble work of creation.

Is it possible to change the world overnight?

Well, let's remember this: It took the Holy One six days just to create it.

But what a way to begin 5768 — affirming that our finite life has infinite meaning, that our shared community matters, and that through our combined efforts, we can bring the world one step closer to repair and redemption.

Rabbi David Gutterman is rabbi of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here