Today, any headline bolded across the cover of any newspaper can remind us that we live in a world that is far from complacent. Any rally where parents and children alike still need to voice their hatred against gun violence reminds us that we are still far from achieving peace. Any prison that convicts and detains the falsely accused reminds us that this world is far from just. Any state with laws denying couples the right to marry one another reminds us that we are far from reaching love. And yet, despite these events that represent bigotry and senseless hatred in the most raw and hurtful forms, there is holiness.
Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov [Besht], the founder and pursuer of Chassidism, emphasized that there is a spark of holiness dwelling within each and every person. During his time, the same conflicts we encounter today were disguised beneath different names, yet somehow this rebbe fervently viewed each person as internally holding an aspect of the Divine, one that we must cherish.
On one Yom Kippur morning, an illiterate shepherd child entered The Baal Shem Tov’s shul. Enamored by the spirit inside the sanctuary filled with devout Jews, the young boy wanted nothing more than to connect to God alongside them but could not connect to the prayer language from outside his own farm. Having been surrounded by only animals, the boy desperately cried out the only words he knew: “cock-a-doodle-do!” The Baal Shem Tov embraced this shepherd, claiming that his presence and intention opened the gates of heaven. The Besht overlooked the boy’s unusual jargon and instead reached for the spark of holiness dwelling inside of him. The Baal Shem Tov recognized the holiness that outshone their differences.
In this world of over seven billion people, The Baal Shem Tov can find seven billion sparks of holiness, each illuminating a world of injustice and strife. Sometimes, that holiness can be discovered in the midst of unspeakable terror. In 1941, Michael Stolowicki was a three-year old orphan whose mother died from the harsh conditions that accompanied the refugees escaping the Holocaust. Rather than being left to join the millions of victims in the concentration camps, Michael was saved by his non-Jewish nanny. Gertruda Babilinska protected this young Jewish boy as her own child, risking her life to feed him and cure his illnesses. Outside their tiny window in Vilna, Jews were rounded up and killed instantly. Babilinska lived off of meek rations of bread and her spark of holiness, raising a Jewish child in the shadow of death.
According to the Baal Shem Tov, a person’s spark of holiness can be multiplied, divided, and shared. The shepherd boy in Eastern Europe inspired an entire congregation with his commitment to personal prayer. Michael Stolowicki grew to pursue the same compassion for others as his nanny offered to him. One person’s spark of holiness has the opportunity to illuminate the entire world.
Unfortunately, it still takes great tragedy to recognize the simple holiness in a person. It takes a holocaust to meet Gertruda Babilinska, a widespread vote against marriage to meet an LGBT activist, and, perhaps worst of all, a school shooting to meet a pure-hearted parent. While it is not in our control to prevent these painful events from existing in life, it must be our obligation to recognize and kindle the spark of holiness that dwells in each person—before an act of suffering exposes it for us.
In an ever-evolving religion, the essence of our Judaism remains eternal: we must find, embrace, and pursue holiness. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR states “it is about praying, singing, crying, and working with all our hearts to bring holiness into our world. It is about seeing every person, in every generation, as a potential agent of transformation.” You, me, and all things in between are agents of transformation, planters of a world far higher and holier than what we see today.
From our rebbes, nannies, activists, and parents of all ages, we see that every person can be an asset to creating a world of holiness. However, it is what we choose to do with the sparks within us that determines how we will impact this world. We can discover holiness within arm’s reach—but it is where your hands will then go that takes the sparks to new heights.