The Mountains of Darkness: Ecological Reflections for Tu Bishvat

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 24, 2024 / 15 Shevat 5784

I would like to dedicate this column to the memory of my father-in-law, Verner Beck, who had a lifelong concern for the environment. Almost everything he owned he acquired second-hand, as a matter of principle. It is better to reduce and reuse than to recycle. Vern chose a life of simplicity decades before it became a lifestyle.

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In the southeast corner of Oregon, there is a sparsely inhabited swath of land known as the Outback. It is a place every Oregonian should visit at least once, for as the sun drops below the horizon, the night sky there becomes one of the darkest places left on the planet. Staring up there when the moon is small is to gasp in wonder at a vision of the stars most modern people no longer have access to. One is swept up by a sense of primitive awe that Abraham and Sarah must have experienced on a regular basis.

There is an effort underway to protect this rare treasure, preserving it and expanding night tourism so that more of us modern people can remember where we fit in the universe. This Thursday is Tu Bishvat, the birthday of the trees; the observance has become the Jewish Earth Day, tied as it is to these larger cycles of nature.

The past week of power outages has been a powerful reminder that most of us don’t wish to go back to the days of our ancestors when darkness was the rule rather than the exception. We have grown uncomfortable with darkness; nonetheless, as Tu Bishvat approaches, it is worthwhile for each of us to reflect on how human culture and technology have permanently changed the natural world. Despite the cold weather of this past week, most of our focus on climate change centers on global warming; yet there are other pernicious and often unremarked upon harms that we have inflicted on our planet. In a week of power outages, during which many of us spent more waking time in darkness than at most other times of our lives, and in a week where the Exodus narrative presents us with the strange Ninth Plague of choshekh,or darkness, it is appropriate to take a moment to acknowledge that among the many environmental harms we humans have caused is light pollution. There is, frankly, less night sky than there used to be, and the small pockets of darkness such as the Oregon Outback have become a different sort of sanctuary for the lost world.

With so many environmental pressures weighing on us, light pollution might seem a bit more frivolous; wouldn’t its impact instantly fade once the lights go out? Yet as we have come to learn, even in the darkness, the damage of light remains. Sea turtles, seeking to navigate the jet-black sea to reach their traditional mating spots, grow confused. The result is fewer sea turtles; at least seven species are endangered or critically endangered, from the Leatherback to the Hawksbill turtle. They are but one example of how light pollution harms many species.

For those of us whose concerns primarily are focused on human well-being, ours is a world plagued with sleep disorder. It is an important cause of depression and a contributor to other mental illnesses. This, too, is caused by light pollution. There are more subtle losses as well, for religions and cultures have celebrated the night sky. One of the more poetic, beautiful, and sensitive concepts of the ancient world, the music of the spheres, is credited to Pythagoras, the same mathematician who taught us about triangles and the hypotenuse. He posited that the math which described the movement of the stars and planets created an inaudible symphony of music. Under a dark, starlit sky of the ancient world, it is understandable what prompted Pythagoras’s insight, for while modern science may no longer believe in this music, the math that describes these hidden forces of movements remains.

Similarly, the Jewish ritual storehouse is vast, yet outside of the Orthodox world, few Jews have ever participated in the monthly blessing over the new moon. The short liturgy of kiddush levana, or the sanctification of the moon, is traditionally said outside when the thin sliver of the new moon can be observed, connecting the Jewish spiritual realm with the larger cycles of nature, just as Tu Bishvat does.

With these reflections in hand, we can renew our appreciation of the plague of darkness. The regular darkness of the ancient world was a darkness with which all people had persistent intimacy; this meant that eclipses were more noticeable than in our era. A plague of darkness, therefore, had to mean something else for it to serve its function as a sign of God.

The Torah itself makes this clear in Exodus 10:23:

לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכׇל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃

People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.1

It was a darkness through which one could not move; despite that, it didn’t afflict the Israelites. As we all know, light leaks out of dwellings, illuminating anything in its path. Not this time.

