STLT#223, Rock of Ages, Let Our Song

I’ve been staring at the screen, sipping coffee, for longer than is entirely comfortable, feeling empty and lacking in anything of substance – humorous, snarky, historic, theological, musical, or otherwise – to say.

Perhaps in a different time and place, when there is a sense of pride in who we are as a nation, this might feel a little more inspiring. And even then, I might find this somewhat frustrating – inasmuch as I find any kind of nationalism and belief in chosenness frustrating.

This hymn, with its very German folksongy tune, celebrates the military victory of a nation and a temple at the hands of a strong-armed god. I know it is popular in many synagogues around the world, and there is biblical precedent for singing a song of victory – see Exodus 15, a song of victory led by Moses and the guys after the Egyptians die in the Reed Sea.

But, well… I don’t know. It feels strange to follow up Light One Candle and Mi Y’Malel, with their broader vision of justice for all, with this song of Maccabean military triumph.

Rock of Ages, let our song praise your saving power;
you amidst the raging foes were our sheltering tower.
Raging they assailed us, but your arm availed us,
and your word broke their sword when our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, unbowed by suffering,
purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering.
And in lands surrounding hear the joy abounding,
happy throngs singing songs with a mighty sounding.

Children of the prophet’s word whether free or fettered,
wake the echoes of the songs where you may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
which shall see nations free, tyrants disappearing.

I suspect some of my gentle readers will have a different perspective on the hymn, which I wholeheartedly welcome. I suspect they’ll put this in context, they’ll talk about right over might, they’ll see this as celebration of truth and freedom.

And perhaps if we weren’t bingewatching this bizarre thing that’s part House of Cards, part Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and isn’t fiction at all but actual international crisis and possible treason, I might feel willing to celebrate a bit more.

To say “I have nothing interesting to say” – which has happened – is a misnomer. I have something interesting to say…it’s just not very happy or perhaps even helpful.

3 Comments

  1. My reading is similar. I sang this song with gusto growing up (there were very few Jewish holiday songs sung in English, so one couldn’t afford to be picky), and the message I absorbed was definitely that I belonged to a group that was maligned and attacked, singled out for persecution–not so much greatness, in this case. It was God who was awesome, not Judaism, though the implication that WE were great for believing in God was clear.

    My messianic fervor, which drove me into activism and has never quite left me, has its roots in lines like these. “The time is nearing / which will see / all men free, / tyrants disappearing!”

    By the way, in our version, the last verse began “Children of the martyr-race.” I seem to remember my parents thinking that was a bit OTT. I try to tone it down as I pass our Jewish heritage on to our daughter by summing up this and most Jewish holidays as “They tried to kill us. We’re still here. Let’s eat!” Same message, more humor.

  2. Agreed. About the best I can say is that it’s a hymn of defensive victory (as opposed to a celebration of one of the OT conquests, like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” or something).
    Just as an aside, my high school choir director used this song as part of the “it’s not really a Christmas performance” repertoire. I wasn’t sure it convinced me then, and it doesn’t convince me now, but he was a good man (a man of Unitarian sympathies who was a music teacher in hte week and a Congregationalist organist on Sundays, as I recall).

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