***This was sent to me by Rabbi Joel Seltzer. He is the #2 Rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in Providence, RI. More relavant to why I am sharing this piece Rabbi Seltzer was one of my counselors when I was a Rosh Edah. Ah, how time flies?***
So there I stood, in one of the cool and moist underground caves which typify the Dixie Caverns outside of Roanoke, Virginia; trying to make sure that the forty Camp Ramah teenagers I was in charge of did not cause too much trouble, when suddenly my Rosh Edah, Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow says to the group, ‘Ok, everyone stand shoulder-to-shoulder up against the wall of the cave.’ Slowly, the kids began to move, and ultimately they stood in a tight line in relative silence. ‘Face the wall,’ Avi shouted, and when they did he shined his heavy-duty flashlight toward their backs, casting their shadows against the wall. ‘Read,’ Avi said, as he handed me a small book. So I read.
The book he handed me was Plato’s The Republic, and the particular section was the famous Allegory of the Cave. In it Plato imagines a group of human beings who are made to sit in a dark cave, chained so that they may only look straight ahead of them, staring at the wall. Behind them is a fire, and men are walking, speaking and carrying objects in front of this fire – casting their shadows upon the opposite wall. In this situation, Plato explains, a person who was forced to watch these shadows on the wall, and therefore knew of no other reality, would surely come to the conclusion that these dark images were actual beings, with real voices, carrying real objects, and that this world of mere passing shadow was indeed the very epitome of reality.
But then, Plato (through the character of Aristotle) asks us to imagine that one such person was freed from their chains and forced to look around at his true situation; would he not be overwhelmed by such a revelation: the existence of the fire, the reality of the players and the actuality of the objects they were carrying? Furthermore, if that person were then taken up a rugged ascent and brought out of the cave into the sunlight, would not their understanding of the world be irreparably shattered? Surely the light of the sun would pain them and, until their eyes adjusted, they would certainly be unable to even look at another human being and see their bodily image as it truly is. Thus, Plato proves, perception truly is reality.
I’m not sure that group of forty teenagers would remember a single detail of this story – but I remember it well. Not only because it was the first time I had read the work of Plato, and not only because it typifies the unique approach to education that Camp Ramah offers its children, but ultimately I remember this incident because of its unfortunate truth. That we human beings are sadly chained to our limited perceptions; we stare ahead at the wall, never daring to turn and see the world as it truly is. We take both darkness and shadow as givens in this world of ours, and over time, we have allowed our eyes to adjust to this unnatural lack of light.
Which brings me to this morning’s Parasha, Parashat Bo, which continues the narrative of the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael out of the slavery and degradation of Mitzrayim. In Parashat Bo, God delivers the final three plagues upon the hardened-heart of Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and their gods; the plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and the Killing of the First-Born. While the final plague Makkat B’chorot, the Killing of the First-Born, is no doubt the most devastating, the penultimate plague, hoshekh, or darkness, must have been the most terrifying.
The Torah tells us that the Lord said to Moses
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה יָֽדְךָ עַל-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְ עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, וְיָמֵשׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ:
“Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21)
This final phrase of this verse “v’yameish hoshekh”, “a darkness that can be touched,” has puzzled commentators for centuries.
The 16th century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov S’forno remarks that this darkness was not like the darkness we experience at night. That ‘natural’ darkness of night, S’forno explains, is simply air that is ready at any moment to take on the light; whereas the ninth plague of hoshekh is an ‘unnatural darkness’ – and even if you shined light upon it, all would remain in shadow. S’forno’s explanation is indeed terrifying. Imagine a darkness so thick that it actually repelled light; reminiscent of modern physics’ understanding of a black hole, not simply darkness, but actually the very antithesis of light itself.
A much more modern rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, offers a more scientific explanation. He understands the Torah’s words “v’yameish hoshekh”, as suggesting that the plague was actually “a khamsin, a sandstorm of a kind not unfamiliar in Egypt, which can last for several days, producing sand- and dust-filled air that obliterates the light of the sun.” This kind of hoshekh, Rabbi Sacks explains, is the kind that could indeed be touched.
But ultimately, I prefer the explanation of the Hasidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, better known as the Gerrer Rebbe. Basing his comment on the verse which reads:
לֹֽא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם
“People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23)
The Gerrer Rebbe, explains that the inability to see one another was in fact both the cause as well the consequence of this plague. He says that the greatest darkness of all is when a person cannot see the other, when they can not feel the pain of their fellow; and this leads to the terrible result that “no one could get up from where he was,” meaning no one arose to the alleviate the pain of their friend.
This, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, was the true sin of the Egyptians, their inability to see the suffering of the other. They failed to see the sorrows of their neighbors as the suffered through the first eight plagues; and worse still, they failed to see the humanity of the Israelites who cried out to them bitterly from the hardship of their enslavement. Thus hoshekh, the darkness, became both the cause and the consequence of these failures.
The truth is that in our modern world, sometimes it feels as though we are sitting in the overwhelming darkness of Plato’s cave. We stare ahead thinking that the animus, the pessimism and the mistrust that abounds is indeed the very epitome of our reality. We gaze at these ‘mere shadows’ of our world and we perceive them as though they were truth.
Worse still is that we are in danger of falling into the apathetic trap of the Egyptians. We teeter on the edge of constant complacency, not only do we not see the struggles of our neighbors, but even when we do see them, even when we recognize their pain, we too often shrug our shoulders and proclaim, ‘what can I do?’
What we can do is remember the end of that verse:
וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם
“But the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”
Why did the Israelites in Egypt experience light, amidst the terrifying darkness? Perhaps it is because they recognized that the hoshekh was only a trick of their limited perception; it was only a passing shadow on the wall of a cave. They were able to fight the darkness, withstand the temptation towards apathy, and despite their being chained, turn towards one another to see the light of God reflected in the face of their neighbor. And thus, they were redeemed.
I believe strongly that we must deny the false reality of this world of shadows. We must arise to the aid of our fellow human beings. When there are people without homes, without food, without clothing, we must be there. When there is terror, devastation and darkness, we must try to bring light into our world; this is the very nature of our commandedness.
Yes, the truth is that the light of God, and therefore our true reality, lies outside the cave of our cynicism. It lies in our ability to look at and truly experience the divine spark which exists in the other; this is the truest example of how to shine light upon the hoshekh of our world. It is the task of the Jew, and of every human being, to seek out this light, to allow our eyes to adjust to the true, Godly reality of our world, and to let this light shine through – even in the most unnatural of darkness.