Seeing and Lifting the Sparks in Ourselves & Others
Yom Kippur 2022/5783, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
I begin with a story (of an unknown source:)
When God was ready to create human beings on the 6th day of Creation, God decided to give the human beings a special gift. God would give each one of them nitzotzot — holy sparks of God’s goodness.
The angels heard about this and they became very jealous and angry. They didn’t want human beings to have a special gift from God that they did not have!
God heard their complaints and unhappiness and thought it over. Finally, God said to the angels: “I will make a deal with you. I will still give the human being these holy sparks, but…you can pick the place where these sparks will live. Tell me where you want to hide them in the world and that is where I will put them.”
So the angels held a big meeting to decide where to put the sparks. One angel suggested: “Let’s put them at the top of the highest mountain, Mount Everest! They cannot get it there!”
But then another angel replied, “No. These humans that God is going to make are going to have both strength and perseverance. They will work out a way to get to the top of the mountain eventually.”
Another angel spoke up: “How about if we drop the Divine sparks at the bottom of the ocean. The human beings aren’t fish, they won’t be able to hold their breath long enough to get down there.”
Another angel raised a counterpoint:“Human beings are going to have intelligence. Surely, at some point, they will figure out how to build a machine that will enable them to travel underwater. The bottom of the ocean is not far enough away to hide those sparks.”
Now, the angels were getting frustrated. They rejected putting the sparks deep in the forest or buried in the desert sand. They just didn’t know what to do.
Finally, one angel spoke in a quiet voice. She said: “I have a better idea. Let’s ask God to hide the Divine sparks of God’s goodness INSIDE each human being. They will NEVER EVER think to look there!”
Finally, a proposal all the angels could agree with. And so, it came to pass.
I love this story! It so perfectly reveals a deeply human truth: We so rarely see, truly see, the divine sparks in others and in ourselves.
When we move past one another, without acknowledgement or interaction — exacerbated by the fact that we might not even be looking up from our phones — we contribute to a culture in which people aren’t seen, even dehumanized. It might seem inconsequential, but we have to ask: what does it lead to?
When we react with unkindness when a service provider doesn’t get us what we need, are we furthering their own feelings of shame or unworthiness? What are the ripple effects when we do not award dignity to another?
And what are those effects when we do not see the sparks in ourselves?
When we bend towards perfectionism and measure ourselves by an unattainable standard, we miss out on opportunities to feel satisfaction, to experience joy, and to share it with others.
When we blame ourselves for the things that go wrong around us, including things which we have no control over (we do this! I have heard people blame themselves for plane delays!), we make the problem about “us” instead of focusing outward on what we can do to fix, mend or heal.
And feelings of unworthiness or not being good enough can lead to apathy. When confronted with a world in need of repair, we might doubt that we can do anything meaningful to contribute — so much that we might give up altogether.
What would happen if we changed our ways?
If we could reorient the way we see ourselves and others? At least more of the time?
On this night of transformations, I want to challenge us to go digging for those sparks.
To actively seek out and uplift the divinity in ourselves and in others as an act of Teshuvah, an act of returning to who we are and are meant to be — and an act of turning towards others and the world.
To that end, I will offer two teachings that might help us find those hidden sparks. And because this is much more easily said than done, I will also offer practices, tools derived from these teachings that we can utilize over the next 24 hours or any day of the rest of our lives.
Bishvili Nivra HaOlam- The World Was Created For Me
In Mishnah Sanhedrin, our ancient rabbis discuss the implications of the Jewish Creation story, the idea that all of humanity derives from a single human being, Adam. (Note that at this point, Adam is a multi-gendered creature!)
In one section, the rabbis marvel at the wonder of the diversity of humankind, saying that the fact that God created the world, and stamped all people with the seal of Adam, the first person, yet not one of them is similar to another tells of the greatness of the Divine. Then, the rabbis instruct:
לְפִיכָךְ כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד חַיָּב לוֹמַר, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם
“Therefore, each person is obligated to say:The world was created for My sake.”
