Imagine you knew the constellations as well as you knew your neighborhood. Like you knew how to get from the subway stop to your apartment, you knew the way from the Big Dipper to Orion. Like you could make your way from Lincoln Center to Grand Central you could follow the stars from Aquarius to Gemini. This used to be a much more common human ability but it was always rare. In the Talmud we find one true expert of the heavens. “Shmuel said: the paths of the skies are as clear to me as the paths of Nehardea (the town he lived in).” An intimacy with the night skies is something we city dwellers seem to have largely lost.
A couple weeks ago the stars entered my living room. My cousin shipped me a painting that belonged to my grandmother, with text from the Book of Job under an abstract depiction of the night sky. Painted by Ben Shahn, a Jew who traversed the paths from the old world to the US, from Cheder to the world of political art, the painting has brought with it soft questions of our place in the universe, gentle queries about the ways we walk the earth, and new readings of the Book of Job.
The stars serve a few different purposes according to our creation story.
והיו לאתת ולמועדים ולימים ושנים
They will serve as signs, and holidays and days and years.
Signs that suggest where we might go. Holidays that we can stop and mark special times. Days that we might stay connected with the slow movement of the everyday. Years that we can feel the flow of our lives, its circularity as well as its changing nature.
Life here on the ground beneath the stars is not always easy. We struggle to see those signs up there.
The text in the painting is part of God’s speech to the ultimate sufferer, Job toward the end of the book. You’ll recall that Job was a rich, happy man, who had his entire life implode, losing his children, his wealth and health, and his trust in the goodness of God. After thirty some chapters of theological poetry about the question of bad things happening to good people, God finally speaks. God’s speech is most easily understood as a scolding. General sentiment: Who are you to complain at me, you little speck of dust?! But staring at these verses sitting under Shahn’s constellations has softened God’s words from angry rhetorical…