Ramban explains this in depth:

“The meaning is that this darkness was not a mere absence of sunlight where the sun set and it was like night. Rather, it was a thick darkness… just as in all deep caverns and in all extremely dark places where light cannot last [as it is swallowed up in the density of the thick darkness] …

It is possible that it was such a very thick cloud that there was something tangible in it, as our Rabbis have said…‘It was not the usual absence of daylight above but an extraordinary darkness as well…’”2

A darkness that you could touch. A darkness that is not an absence of daylight. Sometimes our Jewish Midrash and commentaries can seem fanciful. Yet once we understand the regularity of darkness to ancient humans, this description of the plague of darkness seems more like the peshat, or simple reading of the Torah, than a metaphor.

In his description, Ramban adds a strange and arresting detail to this concept of a darkness that absorbs light.
“Similarly, people who pass through the Mountains of Darkness find that no candle or fire can continue to burn at all.”3

What are these mountains of darkness to which Ramban points us, and which swallow up the light of candles and fires? The great modern commentator and translator of Ramban was Charles Chavel, who explains the source for Ramban’s otherwise cryptic statement.

“The name is found in the Talmud (Tamid 32a) in connection with Alexander the Great, who told the Sages of the south: ‘I wish to go to the country of Africa,’ whereupon they answered him, ‘[Y]ou cannot go, for the Mountains of Darkness intercede.’ It would seem then that these were mountains somewhere in the heart of Africa, a dim knowledge of which reached the outer world. Considering the fact that the heart of central Africa was not penetrated by European explorers till the end of the nineteenth century, it is no wonder that not much was known in Medieval Europe [Chavel’s terminology] about this region.”

Chavel wants to fix the Mountains of Darkness in a literal geography, and perhaps he is correct. Many times, in our arrogance, we have imagined that places mentioned by the ancients were mythological, such as the city of Troy, only to later discover that they really existed.

Yet the Talmud’s description of the travel advice that the Elders of the Negev gave to Alexander offers us a different set of insights. After telling him that these mountains were not passable, Alexander explained that he had no choice. He had to go there and demanded advice to help him navigate mountains so dark that they absorbed all light.

“They said to him: Bring Libyan donkeys that walk even in the darkness [behavra], and these animals will guide you through those passes. And bring coils of rope, and tie one end of rope on this near side of the mountains, as you are about to enter there, so that when you come to return by the same path, you may take hold of the ropes left from your initial march, and, following them, you will come back to your place.”4

There is a profound and a straightforward element to the answer given by the Elders of the Negev to Alexander. This concept of fixing guide ropes or static lines is well-established in history and mountain climbing. It also sounds a bit like Hansel and Gretel’s use of crumbs and stones to find their way out of the darkness of their forest. Good common sense. Yet it is the Libyan donkeys, which walk in the darkness, that ought to capture our attention. Not every creature and not every person is affected by darkness in the same way. Those who embrace the darkness can be our guides.

During this past week of ocean-grey skies and power outages, the weight and depression of cold darkness touched many of us, adding fear to our discomfort. But we should remember that each of the ten plagues was meant to teach lessons that would endure long after the plague ceased. The Torah is explicit that one lesson is to teach both the Israelites and Egyptians that God is real. The plague of darkness also wants to teach us about the fragility of our social connections: it is easy enough for us to become estranged from one another, which is why many commentators emphasize this aspect of choshekh.

At the same time, the dark sky of the Oregon Outback, the faint light of stars that guide sea turtles, and the less-remarked upon way in which too much light creates depression by throwing off our sleep cycles remind us that darkness is also a blessing and a need. Many ancient cultures viewed darkness as part of the fertile feminine, that from which life itself arises. In Jungian psychology, meanwhile, the shadow and the collective unconscious are profound sources of growth and wisdom. Additionally, as we recognize the role of trees in Jewish environmental consciousness, we can note that trees also need darkness. Continual light stresses them. In the darkness as well, trees engage fully in respiration, absorbing oxygen. In the darkness they breathe better.

The past week of cold darkness has taken its toll on us. At the same time, like the trees, we can use it as a reminder to breathe deeply into the darkness, sensing its possibilities and blessings for growth and renewal; once we overcome our lingering fear of darkness that never fully disappeared after childhood, we can remember that for the Israelites in Egypt, the harsher aspects of darkness never touched them. Like those Libyan donkeys, we can teach ourselves to walk in the dark, undeterred, knowing that it is good for the planet; when embraced, it is good for our neshamas, our souls, as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

1 This and all other quotes are sourced from Sefaria, including inconsistent formatting.
2 Ramban on Exodus 10:23, sourced from Sefaria.
3 Ibid
4 TB Tamid 32a

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