Me? Little old me? The world was created for my sake?! You and you and you too — but we each need to say that for ourselves.
Quite astoundingly, the rabbis use the language of obligation, saying a person is“hayav,” the same language used for being obligated to mitzvot (commandments). According to the rabbis, this is not optional. We must find a way to acknowledge that we have something utterly unique to bring to the world. And that the world needs what only we can offer.
Now, some of us may be wondering: Wait, aren’t we supposed to be humble? After all, wasn’t Moses, the lead character in the Torah, the most humble man that ever walked the earth? Shouldn’t we emulate this quality, especially on Yom Kippur, a day when we should be contrite and remorseful?
To this, I answer in a very Jewish way: It depends!
It depends on your definition of humility.
The Oxford Dictionary defines humility as “a modest or low view of one’s importance.”
Yet there is a school of Jewish thought, the Mussar (self-improvement) tradition, that defines the Hebrew word “Anava” “Humility” in quite the opposite manner. In their view, “Anava” “Humility” is a healthy or appropriate sense of ourselves and our worth. Not too much, but also not too little.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a prolific 20th century Mussar teacher, points to our Torah heroes as examples of “true humility.” Abraham said he was dust and ashes, yet he had the chutzpah to petition God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses was “the most humble” yet on numerous occasions, he demanded that God have compassion and redeem the Israelites.
Wolbe says: “The humility of these great individuals did not cause them to disregard their positive qualities, rather to capitalize on them for the sake of others.”
What a revolutionary teaching! To be humble means to know your basic self-worth and to recognize your good traits. And this is the key point: The awareness of our worth and our good traits is what enables us to act with righteousness, to be of service.
In fact, Wolbe also warns: If one’s humility inhibits one’s sense of service to the world, then that person has stepped over the proper parameters of humility.
Bishvili Nivra HaOlam. Know your worth. Know your strengths. Use them for the good of others.
It is one thing to know this intellectually, and another to live it. In that spirit, I offer a practice for you to utilize over the holiday of Yom Kippur, especially when those feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness creep in (as they inevitably do).
The practice is simple: say the phrase itself: “Bishvili Nivra HaOlam.” “The World was Created for Me.”
After all, the rabbis of the mishnah knew better not to instruct us to “believe” the world was created for their sake. Rather they said “Hayav Lomar” — we are obligated to say it.
For the sake of making sure we all have the right words to get us started, let’s say it together: The world was created for me. (The world was created for me.) Bishvili Nivra HaOlam (Bishvili Nivra HaOlam).
Perhaps if we say it enough, we will come to believe it! Or more importantly, if we say it enough, we might lift up the holy sparks hidden inside us and act for the sake of others and the world.
Searching for Good Points
A story is told about Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great 18th century Hasidic master. A man came to see him, looking exhausted, his eyes tired from tears. He explained to the rebbe that he was in distress because he was such a terrible person, with no merits or mitzvot to speak of.
Rabbi Nachman waited until the man had said everything on his mind, then took a breath and said: “Well then I have no one to talk to, because you are already completely bad, too far gone.”
The person straightened up a little in their chair. “Well, sometimes, sometimes I guess I was kind to others.”
To this Rebbe Nachman said: “That is the start.”
And with that, the man was relieved and revitalized. He began to see he had some good points after all.
This story is especially poignant because it is likely Rebbe Nachman saw much of himself mirrored in the visitor. He spoke often of his inner turmoil, struggle, and spiritual doubts. Nachman, like that visitor, often could not see the Divine sparks implanted within. He developed Jewish practices to address and combat the forces that tear us down and cause us to sink into depression or despair.
One of these practices is designed quite literally to help us “go digging for sparks” or in his words, to actively search for nikudot tovot, the good points, in others and in ourselves.
“You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it is imperative to seek out some bit of goodness… When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.”
There is so much to say about this passage- but I want to just focus for a minute on Nachman’s idea that when we see a person in a positive way, you contribute to their process of growth. I have seen this truth with my children: when I treat them as capable, independent people who can think and act for themselves, they more often act in that light.
