Light Them Up

Watching populist “right-wing” political leaders gain strength across the world, I fear a new age of demagogues has returned. Their skill is directing attention to the shadows and away from the light. Their approach is the antithesis of the Torah, which inspires us to illuminate the world.

Thinking about light and shadow, I recalled Plato’s allegory of the cave. Imagine people stuck in a darkened cave. Bound in a row, the people always face the cave wall. Behind the prisoners are puppeteers. Behind the puppeteers are fires. The prisoners only see shadows on the wall, neither the light nor the puppeteers. Their reality is just shadows. This summary of Plato’s allegory of the cave describes a dystopian existence. The allegory also reveals what frightens me about our world. Many are stuck in caves looking only at shadows. Their anger, antipathy, and denialism bind them together.

By contrast, our Jewish tradition offers an alternative to a shadowy subterranean metaphor. For example, Parsha Behaalotecha begins with raising light. Among the priests’ duties is to light the candelabrum. The priest ascends steps to reach the menorah. In a single motion, of raising up and illuminating, the priest focuses our attention on the two essential elements of improving the world – lifting and lighting. We lift our eyes up, we set our gaze high, and we aspire for a better world. With light we show the way, eliminate the darkness and illuminate the way forward. In three words, Behaalotecha Et Hanairot ( בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת ), the Torah presents a mantra for a troubled world.

In the modern update of the cave allegory, people are trapped because their focus is misdirected. Their cave is discontent, disaffiliation, or distress. Rather than seeking the light, the shadows captivate them.

These prisoners are drawn to the shadows they see on social media. According to Franklin Foer: “Facebook and Google are giant feedback loops that give people what they want to hear. And when you use them in a world where your biases are being constantly confirmed, you become susceptible to fake news, propaganda, demagoguery.”

Bots, trolls, and fake media, further beguile us. Abusers of artificial intelligence misdirect and roil the shadow watchers. Reactionary clergy, populist agitators, or power-hungry politicians exhort people to believe the shadows and ignore the truth. There’s an element of complacency and weariness. Sometimes, it is just easier to remain in our caves, despite our detachment from the real world.

Judaism understands the light to be truth and Godliness. The Torah instructs us not only to seek light but to spread the light. Rather than succumb to shadows, we light  lamps of truth and justice, high up to inspire everyone. This task is not for the priests alone, but for all of us, as we are a nation of priests.

I take the words Behaalotecha Et Hanairot as a signal to get up, exit shadowy existence in our caves, and spread Divine light. Behaalotecha asks us to be fired up for a civil and just society.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame