The Reality of the Cave: Darkness and Empathy

So there I stood, in one of the cool and moist underground caves which typify the Dixie Caverns outside of Roanoke, Virginia; I was in charge of forty teenagers who I had brought there on a trip. Just as we finished the tour of the cave I said 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,’ I shouted, and when they did I shined my heavy-duty flashlight toward their backs, casting their shadows against the wall.  ‘Read,’ I said, as I handed Joel Seltzer a small book.  So he read.

Dixie Caverns.jpg

The book I handed him 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.

What was I thinking when I was the Rosh Edah, division head, for the eldest campers? Did I think that this group of forty teenagers would remember a single detail of this story? I do not think I thought twice about it. They needed an extraordinary experience that day that they might unpack years later. And my counselors needed to understand that their work at camp was not just about having fun or entertainment. 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. Camp could change your perception of the world and free you to think differently.

It has been close to 20 years since I was standing there in that cave, but I was thinking about it this week as we read Parashat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, which continues the narrative of the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael out of the slavery and degradation of Mitzrayim. In 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. There we read:

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)

This is a confusing plague.

Years after our experience in Dixie Caverns Joel Selzer who had since become a congregrational Rabbi and eventually the director of the camp that we grew up in shared much of this memory with me in the form of a Dvar Torah. In his Dvar Torah he shared the explanation of hoshekh of the Hasidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, better known as the Gerrer Rebbe. The Gerrer Rebbe explains this verse to mean that their 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. The plague of hoshekh was and still is a plague of an empathy famine.

This, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, was the true sin of the Egyptians was 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 lack empathy for the people around us.  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?’

Will we ever escape the cave?

*Adapted from a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Joel Seltzer

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