Episode 1: Introduction and Welcome to Raising Holy Sparks
In this opening episode of the ‘Raising Holy Sparks’ podcast, I share some classic Jewish stories that get at the heart of this idea of finding the good in every situation.
Welcome to the “Raising Holy Sparks” podcast! So exciting! This is going to be a twice-monthly podcast for my segments with guests, and weekly for shorter teachings.
So, what’s this all about and how did we get here?
Way back when, somewhere towards the beginning of my blossoming Jewish journey I received a little book as a gift from my synagogue. It was personally addressed to me and signed from my teachers – and then I never opened it for years. One day I picked the book up and looked through its pages. The book is called “Gentle Weapon – prayers for every day and not-so-everyday moments” (it can be found here on Amazon).
There are prayers in the book for almost every situation that you might find yourself in. But the one prayer that I kept coming back to was this one:
“O loving God,
help me discover
all that is good,
all that is positive
in the world.
Camouflaged though they may be,
let me find
those elusive sparks of
Let me perceive all the beauty
hidden within Your Creation.
(Reb Nachman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan 1:33)
Everyone. Everything. Every moment….
Has a holy spark within them. This podcast raises the magnifying glass and begins the search for “those elusive sparks of holy light”. In this first episode, I explain the mystical origins of the view that there are sparks of holy light in everything. I also share a little bit about my journey towards becoming a rabbi – starting all the way back in the Soviet Union.
In this episode I talk about my time at Emory, volunteering with AJWS in India, and learning in Jerusalem at The Conservative Yeshiva. I will be sharing some resources in the coming episodes for all of the other folks who are on a spiritual journey and could always use another resource in their process of going deeper and more inward.
I hope you enjoy the show! Please stick around and check out episode 2 which has also been released.
***EDITOR’S NOTE: In the podcast, I mistakenly said that it takes 2.5 years to go through the 929 chapter-a-day project, however it is only done during the workweek. So, it will be a grand total of five chapters per week and not seven. The actual projected date of completion is February 2, 2022 – 3.5 years from the beginning. What would my math teachers say?!
Full Transcript – Scroll below to read along:
00:04 Hello and welcome to “Raising Holy Sparks” with Reb Misha Clebaner. A show where we celebrate the beauty in the seemingly mundane. We delve deep into Torah. We go back to the basics of Judaism 101 and get practical tips for building positive habits with both ancient and contemporary techniques. So much wonder out there. Let’s get started. Welcome, welcome, welcome everyone. I’m so excited to have you here tuning in for the first ever episode of “Raising Holy Sparks”. So now that you’re here, let me tell you a little bit about what the podcast is about and what you can expect to hear. My hope for the show is that it will be a place for us to gather and to think about what it means to be a spiritual person in the 21st century, and what it means to be a Jewish person during this time. A time of remarkable acceptance, but also a time of real struggle as well.
01:02 One of the things that I’m most excited about for the show is something called the 929 project. This is a project where folks read a chapter a day of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and since there are 929 chapters, it takes 929 days, so approximately two and a half years to be able to read the entire Tanakh. There are other practices similar to this. For instance, folks read a page of Talmud today and that takes about seven years, so the benefit of the 929 project is that it’s a little bit shorter and the texts are a little bit more accessible as well.
01:45 Another thing that I’m really excited for is just to go back to the basics of Judaism 101. Questions like when did Judaism even start? Where did it start? How did it spread across the world? Is it a religion? Is it a people? What’s going on there? So this is a chance for us to get a little bit outside the text and to just kind of go back to those basic questions that we’ve always thought about and haven’t necessarily had an opportunity to get back to in recent times.
02:16 The final thing that I’m excited for in this podcast is something called the study of Mussar, so the study of Mussar is a Jewish practice that works on building positive habits and building positive character traits. And so we’re going to be thinking about not just reading the texts and what those mean, but taking those ideas and putting it into practice and making it applicable on our day to day lives. So we’ll have a chance to think about those.. those ideas, not only through a Jewish lens, through texts or, anything else that has come up through the Jewish culture, but also we’ll take a look at modern leadership theory and we’ll talk about what makes a good leader. And how can we help to transform our communities to make them become the best versions of themselves while we are also striving to become the best versions of ourselves.
03:11 So that’s pretty much it. If those things sound interesting or exciting for you, then you’re definitely in the right place. If not, I encourage you to stick around. Maybe you’ll find something that interests you. And if there’s something you’re really excited about discussing, but I did not mention it, then you’re always welcome to shoot me an email at hello[at]mishaclebaner[dot]com and we’ll definitely get around to it sometime soon.
