Posts Tagged 'Darkness'

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

The Plague of Dark Money

One of the most memorable elements of the Seder is the recounting of the Ten Plagues. While all of them represent a level of pain or discomfort for the Egyptians, clearly the Death of the First Born seems categorically different. I cannot imagine the horror of the death of a child.  While slavery is horrible, the death of an innocent child seems not only harsh, but also unjust. We respond to the severity of this through the ritual observance of the Fast of the First Born the day before the first Seder commemorating when God passed over our homes untouched by death. This plague overshadows ( pun intended) the penultimate Plague of Darkness. While it is an annoyance, it does not seem like the rest of the Ten Plagues. There in Exodus we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. (Exodus 10: 21-23)

Egypt was paralyzed by terrifying fear and enveloped in thick darkness. In retrospect we can imagine their horror awaiting the death of their first-born children, but that was not the case. If Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go after the 9th Plague there would not have been a 10th Plague. Rashi interpreted “darkness that can be touched” (Ex. 10:21) through following the midrash: “It was doubled and redoubled, and so thick that it was palpable.” This makes senses in that for darkness to be a plague like the rest it has to be tangible and impact the bodies of the Egyptians oppressors.

Thinking about the idea of darkness as tangible gets me thinking about Quantum mechanics. If it is possible that light can behave simultaneously as a particle and as a wave, is the same possible for the absence of light? What does it mean that the darkness was behaving as a thick, doubled, redoubled particle, or the absence of that? This is already way beyond my understanding of physics.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his commentary Torah Temimah, offers us another way of understanding what was meant by this tangible darkness. There we read:

A darkness that can be touched—this indicates that those Egyptians who were standing could not sit down, and those who were sitting could not stand, because they were groping in the dark, as it is written: darkness that can be touched. The midrashim explain that the darkness was as thick as a dinar [a coin], and this is very strange, for what sense is there in giving a tangible dimension to darkness? This requires investigation also because, according to Rashi, throughout the duration of the plague there was only night and no day at all; therefore the order of the created world changed, but this is highly problematic insofar as the Holy One, blessed be God, promised Noah that “day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). (Mekhilta Be-Shalah 4)

While it is interesting to explore the subversion of the natural order of things, that is true for all of the Ten Plagues. They are all miracles meant to demonstrates God’s power over Pharaoh. This is not unique to the Plague of Darkness. It is also interesting to ponder the implications of God’s uprooting of God’s promise to Noah, but that I will have to address in a future post. For now I am more interested in this language of the darkness being “thick as a dinar.” Instead of understanding it as a plague of literal darkness, what might it mean that their vision was obscured by money?

When I look around the world I see so many interesting cases where people get blinded by money. In this context, the most obvious parallel to the Plague of Darkness comes from Dark Money in American politics. Dark Money first entered politics with Buckley v. Valeo (1976) when the United States Supreme Court laid out Eight Magic Words that defined the difference between electioneering and issue advocacy. This ruling lifted the requirement for nonprofit organizations (e.g. social welfare, unions, and trade association groups) to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing from where the money came. The New York Times editorial board has opined that the 2014 midterm elections were influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election.”(Editorial, Dark Money Helped Win the SenateNew York Times. November 8, 2014). Dark Money’s influence in politics has only grown in the last 5 years. It is painful to see how people are convinced to vote against their self-interest. They are in the dark as to the very process of democracy. This is pernicious in that the electorate has no idea who is pulling the strings.

Money is not only a plague in politics, it is also an issue in philanthropy. For years there has been so much “groping in the dark” with the misbehavior of investors. The heavy demands to raise money for good causes has silenced victims of predatory behavior. The #metoo movement has done a great deal to shed some light here, but we are still not out of the dark.

So what was the Plague of Darkness for the Egyptians? They were slave masters who were blinded by their desire to keep the status quo of having slaves. The release of the Israelite slaves would have meant an upheaval of the Egyptian economy and way of life. As they were getting closer to inevitable emancipation, their blindness to the suffering of the Israelite slaves was itself the Plague of Darkness. As my dear friend Shalom Orzach pointed out, look at the end of the description: “no one could see anyone else”( Exodus 10:23). The cause was not darkness. The darkness was a result of their avarice that blinded them from seeing the mistreatment of others.

