Sparks of holiness hidden deep within the darkness

Beha'alotcha

Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

The Kabbalah tells a deeply evocative story about the creation of the world. It is a story of brokenness and a story of hope.

The kabbalists imagine that in the beginning there was nothing but God in all the universe. Somehow, in the heart of the Oneness of All, there arose a need to create a world. But how to create the world when all the space in existence was filled with God?

God needed to contract in order to allow a void within which the world could emerge. But when the Infinite contracted, a great shattering occurred, and fragments of the Divine scattered throughout the universe. These divine sparks are lodged everywhere, in both revealed and concealed places, sometimes plain to the eye, and at other times deeply disguised. The goal of human life is to help collect these sparks and reunite them with the One that is their Source.

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev finds a hint of that perspective in this week's Torah portion, which begins with the commandment to place lamps in the mishkan, the desert sanctuary. Through the lens of his extraordinary reading, the lamps become far more than an ancient artifact; they become a potent symbol of hope for our lives and our world.

"Sometimes a tsaddik [a rebbe, or we might say more broadly, a righteous person] falls from his/her level [of righteousness]. But The Blessed One desires lovingkindness, and so The Blessed One desires that all the sparks that have fallen into the depths will be raised, in order that they may serve the Creator. When the tsaddik falls — almost to the depths where the sparks are, still the tsaddik is certainly strongly connected to the Upper Root, and struggles with great effort to return. Because of this, the fallen sparks also turn to their Root and are raised. And this is the meaning of the verse 'Beha'alot'cha — When you raise the lamps' — that is, raising the sparks; 'at the front of [facing] the menorah' (8:2) — that is, the fallen sparks will themselves turn to face the menorah, which is the Shechinah, the Upper Root. They will all be raised, and they will bring light to the lamps" (Kedushat Levi).

This exquisite teaching offers a profound message of hope to us, both individually and nationally. In our own lives and the lives of those near to us, we know that there are times when we fall far short of the standard that we have set for ourselves, much less the purpose for which we were created. Rebbe Levi Yitzhak tells us that it is in the nature of life that we will fall far from our goals, even to the point of shame and degradation.

At the same time, he suggests that there is holiness even in the degraded place into which we have fallen. In fact, the "holy sparks" are there, lurking in the darkness, just waiting to be "raised," to be returned to their own highest potential. Like the holy sparks, whose Source is the Infinite, we too are inseparably linked to our Source, the Creator of All. A spiritual lifeline, as it were, connects us with The Holy. No matter how low we fall, we are still connected. And when we summon in ourselves the will to return to our true nature, we do a service to the Universe itself, as we and the "holy sparks," lodged in the depths along with us, are raised back to their proper place.

In the difficult times in which we live, this teaching resonates strongly for me on the national level as well. How well we know that nations — even our own — can grievously fail to live up to their own moral standards. In dark moments, it may seem that the world is trapped in a downward spiral, from which there is no apparent escape. Consider, though, the mystics' image that sparks of holiness are hidden deep in the darkness into which we have fallen. These sparks — even a nation, with its own highest aspirations — are connected to something higher. At some point that lifeline of holiness will pull us back to where we are meant to be.

May the image of the ancient lamps ignite the spark of hope in us, and may the world soon come to live in their light.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as the coordinator of Jewish Community Engagement at Faith in Action Bay Area. She can be reached at rebamy@eilberg.com.