Psalm 136, sung on Shabbat morning, is one of my favorite prayers. I've heard it since childhood as part of the Passover seder, set either to a dirge-like melody or the odd, singsongy one favored by my ex's family ("who slew great kings, fa la la!"). The one we do at my synagogue is simple, repetitive--and also, somehow, encouraging, comforting, and challenging. It's upbeat and in a major key, but not so cheery and square that the triumphs it lists sound like slogans. We slow down at the long line "the moon and the stars to rule by night" as if to allow an extra second to think about the complex and more problematic proof of God's love that immediately follows: "...who smote the Egyptian firstborn." I wait each week to hear the proud swagger in the cantor's voice as he recounts the slaying of the mighty Sihon and Og. (I got to sing those lines on the High Holy Days and tried, without success, to hide the fact that I was attempting to imitate every nuance of the cantor's version.)
Every once in a while the rabbis change the refrain--"Ki leolam hasdo," "His love endures forever"--to their native language, "Su merced nunca falto." Most of the congregation doesn't understand; since the unpredictable is always interesting at my synagogue, I never minded being clueless. Today they finally let us in on the secret ("it's Yiddish by way of Buenos Aires"), and one of the rabbis prefaced the lesson with a story. Years ago, along with a student group, they visited an impoverished village in El Salvador. They held a Shabbat service, the first any of the local inhabitants had seen. The rabbis sang the refrain of Psalm 136 in Spanish, and the deeply religious native community, who had never before encountered Jewish prayer, joined in with all their hearts and souls. It didn't matter that everyone was from different religious traditions; God's mercy is a universal idea. The rabbi said he thinks often of that moment in the middle of the other side of the world when praying Psalm 136. And now, each Shabbat as I hear its melody swoop up and then perch, for an instant, on a high note, as if waiting for the questions that must follow each account of victory and praise, I'll able to leave New York for a few minutes, as well.