03:38 Okay. Now that those formalities are out of the way, I’d love to just talk a little bit about how the show came into being and about my journey as a whole overall. So let’s just start with the name of the show “Raising Holy Sparks”. That idea actually comes from Jewish mysticism and it says that it’s all about perspective and how we choose to see the world even in the places that are dark and that feel as though there’s not even one redeemable thing about it.
04:10 Our task is to raise and elevate the tiny little bit of holy sparks that are there and to transform the situation that we’re in from something that’s kind of regular or ordinary and to make it extraordinary. So what this idea really gets at is the fact that the universe and the world doesn’t really have to change at all. The lights and the little sparks are already there. It’s not on the world to try to change or bend to accommodate us as people, but rather the task is on us as human beings to elevate the goodness and those holy sparks and to bring that into the forefront.
04:52 And what I love about this idea is that it puts the choice and it puts the agency into our hands and it says that it’s all about how we choose to see the world. Are we going to be the folks that focus on the good, on the holy sparks or are we going to be blind to the beauty and the blessings that’s around us and just keep the darkness playing itself out as a result of not elevating the light.
05:20 And another thing that’s so great about this idea of raising holy sparks is that it’s not just about the world or the universe as a whole, where we are obligated to raise up that light that’s kind of hidden away. But it also applies to ourselves, right? So if we are in a place where we can only see the things that we need to improve and we’re kind of just beating ourselves up. The idea of raising holy sparks says, well, where are your strengths? Where is your light? Where’s your beauty, and how can you focus on that as well in addition to all the things that you can improve and perhaps even more so focused on your light and build on that rather than just beating yourself up and worrying about the things that you’re not perfect – because nobody’s perfect.
06:09 And one more place that this idea of raising holy sparks is a very relevant for us on this podcast is how it plays out with Jewish texts or just maybe really any form of thought or ideas that are out there. Which at first glance somebody might say, oh, this idea is not applicable to me, or it’s antiquated, or I don’t really see anything that’s relevant or interesting here.
06:35 There’s a teaching in Judaism which says that the wisdom from our tradition, that the Torah, that these other forms of thought that which have been crafted over hundreds of years by deep thinkers, that they are kind of like a silver platter. Perhaps it catches our eye and we’re attracted to it. We might want to get a little bit closer. We might want to explore our heritage and learn a little bit more. Okay, it’s great, but it’s still just silver. But then as the story goes, as you get closer to the silver platter, at the very center of this plate is actually a gold ring. And so this is all about telling us that sometimes you just have to be a little bit curious to begin with and then as you get closer, then the greater relevancy, the greater interest will arise as a result of kind of being in the mud of being in the thick of it for a little bit, in the process where you’re not sure where you’re going to get out of it. But as a result of kind of sticking it out and staying in the process, you’re able to get that golden result at the end.
07:47 Another story that I love that I always think about when I’m thinking about this concept of raising holy sparks is a story about a Rabbi named Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev. And so he is, as the story goes, coming into town and he sees another village member from his town and this is the guy that’s greasing the wheels on his wagon for some reason that wasn’t working and so the guy has to grease the wheels of the wagon. But this is an individual who had just finished his morning prayers right beforehand – before he was setting out to head out to market to sell whatever he has to sell. And so as a result, he still has on all of his religious garb. He still has a prayer book. In one hand, he still has his prayer shawl, on the other hand, his tzitzit, the fringes that are at the corner of his prayer shawl or dangling in the mud as he’s down there greasing the wheel. And as other villagers walk by this guy, they’re like, oh, what sacrilege. This guy does not care at all about our community standards are communal norms. He’s just desecrated things that we think are holy. Rabbi Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev, he says, wow, how lucky am I to live in such a community where this guy is a member of that community where even when he is greasing the wheels of his wagon, even then he’s always trying to elevate the holy sparks. He’s always doing it with sanctity.
09:26 And I just absolutely love that story because if somebody does something to us throughout the day, we can either look at it through the lens of, oh, they were intentionally trying to malign us to damage us. Or we can look at it through a more generous lens, with a spirit of generosity. And to say, oh, perhaps it was not their intention to damage us, or okay, well this happened, but let me try to figure out what a greater.. what the greater context is in the situation.
10:01 So I really try to carry that story with me on a daily basis as I live my life, thinking about Rabbi Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev as I also struggle on a daily basis to try to elevate the holy sparks on any given situation through any interaction and through any daily struggle or challenge with that I might encounter.
10:24 I try to think, well, where’s the hidden light in this? How can I uncover and really find the gold at the center of this? Not even silver plate, but bronze or even worse, something that has been a real struggle.
