“The moon and stars to rule by night….”

Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone
I was thrilled and moved by Rabbi David Wolpe’s piece “Passover in a Land of Jewish Ghosts.” As I read along, I first began thinking, “Yes, but….” But then came the turning point, and he took that very “Yes, but….” and did something beautiful with it. I won’t give it away–but here’s a passage I love, not just for itself, but for its relation to the opposite: “Throughout Jewish history the ‘ner tamid,’ the eternal light, has gone out. But it has also been relit. All those empty synagogues wait; all those unopened books and unsung words retain their meaning. We are rekindling people.”

I started thinking of Psalm 136, which I will be leading at tonight’s Seder at Szim Salom. The long phrase in verse 9, “Et hayareach vechochavim lememshelot balayla” (“the moon and stars to rule by night”), is usually difficult to fit into a given melody and rhythm. The other verses work just fine; this one stands out. I remember that the chazzan and rabbis at BJ would handle this in one of several ways: they would draw out both the phrase and melody in length, break the phrase in two parts (each one to be sung to the melodic phrase), or pronounce the syllables especially fast. In any case, when we sang it responsively, they would usually take the lead with this verse, since it could get chaotic if several hundred people tried to sing it without guidance.

How great it is that this particular verse makes us pause, slow down, or stumble–that we must pay attention to the multitude of lights at night. I think of this in the Pesach spirit: how, even in those long voyages out of Egypt, there are lights upon lights, especially in the dark. It isn’t just that there’s hope in darkness; it’s that these multitudes upon multitudes of lights, near and impossibly distant, not only show the way, but tip a person into wonder. Even in a grim age, the lights not only shine but rule.

 

Painting: Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888).