The Rambam (Maimonides) suggests that our character is not fixed, but that our actions shape our character. We have free will, and we choose what activities and actions we take. “Some traits are not innate but have been learned from other people, or are self-originated as the result of an idea that has entered the person’s mind, or because he has heard that a certain character trait is good for him and that it is proper to acquire it, and he trains himself in it until it is firmly established within him.”
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates, this is what G-d is teaching us by inviting us to become His “partners in the work of creation.” Throughout the Torah, G-d is coaching people to care for the environment around us, to have an opinion and argue for justice, and take decisive action.
Through our adherence, our actions, our attentiveness to the implications of our actions, and the interconnected partnership between G-d, people and nature, we have the ability to bring the world closer to the perfection from which it was created. This is the essence of what we have come to know as "Tikkun Olam."
The first reference to "Tikkun Olam" comes from the Aleinu (Artscroll translation): It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Molder of primeval creation,… Therefore we put our hope in You, Hashem our G-d, that we may soon see Yourmighty splendor, to remove detestable idolatry from the earth, and false gods will be utterly cut off, to perfect the universe (le-takken olam) through the Almighty's sovereignty. … as it is written in Your Torah: Hashem shall reign for all eternity. And it is said: Hashem will be King over all the world – on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One.
The Aleinu prayer refers to a cosmic ideal, but little to do with human action. It is an expression of the prophetic vision of the end of days. It is describing a divine process rather than a human one, in that it is G-d, not us, who will perfect the world. It is a call to prayer, not a call to action.
However, we see that Tikkun Olam is referenced very differently in the Talmud. In Mishna Gittin(4:6), it states: Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value, for the sake of tikkun olam. Captives should not be helped to escape, for the sake of tikkun olam. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says [that the reason is] to prevent the ill-treatment of fellow captives.
This Talmudic section (Gittin 4:2, 4-9, 5:3, 9:4) includes explanation of certain laws relating, among other things, to divorce, the freeing of slaves, and the redemption of captives. Common to these provisions is that they address areas in which the law contains anomalies which, if not rectified, would have adverse consequences for individuals or for society as a whole. In a sense, the concept of tikkun olam is used as the rationale for a better ordering of society or “in the interest of public policy.” Here we see Tikkun Olam being used as a concept of limited scope, not a theory of the cosmos as it was in Aleinu.
We see these two views of Tikkun Olam developed and merged in Rabbi Isaac Luria's (the Ari) conception of “The Shattering of the Vessels” (shevirat ha-kelim), which creates the link between G-d’s perfection from creation of the world and what will be at the end of days (the messianic era) and the human action needed to get from one to the other:
At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation (God had to contract Himself – a process known as tzimtzum – in order to create a space)He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light. The vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, shattered, and were scattered. The partnership G-d creates with us is designed to repair the broken vessels and through that process of tikkun olam,will restore the world to its original state of perfection. It takes action, reflection, and collective responsibility to gather the sparks of G-d, bringing the world closer to perfection.As Rabbi Sacks states: “We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. ‘Someone else's physical needs are my spiritual obligation’, a Jewish mystic taught. The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between ‘faith’ and ‘deeds’, for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world.” [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World]