STARS IN THE SKY
The Last of Deuteronomy
Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. Deuteronomy 10:22
Among the casualties of modern times are analogies to nature. I think “grains of sand on the shore” is still a pretty big number in the minds of most, even when beach erosion and oceanfront construction has made that an objectively smaller comparison. But “cedars of Lebanon,” “the moon to rule the night” and certainly “the mighty Jordan River” (yeah…no) are figures of speech and not the experience of most readers. We have cut down the trees, turned on the lights and diverted the headwaters.
But worst of all is “as numerous as the stars of heaven.” Most of the population of North America live in or near a city of some size. Between the particle contaminants in the atmosphere and the light pollution from homes, office buildings and streetlamps, the abundance of stars we witness is really a fraction of what can be seen in more isolated locations. I was, well, starstruck the first time I looked up at dark in rural Wisconsin and saw the canvas on which the ancients imagined the constellations. And that was nothing compared to looking up from my sleeping bag in the Sinai desert on a moonless night and recognizing both my insignificance and my privilege in viewing that tableau.
More than a dozen years ago, at a synagogue event, my three kids offered their interpretations of my favorite verse from the Bible, Psalm 147:3-4, “the healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds counts the number of stars and calls each one by name.” They rightly identified all the reasons it so appealed to me, and correctly noted that in another life I would have loved to have been an astronaut. Wow, to be a bit of protoplasm built of stardust, returning to the endless void that birthed us all! And still, floating untethered by any visible means to anything else, I might give off my own faintest of light that would, after billions of years, reach some distant destination to take my place among the uncountable stars and other objects beheld by others aspiring to the heavens!
Yeah, pretty over the top. But on a clear night at sea, on a mountaintop or in an isolated wilderness, you, too, would know what I mean.
A small number of people get to live some version of that dream. They spend a period of time in the International Space Station, orbiting the planet and performing the research that has already expanded the breadth and depth of human knowledge immeasurably. I imagine that the cramped quarters and isolation from human contact other than the few gets old pretty quickly. (Actually, there is less to imagine than there used to be before covid-19!) But would I do it, even today? In a heartbeat.
Fortunately, the flight of my imagination is easier to visualize despite light pollution and hazy skies. I installed an app on my phone that tracks the space station and tells me where to look in the night sky when it passes overhead. A point of light – neither twinkling like a little star nor blinking like a big old jet airliner – travels among the points of light making an arc from horizon to horizon. (You can find it for your device at https://www.issdetector.com/). On those nights that it passes over my house, I look up and watch it sail across the sky. Do I wave? Of course.
When the phrase “as numerous as the stars of heaven” was coined, nothing was known about them beyond the conjecture of a pre-scientific culture. When the assertion was made that God could count their number and name each one, you can be assured those names did not include Alpha-Centauri or Betelgeuse. The night-time sky was a welcome mystery, an analogue for the slightly less mysterious process of being fruitful and multiplying.
Today I cannot fathom how the letters I type on a keyboard wind up on a screen and then, at the push of a button, are whisked around the world. Someone has figured out the number of 1s and 0s and given each a name, creating constellations of information greater than the population to which we aspire. But as impressed as I am by that process, it pales next to awe I feel looking out on a moonless night hoping for a glimpse of the source of the stardust that bears my name.