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A new dawn: Amanda Gorman vs The Rabbis. Epic poetry battles of history

Millennia before America's brilliant youth poet laureate was wielding wise words, the Talmud’s sages could amaze with a turn of phrase
LEFT: American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
RIGHT: Rabban Gamliel. From the Haggadah for Passover (the 'Sister Haggadah').(via Wikimedia)
LEFT: American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) RIGHT: Rabban Gamliel. From the Haggadah for Passover (the 'Sister Haggadah').(via Wikimedia)

In my mind, I’m hearing a dialogue between the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud some 2000 years ago and my new “rabbi,” Amanda Gorman, the young poet who read “The Hill We Climb” at the U.S. Presidential Inauguration.

The Rabbis open.

“You inspire us, Amanda. You know, the younger generation – children – will bring peace to the world. Actually, don’t say banayich, your children, but bonayich, your builders, because children take the values we give them and out of those, they build the future.”

“Nice,” Amanda says. “Banayich, bonayich. But how about this?

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.”

“Ah,” the Rabbis reply, “we’re all about norms and notions and just-ice. Like in this week’s Torah portion, when ‘The Hill We Climb’ is Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments offer words— well, it’s crazy how relevant these words still are in your day. Words like:

Don’t kill
Don’t cheat
Don’t steal
Don’t lie
Don’t cast a covetous eye
on what’s not yours
to have or hold.”

“Sweet!” says Amanda. “You guys are good. And how about this?

And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it.”

“Yes!” the Rabbis respond emphatically. “Let’s talk about the dawn. Try to stick with us, Amanda.

The watchword of the Jewish faith is the Shema. SIX words. (Short footnote: The Ten Commandments is 197 words. Your inaugural poem weighed in at 709 words. Something for you to work on?)

Six words: Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai echad. Hear o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

Or for your generation perhaps: Listen up! We’re all connected, everything is one.

We’ve decided to say the Shema every morning and every evening, but we’re wrestling with the question: What’s the earliest one can say the Shema? That is: when does a new day dawn?

One Rabbi says:

‘I say it’s when there’s just enough light to tell the difference between blue and white. Why blue and white? Because my prayer shawl has white fringes and blue fringes. When I can make that distinction, then my spiritual intentionality starts a new day.’

Another Rabbi says:

‘I say it’s when there’s just enough light to tell the difference between blue and green – more subtle. Why blue and green? Because when I can barely make out the color of the treetops and the color of the sky beyond, my appreciation of the beauty of the natural world brings a new day.’

And then a third Rabbi says:

‘No. It’s when there’s just enough light so that at a distance of four amot – four lengths of my forearm – I can see someone coming and recognize them. In other words, when I genuinely see the face of another person and connect with them, that’s when I can say the Shema. That’s when there’s a new dawn.’”

“Wow,” says Amanda. And all she can add is:

The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

About the Author
Danny Paller is a Jerusalem-based writer, composer, and educator.
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