October 19, 2019

Starry Nights

It's not every night one has a transcendent experience while taking out the garbage. But that's exactly how I felt several nights running when I was struck by dazzling lights in the western sky. At first I thought this super bright “star” in front of me — more like three stars put together — was just another airplane. So I patiently waited for it to fly off. It didn't. And the other “star,” a little farther up and to the left, was really bright too …

Intrigued, I headed back to my home computer and looked up “today's night sky.” The date was June 18, a few days before summer solstice. And what I'd been dazzled by weren't stars at all, but two planets. The incredibly bright one was Venus — always the brightest celestial object, after the sun and moon. And the second “star” I'd seen nearby was a planet too, Jupiter, the next brightest heavenly body. I also learned that if I'd been out at dusk, just as the sun was setting, I might also have captured the newly emerging crescent moon, hung low on the horizon.

The next few nights, I followed that clear glowing crescent as it grew and moved up alongside my bright planets. And then I noticed one more bright spot, a real star this time, called Regulus. And wouldn't you know it: that star also happens to be the brightest STAR in the night sky.

If I'm beginning to sound “star-struck” by now, it's because I am. Though I'm generally not the type of person who goes crazy about the cosmos. That's more my husband's department. He's dragged me numerous times to our local planetarium on Open Observatory nights where telescopes of varying sizes are pointed at the moon, stars, and nearby planets. But even from this dedicated viewing area, ambient city-lights interfere, the telescopes' lens set-ups often go out of sync, and wait lines are crowded with noisy kids and biting mosquitoes. The atmosphere is not what I would call conducive to imparting a sense of wonder.

But this time, right outside my front door (with the porch light off), there was magic. My husband and I stood silently in awe at this heavenly gift that had arrived unplanned, unexpected, definitely not “paid for,” and yet ours for the taking. To me, these star (and planet) lights represent the real “diamonds are forever” — belonging to everyone and anyone who will simply stop and look. If their cold, remote beauty also reminds us of how small we (and our daily cares) truly are, so much the better.

This wasn't the first time I'd been awestruck by the vastness of the universe. Some two decades ago, another stargazing episode caught my breath and transported my soul to such dizzying heights, it actually felt frightening.

Being new Florida residents at the time, we'd decided to escape the summer heat by renting an off-season ski cabin in Jay Peak, Vermont. The first night in our new country home was so chilly, we lit a roaring fire in the fireplace and congratulated ourselves on our getaway wisdom. Little did we know, it would represent the only fire we'd light that season; its memory making what came after all the more galling. For what followed was the hottest summer in Vermont's recorded history and — wouldn't you know it? — one of the coolest in South Florida!

Of course our cabin lacked air conditioning, so we spent most days visiting Vermont's not-so-freezing-now lakes. Due to shaky TV reception from a single channel, evenings often found us camped outdoors as well. We'd lie flat on our backs on a blanket in the grass behind our little abode, the only sound the odd barking dog miles away. Eventually even the distant farmhouses would, one by one, extinguish their lights for the night and we were left all alone — with the universe. All we could see were stars — a zillion points of light that had traveled unimaginable distances through space and time from worlds unknown.

No planetarium exhibition — not the Hayden in New York or Space City in Toulouse, France — can compare to a real life star show in natural blackout conditions. There were times I felt so small and irrelevant, I had to dash back indoors and turn on the lights, just to get my “self” back. Now I totally got why Moses had turned away from the burning bush, fearing the sight of the face of God.

Our stay in the boonies of Vermont yielded an overwhelming, and often fearsome, stargazing experience. But throughout my life I've also taken comfort in the beauty and predictability of the night sky. No matter where I lived, I was always able to locate the Big and Little Dippers, and Orion with his belt of three stars. When my daughter was studying or traveling abroad, I'd look up at night and imagine her viewing her sky's stars as well, and wish her Godspeed. As she's a lifelong night owl, I felt she'd be far more likely to “catch a falling star” than be up for the call of a morning songbird. The stars were our dependable connection.

Back in the day, when I was a child myself, I would regularly search the night sky — at least once a week, in clear weather. “Three visible stars in the sky” was how my family knew it was time to end the Sabbath day of rest. It was my “job” to look out over the fire escape of our Bronx tenement's window in search of these stars each Saturday night. Only after I excitedly pointed them out to my parents, could we proceed with the Havdalah ceremony, separating the holy day from the profane weekdays to come.

Now I wonder if some of the stars I'd sighted all those years ago were actually planets, and if it was kosher to count them among the three. (It's the type of question my scholar father would have loved to discuss with his “bright and inquisitive” young daughter.)

But as for choosing stars to usher in the chol (weekday), I now believe that tradition may have been rooted in a lot more than offering a simple method to mark the end of the holiday. Perhaps it was a subliminal form of reminding us not to let our upcoming, everyday concerns consume us too deeply till the next Sabbath's respite. As if the cosmos itself were calling out to us:

Look! Up in the sky! Above all your ordinary cares. See the stars!

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

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