Imagine if we applied this teaching on a regular basis. How much suffering and isolation would end! How much goodness and peace would come when people were seen for the best of who they are and can be!
Rebbe Nachman then instructs, we do the same for ourselves, searching for the good. He warns us to watch out for Old Man Gloom, who will push you down and trick you into thinking you do not possess any goodness. For, you too must have done some good for someone sometime.
Now go look for it! And when you find that bit of good, search for “od” “more” — an additional good thing, even if it is of imperfect motivation. Keep looking to see all the good that you have done.
I find this teaching helpful, especially on Yom Kippur, a time for confession and accountability, a time when we literally beat our chests to symbolize the regret and remorse for our actions and our inactions.
Recognizing the good in ourselves helps us distinguish between our actions and our existential character. Though we have missed the mark, though we have sometimes been cruel, spoken badly about others, acted selfishly- those are actions we need to rectify, they are not all of who we are. We can feel guilt, but we do not need to feel shame.
In fact, seeing our nikudot tovot (good points) draws us more deeply into Teshuvah, turning/returning because we begin to see our own potential and aim to grow in that direction.
As Rav Yerucham Levovitz, a late 19th century teacher of Mussar (self-improvement practice): “Woe to a person who is not aware of his spiritual deficiencies, since he does not know what he must rectify. But double woe to a person who is not aware of her positive qualities, since she does not know what tools she has to achieve her potential.”
For Rebbe Nachman, this is not just a philosophy, it is a daily spiritual practice.
Let’s give this practice a try — and hopefully it is something you can consider bringing with you into the rest of Yom Kippur or into your life.
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Think of a person you know whom you find a little challenging to get along with (don’t start too advanced!). Bring them to mind. Think about something good that person does or a quality that person embodies. What kind of energy do they contribute to your community or life?
Now, to the hard work: we turn to ourselves. Some of you may already feel an aversion! Oy! Old man gloom! Just look for one thing. If and when you are ready, look for the next and so on.
Digging for the sparks, one good quality or kind action at a time.
The practice we just experienced is known as “Azamra,” which means, “I will sing.” Rebbe Nachman taught that each nekuda tova (good point) is a musical note. When we find the good points and string them together, they are like notes that create a song — a song that is unique to us.
It follows that if each of us is a string of melodies, made up of our good points, that together we create a symphony. And in the process, we lift up all those good points, our own and those of our fellow, and find renewed joy and possibility.
So, let’s sing! Sing to dig for and raise up the hidden holy sparks.
The melody is by contemporary composer Josh Warshawsky and the words are also Rebbe Nachman’s and speak to everything I have been talking about this evening. (from Likutei Moharan 5:1):
“Every person must say to her/himself: ‘The whole world was created for me’. Once I realize the whole world was created for me, I must, at all times, be searching for ways to do Tikkun Olam, to fill up the holes in the world, and to pray on her behalf.”
This is a new song for us; you might take a moment to listen and get used to the words. But in the spirit of Azamra, I invite you to participate (words or lai, lais) and to imagine that you are stringing together with each note your good parts. And that as you join your voices with the voices of your neighbor, you lift up all the goodness and potential of the person next to you and to the person at home on Zoom and even all the people in synagogues across the country- that through combining your voice with theirs, you are lifting up their sparks and helping them in their process of teshuvah, turning and returning.
Notes & Sources:
- The story of the angels and the sparks was shared with my by Rabbi Anne Ebersman
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
- Wolbe teachings, as well as the quote from his teacher R. Levovitz, come from Rav Wolbe on Chumash: Insights of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Artscroll Edition. Pages 58–59, 215
- The Mussar definition of Anava is from Wolbe but also from all I have learned through the Tikkun Middot project at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.
- Rebbe Nachman teachings, including the story of the visitor, come from Azamru! Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: Who He Was and What He Said. Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman. I additionally utilized parts of a translation of Azamra (and the language of Satan as “Old Man Gloom”) as quoted in https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2015/09/seeking-out-the-bit-of-goodness.html