On the surface, it looks like one of those childhood school games: Can you pick up all the red blocks before the bell goes off, and win a prize? However, that is only a game, and eventually the child will go home and have to deal with real life, and have to worry instead about picking up his dirty laundry before his mother "goes off."
The world consists of about 5 billion people, and countless countries and nationalities. However, if you asked any of them, "What do you do for a living?" it would be surprising if you could find one who answers, "I gather sparks, of course. Don't you?"
What do you do for a living? I gather sparks!
Even if you narrowed the field to Jews only, and then again to Torah-living Jews only, I would still say that nary a person would mention "spark-gathering" in their daily repertoire. You would hear such things as: practice medicine or law, learn or teach Torah, care for children, crunch numbers for an accounting firm, repair clothing, program computers, sell computers, use computers, go for long walks, etc., etc. But "redeem sparks"?!
"Well, I guess... maybe somewhere in the process of taking care of my family and myself... not to mention all my community obligations... sparks, whatever they are... are getting... how did you say it, redeemed?"
The Right Priorities
The Talmud tells us that the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had a near-death experience (Pesachim 50a). After returning from the brink of death, his father asked him, "My son, what did you see?" He answered: "An upside-down world."
The father knew exactly what the son meant, and why he had erred. Compared to this world of 5,762 years, the World to Come is just the opposite in nature. So, the rabbi explained:
"My son, what you saw was the correct world. This is the world that is upside down."
You saw the correct world. This world is upside down.
Imagine going to see a Broadway show on opening night, and upon returning from the lobby, you notice a person acting out some part from another play in front of a group of three people who have tickets for the main performance, which they are missing. All you can do is shake your head and wonder why the people would give priority to an amateur performance – while overlooking the main act.
However, as you return to your seat for act two, you stop to consider that in Heaven they have a similar view of us. From their vantage point – which includes knowing the entire past, present, and future, and being free of the confusion that results from having an internal Yetzer Hara – they wonder to themselves, "Hmph! What is it with those people? They give time and attention do everything – except redeeming sparks!"
Talking to Food
We are all guilty of a classic mistake: We have made the means the ends, albeit quite innocently at times. We have come to believe that everything we do during the course of our days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes – is important unto itself. In reality – God's reality – it is just one of the many ways to redeem Holy Sparks and bring creation to fruition and our purpose to completion.
For example, Jewish law instructs us to make a blessing over food that we are about to enjoy. If you are hungry, and you want to eat a nice, red, delicious apple, then you will have to make the special blessing for fruit of the trees. If it is bread that you are about to sink your canines into, then you'll make the blessing for eating bread. Fish, eggs, orange juice – you name it, they all require a blessing before being enjoyed.
So the next time you chance upon a person who seems to be talking to his food before eating, you might ask him, "What are you doing? Why are you talking to your food?"
He, of course, would answer (hopefully), "I am not talking to my food, I am talking to God. I am hungry, so I am making a blessing so that I can eat this sandwich with His permission."
Is he right? On a simplistic level, yes. He is making a blessing so that he can eat. However, on a more Kabbalistic level, the true answer would be, "I am about to eat this apple so that I can make a blessing."
"What? You're eating so that you can make a blessing?"
A blessing over food elevates then sparks contained in both the food and the person himself.
"Yes, correct again. When one makes a blessing over food, it elevates sparks that are contained in the food and the person himself. And after all, elevating sparks is what life in this world is all about. Right?"
"But what about me? I practice medicine. What does that have to do with elevating sparks?"
"Yes, you practice medicine, or law, or whatever else occupies your time, in order to elevate Holy Sparks temporarily entrapped in creation. And this is no game, either. It is the purpose of everyday life and history itself. When the job is finished, so will history be over, at least as we know it."
Fasting 40 Days
Food, in fact, is just physical clothing to hide the spiritual sparks within it. It is not apples or vitamins that keep us alive – otherwise they'd be able to revive dead people as well (which of course, they cannot). It is the sparks they hide inside that feed the soul, which in turns provides life for the body.
This explains how Moses was able to remain on Mount Sinai for 40 consecutive days without eating or drinking. Atop the holy mount, Moses received his life-giving sparks directly from God, without needing to process them through anything physical (i.e. food).
This is the deeper meaning of the verse:
Human beings "live" through whatever contains Holy Sparks, light of God. And if it exists, it by necessity contains Holy Sparks. And a human, by necessity, must redeem those Holy Sparks in one of the possible ways sanctioned by Torah law, something to which the Talmud (Ta’anit 21b) alludes:
It is not the place that gives honor to the person, but the person who gives honor to the place. As we find at Mount Sinai, the entire time the Divine Presence dwelled upon it, as the Torah says, "The sheep and cattle must also not graze by the mountain" (Exodus 34:3). Once the Divine Presence left, it says, "After the blast of the shofar, they ascended the mountain" (Exodus 19:13).
For if no one is there to redeem the sparks, what difference does a place make in the larger scheme of things?
Nevertheless, we still have not answered the question: Why sparks at all? However, to do that we must once again bring up the discussion about the purpose of creation and our role within it. There is great method to all this "spark madness," and it is the basis for which we, and the entire universe, physically and spiritually, were created in the first place.