Exile and the Spark of the Soul

« Sparks »

The Hebrew word נִיצוֹץ, nitsots, « spark, » is used only once in the Hebrew Bible. It is found in Isaiah – with a figurative sense of evanescence, transience.
« The mighty man shall become a coal, and his work a spark, and both shall burn together, and no man shall quench them ». (Is 1:31)
In another, verbal form (נֹצְצִם, notstsim, « they sparked »), the root verb natsats is also used only once, — by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 1:7).
The noun « spark » and the verb « to spark » are two hapaxes.
Rare words, then.
However, in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, called the ‘Septuagint’, because it was translated by seventy rabbis in Alexandria in the 3rd century B.C., the word σπινθὴρ, spinther, ‘spark’ in Greek, is used three times in the Book of Wisdom (also called ‘Solomon’s Book’), and three times in Ecclesiasticus (attributed to ‘Sirach’).
But these two books are considered today as apocryphal by the Jews, and therefore not canonical. On the other hand, they are preserved canonically by the Catholics and the Orthodox.
This does not detract from their intrinsic value, from their poetic breath, not devoid of pessimism.
« We are born of chance, after which we will be as if we had not existed. It is a smoke that breathes from our nostrils, and thought a spark that springs from the beating of our heart (ὁ λόγος σπινθὴρ ἐν κινήσει καρδίας ἡμῶν.); let it be extinguished, and the body will go to ashes, and the spirit will scatter like inconsistent air. » (Wis 2:2-3)
The logos, here, is only a « spark ». Here again the idea of transience, of impalpable brevity, appears.
The other uses of the word « spark » in Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are divided between literal and figurative meanings.i
Significantly, a verse in Ecclesiasticus seems to invite, precisely, the contemplation of the sparkling transience, quickly drowned in nothingness: « Like a spark that one could contemplate » (Sir 42,22).
The Greek word spinther, « spark, » was also used by Homer in a sense close to that employed by Ezekiel, since it is associated with the representation of the Godhead: « The goddess is like a shining star that (…) sparks a thousand sparks around it (πολλοὶ σπινθῆρες) » (Iliad 4, 73-77)
From the word spinther derives the word spintharis, which is a name of a bird (similar to the Latin word spinturnix). Pierre Chantraine suggests that it is « perhaps because of its eyes ».ii
Do not the eyes of some birds (of prey) sparkle in the night?
Similarly, the Hebrew word nitsots, « spark, » is also used as a bird name for a bird of prey, the hawk or the eagle.
The analogy is perhaps justified because of the twinkling of the eyes in the night, but one can also opt for the analogy of the flight of sparks and birds…
The verbal root of nitsots is נָצַץ, natsats, « to shine, to sparkle ». Natsats is used by Ezekiel to describe the appearance of four « divine appearances » (מַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים , mar’ot Elohim) which Ezekiel calls the four « Living Ones » ( חַיּוֹת , Ḥaiot). The four Living Ones each had four faces (panim), « and they sparkled (notstsim) like the appearance of polished tin » (Ezek 1:7).
The verbal root נָצַץ natsats is very close etymologically to another verbal root, נוּץ, nouts, « to blossom, to grow, » and from נָצָה, natsah, « to fly away, to flee. » Moreover, the same noun, נֵץ, nets, means both « flower » and « sparrowhawk », as if this semantic group brought together the notions of spark, bloom, grow, fly away. Added to this are the notions of dispersion, devastation, and metaphorically, flight and exile, carried by the lexical field of the verb natsah, for example in the verses « your cities will be devastated » (Jer 4:7) and « they have fled, they have scattered into exile » (Lam 4:15).

The spark is thus associated with ideas of brilliance, of flowering, but also of bursting forth, of flight, of dispersion, of devastation and even of exile.
Metaphorically, the associated values range from the negative (fleetingness, inanity of the spark) to the very positive (divine « sparkling » appearances).
It is perhaps this richness and ambivalence of the words nitsots, natsats and natsah that prompted Isaac Louria to choose the spark as a metaphor for the human soul.
As Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains, « Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that the soul [of Adam] is composed of 613 parts: each of these parts is in turn composed of 613 parts or ‘roots’ (chorech); each of these so-called major ‘roots’ is subdivided into a certain number of minor ‘roots’ or ‘sparks’ (nitsot). Each of these ‘sparks’ is an individual holy soul. » iii

But the process of subdivision and individuation, of which three stages have just been set forth, is a process that has to be carried out by the individual soul.

« Each ‘individual spark’ is divided into three levels: nefech, ruach, nechama, and each level has 613 parts. (…) Man’s task is to achieve the perfection of his ‘individual spark’ at all levels. « iv

Moreover, Isaac Louria sets the stage for a vast eschatological perspective, in which the link between the spark and the exile, whose etymological kinship has already been emphasized, is particularly highlighted from the point of view of the Lourianic cabala.
« Indeed, Louria proposes an explanatory system – a philosophic-mystical thesis of the historical process (…) The man responsible for History is still to be understood in its collective sense. The entire people of Israel is endowed with its own function. It must prepare the world of Tikkun, bring everything back to its place; it has the duty to gather, to collect the sparks scattered in the four corners of the world. 
Therefore, he himself, the people, must be in exile at the four ends of the earth. The Exile is not just a chance, but a mission of reparation and ‘sorting’ (…) The children of Israel are completely engaged in the process of ‘raising the sparks’. « v

One would like to imagine that not only Israel, but also all the other people, all the « living », all those who possess a « soul », i.e. a divine « spark », have the vocation to rise, to fly away, and to gather in the divine sun, the luminous burn, – its eternal and fleeting flower.


i« They will shine like sparks running through the reeds. « (Sag 3:7). « Throwing terrible sparks from their eyes » (Wis 11:18). « A spark lights a great fire » (Sir 11:32). « Blow on an ember, it is set on fire, spit on it, it is extinguished; one as well as the other comes out of your mouth. (Sir 28,12) « Like a spark one could contemplate » (Sir 42,22).

iiPierre Chantraine, Etymological Dictionary of the Greek Language. Ed Klincksieck, Paris, 1977.

iiiMarc-Alain Ouaknin, Tsimtsoum. Introduction to Hebrew meditation. Albin Michel. Paris, 1992, p.37

ivIbid. p. 39 It should be noted that the recurrence of the number 613 in these processes of division is probably not unrelated to the 613 commandments (negative and positive) contained in the Torah.

vIbid. pp. 40-41