10:43 So as we continue to record more podcast episodes throughout the months and the years, I look forward to hearing so many of your stories about what were your moments where something on the surface seemingly mundane, seemingly challenging, but perhaps through hindsight, perhaps through effort on your part, you were able to see kind of the spark that was there or to see the gold hidden amidst the silver platter. So that’s going to be our focus for this podcast and we’ll do that not only in thinking about relationships, but also in texts as well as we try to go deeper into the teachings of the tradition and to figure out how we can make these lessons applicable to us so that we can become the best versions of ourselves.
11:41 And on that note of becoming the best version of ourselves. I wanted to share my third and final story before I share a little bit about my journey. And this story is also about a rabbi from the same area as Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev, the story is about Zusha, Reb Zusha. And so this is a famous story about him in his house as he’s on the verge of death. And I can just imagine some of the folks listening to this podcast episode right now and they’re thinking, yes, I love this story. Great. And for those of you that haven’t heard the story, you’re in for a treat.
12:24 Okay. So this Reb Zusha, he’s in his house. He’s sick, he thinks he’s on the verge of death’s door, and so he’s crying and his students, they’re sitting at his bedside. They’re thinking, oh my God, I can’t believe we’re about to lose our mentor.
12:39 Our guide who’s helped us through all these moments of our lives, and so they ask him, teacher, why are you crying? What’s going on? And so Reb Zusha replies. I’m not crying because I’m worried that when I get to the next stage, when I get to heaven, when I go, when I go to the world to come, that I’m going to be asked, why weren’t you more like Abraham? Why weren’t you more like Moses? That’s not my concern. The thing that makes me saddest is the question that I’m going to get is going to be Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?
13:25 And so I just love this story because it absolutely gets at the heart of becoming the best versions of ourselves than the necessity of raising up the holy sparks. Not only within the us, so we can be that best version in the truest and most authentic version of ourselves; but it also enables us to raise the holy sparks around us in our communities. And be the best versions of ourselves by helping our communities become the best version so them as well.
13:58 Okay. So I’m sure I’ll share more about my story in depth throughout the episodes in the coming months and years, but I’ll give just a little bit about how I ended up here recording this podcast and why has been six years in rabbinical school and why you even decided to become a rabbi to begin with.
14:21 So I was born in the Soviet Union and this is a place where religion is forbidden, but not only that, being Jewish is even more so considered to be such a negative thing. And so as a result of all this tension and discrimination around Jewish identity, I actually did not even know I was Jewish until we moved to the United States as a family until we immigrated until I was in kindergarten. Only then that I realized who I was and what my identity was also.
14:59 And so when I got to the United States and I grew up over the years, I was free to be who I was to practice my identity, to practice the tradition and the practices of my ancestors and my family. And when you’re allowed to do something that you weren’t allowed to do before, it gives you a completely different perspective. So in some sense the struggles of my family and my struggles earlier on in my life were to some extent a blessing hidden in disguise; or perhaps I’m just trying overly hard to raise those holy sparks. And seeing this thing that was forbidden to me in the Soviet Union to practice my identity, to be my true self. I began to really value my Jewish identity and to see how precious and how enriching it can be for my sense of self.
16:01 And so as I got to study more and more, I was interested, but like a lot of kids who are learning about religion in their early days or they’re in Sunday school or what have you. I wasn’t totally bought into the idea overall, but I wasn’t going to give up on it completely either.
16:20 I had so many great mentors along the way that not only encouraged me to be my authentic self, which was so hard for them because I was just this little ball of energy and so telling a little ball of energy to keep being you is a very difficult thing, but they always believed in me and kept engaging with me and kept giving me more responsibilities and that’s the most important thing for anyone that’s in our communities is to figure out how can we tap into the potential of this person to make them a leader in this community.
16:55 And so that little bud.. that little sapling started to blossom little by little and I started to think of myself as a leader. And then when I was at university at Emory in Atlanta, one of the spring breaks while I was in school I decided to go on a trip to New Orleans. Because this was a few years after Hurricane Katrina. And so they were still in the thick of rebuilding a city down there. And so when I got there with all of my classmates, one of the very first things that I realized that: most of the organizations that were coming that were leaving their homes and we’re heading out to New Orleans where religious organizations, right? And many of these organizations are Christian organizations.
17:41 So I was sitting there and I was thinking, well, these are the people that are coming here to New Orleans and to help out the folks rebuild here and I just would love to see, a greater Jewish presence, I’d love to get connected to other Jewish organizations that are helping to rebuild communities in the United States that are suffering from one thing or another thing. Right?
18:06 And of course most of the people that did all of the great work in New Orleans where locals. So I don’t want to make it sound like, oh, it’s all these folks coming from out of town that are helping New Orleans to rebuild such resilience city, an incredible place. I’m just.. was lucky to be able to contribute a little bit and making that incredible city just even slightly even more incredible.