We learn a similar lesson from Proverbs. There we read:

Whoever loves money shall not be satisfied with money; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. (Proverbs 5:9)

Avarice is a basic human problem. The love of money makes people blind to the wealth they already have. This blindness to the abundance in our lives can easily spread to how we look at people, power, sex, philanthropy, and politics. If we really could see the infinite potential of every human being in front of us, we could move beyond a culture of scarcity. But if we do not see our responsibility to work for the inalienable rights and basic human dignity of everyone, we are still living amidst a Plague of Darkness.

Image result for candle in darkness

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We pause on Passover to reflect on how we might shine a light on the people, families, companies, organizations, communities, and nations we want to be. We should all be liberated from a plague of scarcity. Freedom is realizing that the blessing of love is free, it does not cost a thing.

Collapse of Egypt

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the penultimate plague of darkness. There we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. ( Exodus 10: 21-23)

What was the purpose of three days of darkness? One of Rashi’s explanations of  this darkness is:

The Israelites searched [the Egyptians’ dwellings during the darkness] and saw their [own] belongings. When they were leaving [Egypt] and asked [for some of their things], and they [the Egyptians] said, “We have nothing,” he [the Israelite] would say to him, “I saw it in your house, and it is in such and such a place.” (Rashi on Exodus 10:22)

So while darkness brings to light the economic retribution, there were other ways that God could have disclosed the location of the Israelite property. God could have just told them where. Is there another meaning of this darkness beyond jump starting the first Claims Conference?

Being in the depth of winter makes it easier to relate to the plague of darkness. This experience of  winter reminds me of a wonderful Gemara  in Avoda Zara. There we learn:

Our Rabbis taught: When Adam HaRishon– the  primordial man-saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps [this is happening] because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. (Avoda Zara 8a)

The world was not ending because he had eaten from the עֵץ  הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge.  His hypothesis made sense. Adam was told that, “you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shalt surely die.” ( Genesis 2: 17) Despite having eaten of its fruit he did not die right away. Maybe his life and life itself was slowly coming to an end. Instead he was experiencing the winter shortening of days for the first time. Adam had a fantastic hypothesis which was proven false after the winter equinox. It is impossible to read this Gemara outside of a primordial origin of the Chanukkah story, but might this have any relevance to understanding the plague of darkness in Egypt?

After the first exodus from Egypt Avraham (who was also leaving with a great amount of wealth) had a falling out with Lot. In pursuit of peace Avraham decided that they needed to split up and he gave Lot a choice of which property Lot would take. There we read:

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you go to Zoar. (Genesis 13:10)

Besides the opulence and amount of water from the river, in what ways was Egypt like the “Garden of the Lord”? This I do not know. But if the land of Egypt was like the Garden of Eden how might we understand the meaning of this plague of darkness? Well it is interesting to reflect on the human beings after Adam ate of the עֵץ  הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge. There is no going back. The crises in Egypt was brought about by “new king over Egypt, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע-who knew not  Yosef.” ( Exodus 1:8)  For Adam the sin of eating caused knowing and for Pharaoh the sin was trying to “un-know” the gift of Yosef.

Adam finds out he will not die on that day. The impact of the sin is less of a punishment and more of a consequence. The darkness is not his death or the end of the world, but it does spell the end of his time in the “Garden of the the Lord”.  In light of this it seems that the plagues are Moshe’s attempt to remind Pharoah of what he “knows” to be true. The Egyptians have enslaved and decimated the descendents of Yosef, their savior. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond writes, “[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.” Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he is unable to listen to Moshe. The darkness of the 9th plague foreshadows the decline of Egyptian society. Diamond writes:

Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.

The plague of darkness is one of Pharaoh’s last chances to succeed. Will he test his hypothesis and reconsider he approach like Adam? Instead of thinking of the long-term plans for his society and their place in the larger world, Pharaoh pursues his Israelite slaves and plunges his society into the sea. The darkness brings to light Pharaoh’s resolve to maintain his hypothesis despite any evidence. We all need to reflect on how we are often blinded by the things we “know” to be true.


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