When Swami Vidyatmananda, a westerner that had joined the Ramakrishna order was a probationer, he went to India to visit the headquarters of the Order. One day, he decided to leave the ashram in the outskirts of Calcutta and go into the city for the day to do some shopping. When he told his superiors his plans, one of the swamis inquired as to what he would do for food while he was there. He told the swami that he would simply go to a hotel to eat (thinking to himself that he could get a good western-style meal that way). The swami responded to his idea by suggesting that it would be better if he went to the order’s ashram in the city for his meals and offered to phone them for him. The swami then went on to explain that the members of the Order avoided eating in hotels and restaurants because of the low spiritual vibration of the food there.

“Food not prepared with devotion, not prepared with the idea that it is to be offered [to God] in the shrine – but just devised impersonally for making money by people with their minds full of gross thoughts – can adversely influence your spiritual growth.” [1]

In one of his teachings, the Baal Shem Tov asks the question: the body receives nourishment from the food we eat but from where does the soul receive its nourishment? The answer that he gives is that the soul receives its nourishment from the Divine spark that is in everything; for everything in the world has been made by God and therefore is filled with His Spirit.

When we eat, it is our bodies that take up the physical nourishment that is in the food. However, if we recite a blessing with intention before eating, and turn our minds towards God, then it is our soul that receives nourishment from the Divine spark that is enrobed in the material form of the food.

The Baal Shem sees this spiritual truth embodied in the manna that sustained the Children of Israel in the desert. God gave us the manna, he believes, as a preparation for our life in the Land of Israel. The Baal Shem explains that the manna was not of this world; it was food of the angels made slightly more physical so that it could have a material form. This is why the Israelites who were more physically orientated complained continuously about the manna, while those who were more spiritually minded found it to be completely fulfilling. The manna was intended to habituate us to eating food with our minds focused on the Divine essence contained within it. This would enable us to approach the material aspects of our life in a higher fashion later on, when we entered the Land of Israel and were forced to live a normal physical existence.

The Baal Shem Tov then elaborates further on this idea:

When the breaking of the vessels occurred, he states, the Divine sparks fell into the four different levels of our physical existence – inanimate, vegetal, animal and human. Now each of these sparks is linked to a particular human soul and is waiting and longing for that person to come and raise it back up to God. This is why we are drawn in general to the objects of this world. And this is the reason why some of us are drawn to one specific type of object or person, while others are pulled to something completely different: because the evolution of each of these objects or people is intimately linked with our own spiritual evolution and growth.

One of the central tenets of Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching is the truth that the same path is not suitable for all spiritual seekers. Each person has his own particular path that will lead him to God and enable him to fulfill the purpose of his life. Sri Ramakrishna would often illustrate this point using the analogy of a mother cooking for her different children.

“The mother knows what food suits the stomachs of her different children. Can all of them digest pilau and kalia [rich preparations]? Suppose a fish has been procured. The mother doesn’t give pilau and kalia to all the children. For the weak child with a poor stomach she prepares simple soup.”[2]

We can utilize the above idea of Sri Ramkrishna to interpret the Baal Shem’s teaching about the Divine sparks in yet another manner as well. When the Baal Shem speaks about the link between individual souls and specific people and objects, he is trying to tell us that each of us needs the energies of certain particular spiritual centers or sephirot. Since everything in this world is composed of energy, we vitalize and develop our centres by drawing on those people and objects which are part of, or complementary to, the specific energies that we need. And it is on the basis of this beneficial “exchange of energies” that we form all of the various personal relationships that we establish during the whole of our lifetime.

At the same time, our own spiritual growth contributes to the overall spiritual evolution of the entire natural kingdom. Because we occupy physical bodies, whenever we raise our consciousness, we are also raising the vibration of every atom in our body. Therefore, as we evolve, everyone and everything else that we come into contact with will also evolve as well.

Another aspect of this teaching is the revelation that there are certain things in the world around us with which we are in a state of “spiritual harmony”, and other things to which we are in a state of “spiritual opposition.” There are specific persons, objects and experiences that will help us to fulfill our purpose in life and take us towards God. And there are other persons, objects, experiences that will hinder us in fulfilling our task in life, and that will draw us away from God. Our task in life is to discover which things in this world we are in a state of “spiritual harmony” with, and which things we are in state of “spiritual opposition”, and then arrange our life accordingly.

This teaching of the Baal Shem, therefore, operates on two different levels. On one level, it provides us with a general principle for how we should live our life: This world is a spiritual treasure hunt. Everywhere around us there are Divine sparks waiting for us to raise them up to heaven. Our every encounter presents us with a unique opportunity to link with God.

On another level, this teaching is speaking to us on a much more personal level. It offers us words of guidance about how to negotiate our way forward in this complex world. The Baal Shem is showing us how to look at the world around us and decide which experiences and relationships belong to our destiny and are ours to fulfill – which people, objects and life-work are part of the unique path which will take us towards our soul; and which experiences and relationships belong to someone else and are part of their destiny – part of the particular spiritual task for which they have come into this world. The Baal Shem is training us to know what is manna – spiritual food that will nourish our souls – and what is dense physical matter that will merely sustain our physical self.

copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick
first published in 26/6/2009

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. John Yale, A Yankee and the Swamis
  2. ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Daat Elyon says:

    Carlyn says
    Thanks a bunch for making the effort to describe the terminlogy towards the beginners!

  • Geoff says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking article!

    The following Proverb came to mind after reading the story of the swami in Calcutta:

    טוֹב אֲרֻחַת יָרָק, וְאַהֲבָה-שָׁם– מִשּׁוֹר אָבוּס, וְשִׂנְאָה-בוֹ.
    Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith
    -Proverbs 15:18

  • Brian Koffman says:

    Fantastic teaching. Thanks