5781 / 2021
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

Science identifies certain functions that comprise the very definition of life. For example, a digestive system where nutrients flow in and waste flows out.  Or respiration where oxygen enters to enable certain chemical reactions and then exits as CO2. Every living organism (by definition) is an “open system” with inflows and outflows. Like the whirlpool of a bathtub drain, where the shape stays stable though the actual water comprising it is constantly changing. So is this true for our bodies whose form is also stable, though different molecules comprise it in every moment. Food comes in; we absorb its building blocks and shed the old.

As below, so above.  As the physical, so the spiritual. There is a constant flow of consciousness moving through our system as well.[i] Kabbala employs the metaphor of light to describe this current of awareness, for light, in kabbala, always equates with consciousness.  There are dark lights and bright lights, fiery lights and watery lights, ascending lights, and descending lights, surrounding lights and integrated lights, sparks and rays. In the course of our days as new lights enter, lessons are integrated and delusions get shed. There is no moment that does not bring a new spark of awareness into our psyche. The problem is that enlightening is a labor-intensive process.  Just because a spark enters our visual field doesn’t mean that it’s been absorbed or even grasped.  That takes a whole other increment of effort.

A rising spark has two tasks ahead of itself: First is to effect an encounter with its redeemer, and second is to get itself fully integrated. To succeed in this mission sparks adopt the strategies that plants employ to propagate their seed despite their immobility.

A spark cannot be raised except through contact.[2]  A person must sojourn to the place where the spark lies waiting. And then, like a magnet, s/he pulls the spark up, perhaps just by passing through, or perhaps by deliberate effort. The person then either integrates the spark’s light, or releases it into the world so that it can find its way to its true soul mate, the one who holds the root from which that spark derives.

Sparks produce lures that attract humans to make contact with them, a prerequisite to their elevation. Some are drawn to more rarefied pleasures, some to more carnal enjoyments, and some even to forbidden fruits. [art by Lisa Cane]
Just as flowers must lure their pollinators, so sparks have lures that attract humans to their vicinity because this is the only way they can get raised. Yet not every lure attracts every person. Some people’s desires are refined and lofty while others are more debased.  Some are drawn to luxuries others to power. Some take pleasure in new ideas, others in charitable deeds. Some like gourmet foods, others prefer art and culture.

The more fallen a spark, the more decadent its lure. Only people whose desires are debauched will be drawn to such a bait. And so it follows that the most fallen people, raise the most polluted sparks.

Like a lotus, rooted in the muck of the pond, sends a stalk to the surface producing a pristine flower that lures pollinating insects to propagate its seed, so does the fallen spark present a promise of pleasure that lures a person to grab on, and pull it up.

Next the spark must burrow into the nerve net of its human soulmate. And for this task as well, sparks follow the plant kingdom’s lead.

Trees produce edible fruits with indigestible seeds inside them.  An animal eats the fruit, metabolizes its nutrients, and excretes the rest (including the seeds) at whatever place it has wandered in the meantime. This is a perfect solution: The animal provides transport and when it poops the seeds come out along with a mound of fertilizer that supports the new sprout while it struggles to take root. This strategy is win-win. The tree spreads its seed to distant corners via the animal’s locomotion, and the animal is nourished by the tree’s nutritious fruit.

Sparks also come with their equivalent of nature’s fertilizer. We have learned that there were seven universes created and destroyed before our own and that the shards of these shattered worlds produced the raw materials out of which our (eighth) world is built.  This pre-historic cataclysm is a saga of narcissism, shame and woe. When a world self-destructs, it is not innocent; it has earned its fate. Kabbala reports that the fatal flaw of these seven shattered words was pathological narcissism. Each rallied to the slogan of: “I want to be king.  I want to rule the world.”[3] Their hubris had basis. These kingdoms were godlike in their eminence, yet they overinflated, lost their humility, shattered and died.  One after another they suffered the humiliating reminder of their mortality and their subservience to the Holy One.

We (citizens of the Eighth Kingdom) are built from the debris of those dazzling worlds wracked by narcissism and shame. Their fallen lights, called sparks, hold the consciousness that we will absorb in the course of our days. Survival requires the continuous ingestion of sparks no less than food, air and water. Yet these sparks were soiled by the corruptions of their traumatic beginning.  They lie in the muck of our world until the person who can raise them incarnates and evolves to the point where he/she is ready to take its lessons to heart.

When a person first encounters a spark it is still laced with impurities (some more, some less). Yet these contaminates function as a kind of spiritual poop that enables the spark to take firm root by, paradoxically, destabilizing its redeemer (i.e., its human soulmate) thereby forcing us to scramble to recover our bearings.  The ego’s exertion (its inner-work, outer-work, prayer and problem solving) burns the spark’s lesson into our nerve net. That’s what it takes to raise a spark and metabolize its light. It’s not a passive process. Because of its impurities (and the difficulties they bring), the spark’s light etches itself deeply into the heart, bones, cells and spaces of the person.  This is called the School of Hard Knocks and it remains a most effective tool for pulling light down from the head and into the heart.

On Tu B’Shvat we celebrate our generous and magnificent fruit trees that selflessly nourish the world for no other reason than that it’s what they are designed to do. May we honor them back by preserving their habitat, mulching their soil, protecting their pollinators, assuring fresh water, repelling their pests and (on their new year’s day) praying for them to enjoy a healthy, lush and fruitful year.

The Still Small Voice Tu B’Shvat Hagada, fifteen years in the making, is finally available for public enjoyment.  For information and purchase, click this link.

[i] Leshem, HDOHT, II:143, siman vav.
[2] BeShT on the Torah, Acharei Mot 2.
[3] Moses ben Mordecai Zacuto (c. 1625 – 1 October 1697), Commentary on Zohar, p. 102; Yitzchak Chaver, Afikei Mayim, Sefer Biur Agadot, Sota 5a, San7a. and numerous of other places.

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