18:31 Okay. So I finished in the Orleans and so that little bud is, has been planted and it’s continuing to grow, the sapling is getting bigger and thinking about Jewish leadership and what it means for me as I am planning my graduation from college in a couple of years and I’m thinking: what’s the direction I want to go in? And suddenly the idea of becoming a Jewish communal leader is at the forefront of my thought. Becoming a rabbi comes from the back of.. the back of the line and it sprints ahead and it’s now at the head of this race, of, of my thought process, of what I can be when I grow up. Right? That age old question.
19:16 So the ways in which I was able to kind of build on those initial thoughts of my Jewish identity.. it’s precious to me, there is a need and that’s greatly lacking, and it’s so important for Jewish communal leadership. So the ways that I was able to build on that one way is I was working with the American Jewish World Service and I was able to participate in global development work through a Jewish lens. And so thinking about, okay, well now I’m helping to rebuild the world as a whole, right? Tikun Olam, that’s fantastic, but how can actually make a contribution back in my own communities rather than only making a contribution here in Lucknow, India, right? Shout out to Lucknow.
20:10 And so in thinking about where are my networks, where do I have a stake? Where, um, where do I have an obligation to give back to? The answer was, well, it’s the communities that I grew up in. It’s the American Jewish community. So I have this idea, I want to become a rabbi, I want to give back to the communities and serve the communities that I grew up in, in the United States. But I’ve never really done any formal Jewish learning. How can I become a rabbi when my aleph bet is still so shaky? My Hebrew’s still so rusty. So what I did is I actually studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem at the Conservative Yeshiva. I did that for a year and I’ve learned so much. It was such a mind opening experience. But the most important part is I survived, right? It’s when you are starting something new and you have such a steep learning curve, there’s always the question there, do you.. do keep pushing that boulder up that very steep hill as you’re learning all of this new information, all this new content, all of this soul searching, are you going to keep going up that hill? Or is just the passion not there and are you going to have to go in a different direction?
21:35 But for me, the passion always stayed there throughout the year. Definitely had some moments of thinking, well am I sure, am I not? But in the aggregate overall, I just was absolutely in love with Jewish learning and being in that space where I could continue to be immersed in these big ideas: of what does it mean to be alive? Who am I? All of these big questions and I was able to do that in the setting of traditional Jewish learning.
22:10 And so now moving forward as I am currently in my final year of rabbinical school is taking all of that content, all of that knowledge that I had learned. All of that.. all of those platforms that gave me an opportunity to reflect on the question of who am I, what am I looking for? And to give those questions right back at the larger community rather than trying to give answers.
22:37 After six years of study, I’m really not in a position to give any answers because now more than ever do I realize how little I know. It’s remarkable how much ink has been spilled thinking about all these large questions and I’m just a small little drop in that, you know, puddle in that pool of ink where people are writing and thinking about what it means to be alive. And so that’s really the exciting thing about being a rabbi and what keeps me engaged and keeps me excited about this work.
23:14 I was speaking to a mentor of mine recently and she reminded me that there really is not a word for answer in the Jewish context. If you ask someone a question, what they say is they give you a teshuva, which really just means a response. And so I think that’s a really needed thing in spiritual and religious circles to say: honestly, we’re not sure. We don’t have an answer, but we do have our and we’d love to hear what your response is.
23:48 So that’s pretty much my story in the nutshell. And again, I’m sure I’m going to be sharing more about the various parts of it and going into detail further. In fact, I think in the next couple of episodes I’ll go deeper into talking about some of the resources and steps along the way that I’ve taken. In case you are a person who’s also interested in going deeper in your spiritual learning, in your Jewish learning. I’d love to share some of the resources and steps that I have gone through and to share them with you in case they’re relevant and can help you along your learning and seeking journey as well.
24:26 So in addition to sharing those, another thing I’ll be throwing up online is a sound check that I did to make sure the microphone was working for this episode is a conversation I had with Anabelle my wife, so I’m going to throw that up as well because it was just a really interesting conversation even though it started as just a microphone check.
24:50 So in addition to Anabelle there’s also going to be tons of guests coming on the show to do interviews with them and then also, as I mentioned earlier, we’ll be working our way through the 929 project. They have a phenomenal website. I definitely encourage you to check it out and we can work through this chapter a day thing together and we could share ideas. I’d love to hear what your reflections are as you work your way through the project. And then lastly also going back to the basics of Judaism 101 and also the Mussar texts and thinking about building positive habits.
25:26 Alrighty, so that concludes this first ever episode of “Raising Holy Sparks”. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you stick around for the next episode where Anabelle and I kind of just have fun and do a mock interview; and for all the other episodes that are going to be coming up as well. If you enjoyed it, then definitely subscribe. If you really enjoyed it, give a five star review and comment because that helps so much to support the show. It was great having you for this the first episode and I wish you all great week ahead. Take care.
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