I read some stories by Rabbi Nachman, an 18th century Chassidic Jew, recently, one of which was the The Lost Princess. Rabbi Nachman’s great-grandfather was the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, and the Rabbi’s writings have been admired through the years for the lessons about faith they impart. While there are many ways to interpret the Rabbi’s writings (as there are with any work of literature), most scholars agree that the Princess who is lost in the story of The Lost Princess isn’t so much a human being as she is the schechinah — the divine spark within each of us.
Schechinah, which means ‘dwelling’ in Hebrew, is a theological concept concerning the presence of Adonai on Earth. As with everything theological, there is a great deal of debate about what exactly that concept entails — some see the schechinah as God’s feminine manifestation, others as God’s presence on the dwelling seat between the cherubim (This is one of the best and worst things about studying theology: for every argument, there are 7,324 counter arguments. Which means, in practical terms, that when you sit down to write a paper, you’ve got a mountain to sift through before you can even begin. It also means, however, that you can’t really ever be totally wrong about anything!)
The debate about the particulars of the divine spark isn’t my concern, so we’ll set aside the centuries of mishnah and rabbinic scholarship on the topic. What I am concerned with is the idea of a divine spark; the idea that a small fragment of God lives inside each of us and informs who we are and how we relate to the world around us. It’s an interesting thing to ponder, isn’t it – the idea that each of us has been lit from within by a particle of holiness, a spark of divinity?
In my layman’s conceptualization, this divine spark is the differentiator between people who impact the world around them, and those who don’t. Basically, I think we all have a divine spark…but not all of us are in the right situation to express it. The point — and the challenge — of life is to get to the place where we manifest that divine spark in our daily lives.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we all have to be painters or poets or ballerinas to give our shechinah its due. I don’t think we need to become performance artists, or unleash our inner poets, or sing in public. Equally important as expressing the gifts we have is recognizing the gifts we don’t have — and not everyone is cut out to be a photographer, or a pastry chef, or a professional athlete.
But I do think everyone has a divine spark. You can feel the divine spark when you are in the presence of someone who is doing exactly what they should be doing, and you can feel it within yourself when you are living up to your highest and best calling — whether that calling is crunching numbers or preaching or caring for the sick or painting or being a mom or teaching or cooking. The glow of that spark becomes visible to the world when you are aligned with your calling, exercising the gifts you have been given to the best of your ability, and to the benefit of both yourself and your community. It’s a palpable energy that seems to shimmer in the air as the things that don’t matter fall away and you stand in the light of the exact reason you are here, made incarnate by your God on this Earth.
Let me give you an example of what I mean, in case you’re feeling like I’ve floated off to a fifth dimension with this:
Some years ago, I ran an afterschool program for kids called Historically Speaking. In one of the sessions, I used Ronald Reagan’s 40th anniversary speech to the D-Day veterans at Pointe du Hoc as the jumping off point for a lecture on the Normandy invasion. I took the kids through the experience of those young soldiers packed together in the hold as the ship pushed towards the beach, and then told the kids how the soldiers, weapons held over their heads, waded into the frigid waves and into the rip and smoke of bullets on the shore. I talked about how frightened those young soldiers must have been, how every sight and smell and sound conveyed the danger they were in, how young the soldiers were, how very, very far from home they’d gone…
And then I told the kids that those men – those survivors – were the audience for President Reagan’s speech, there at Pointe du Hoc. Some were missing legs and arms, some still carried shrapnel in their bodies, most were wearing pieces of their uniforms, tattered and faded. They were men now, gray-haired and bent, and they’d made the journey to France to commemorate the courage they’d all shared, the odds they’d all beaten, the youth they’d all sacrificed, stepping into that water and wading onto that shore.
And as I spoke, the eyes of twenty-odd kids glued to my face, everything else fell away. All other noise, all other distractions, everything that was going on in the halls outside the room, fell away. There was nothing but me and those kids, and the tears in all of our eyes.
As I dismissed the kids, the student teacher who’d been in the back of the room came to me and showed me the goosebumps on her arm. “I have never seen anything like that,” she said. “I don’t even understand what just happened here, but for forty minutes, no one moved. It was like they were in a trance.”
I couldn’t explain it, either. But what I did know was that in that forty minutes, with those kids, teaching that material, I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. The divine spark was lit up.
That’s not an everyday occurrence in my life, although I think it is for some people. And I wish it was for me, and I’d like to figure it all out and get back in line with what God wants me to be doing and get that spark re-lit. I’m working on it.
But I do think it’s in all of us, the schechinah. I see it in my friends: in the detailed perfection of CWM, who does everything so beautifully and so precisely, in the way Painting Dove joyfully unlocks the artistic potential of young kids, in the way Squash Blossom lifts up and challenges her students, in the Poet Laureate’s phenomenal food (that red pepper bisque ought to be illegal!) and Luigi’s excellent (and humorous!) graphic designs, and the way my brother takes a piece of forgotten furniture and gives it new life and new purpose and new beauty. I see it in SA’s photographs, and in my cousin, whose restaurant that has revitalized an entire community, and in my uncle, whose unbelievable creativity for incorporating history into structure cannot be properly expressed by the title ‘contractor.’ I see it in the Rabbit’s sermons that I (sometimes!) get to read, and in his wickedly delicious fried oysters, and in MWO’s voice when he sings to his wife and daughters, and in LPH (the Original Extractor!) when she talks about her three kids.
I see it in them, because their divine spark lights up the world.
And I pray that it will always be so.
To listen to President Reagan’s speech to the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, click here: Ronald Reagan, Pointe du Hoc
To check out my brother’s creativity and awesome talent, click here: Southern Redux
To check out my pal’s amazing photographs, click here: Stephen Alvarez Photography
To take a virtual trip to my cousin’s restaurant, click here: The Silo