The Hill We Climb: An Invitation to Poetry

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 22, 2021 / 9 Shevat 5781

NOTIFICATION: Last week during Saturday morning Shabbat services, there was a small gap in broadcasting when our internet connection went down. Amazingly, this was the first time we had such an interruption since the pandemic forced us to move services on-line. Unfortunately, it occurred during a bat mitzvah. Our able tech crew worked quickly to troubleshoot and restore our stream. Once clergy was notified of the outage, we spent the time off line teaching about the Torah and some of the reasons for our Shabbat rituals. In other words, we wanted to provide the family with a continuous experience of Shabbat, while ensuring that home viewers did not miss the service or any of the strong leadership shown by our bat mitzvah, Sarah Bloom.

We are committed to maintaining the strength of our community during this pandemic, and we understand how important our services are to you. Previously we had generated plans in case of a power outage. This most recent event led staff and clergy to develop new protocols should we lose connectivity again. I want to thank you for your patience and understanding.

Tu B’shvat, the birthday of the trees, starts this coming Wednesday evening, January 27th.
I encourage you to take advantage of the date to plan and set aside money so you can plant a tree come spring, and also to use the day to commune with our tree-rich environment.

Additionally, Yakov Epstein, who leads our environmental group, Shomrei Teva, has provided information about an exciting program: The BIG BOLD JEWISH CLIMATE FEST will be online from Wednesday, January 27 through Sunday, January 31 at Yakov writes, “If you’re concerned about our environment or climate change or future generations and their health or if you’re curious about Tu b’Shvat and its rituals or if you’re interested in Jewish environmental teachings from Torah or Talmud or (fill in the blank) — this is the festival for you.”

On a separate note, I will be going in for knee surgery next week. Given the power of Zoom, I will still be able to lead services, teach, and otherwise engage. The first days after surgery, however, can be uncomfortable, and so it is probable that there won’t be an Oasis Songs next week.

Reading Time: Three minutes

Summary: This week’s Oasis is a reflection on Amanda Gorman and the role of poetry and extends an invitation to an upcoming salon.

One of the moments in this week’s inauguration which captured the nation’s attention was when our first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Written in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection, it captured the heartbreak, anger and division of our nation, even as she provided us with a message of tempered hope and a path forward. People who don’t normally read poetry were suddenly reacquainted with its power. I hope that more folks, inspired by Gorman, will make some room for poetry in their lives. I also hope they will come to understand that it contains the power to liberate us from our fixed ways.

Open source photo from

Over the past couple of months, a group of congregants have been enjoying a class on some great Jewish poems, ranging from the book of Psalms, written 3000 years ago, up to the modern period. Some of our group didn’t have a background with poetry, and still we have all discovered or been reacquainted with how transformative it can be, how humanizing it is. In fact, last week we read part of Chaim Bialik’s searing poem, City of the Killings, which recounted the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903. If Gorman captured where America has been and where it must go, Bialik did so at an equally dreadful moment, in which scores of our people were murdered. He unflinchingly described how spiritually crushed we had become. Although that poem is bleak and sharp, it and other works he penned marked a turning point in which Jews suddenly awakened from a dismal history and turned to rebuild Jewish life. We are all the inheritors of that Jewish national project. Sometimes you first have to plunge into the dark to see the light—to be the light.

Like sports, movies, music and the arts, poetry is never one thing. During the Middle Ages, Spanish poets were rock stars and the entertainers of their time. Some of the creations of these Jewish poets have become a permanent part of our liturgy. This was also a period of remarkable camaraderie in which Muslims and Jews would gather for a mujālasāt, a salon in someone’s home in which poetry was recited—often from memory—while guests enjoyed libations of wine together. That last piece may surprise the devout, as Islam forbids drinking wine, and medieval Judaism forbade drinking with non-Jews. And yet the power of poetry overcame those strictures and brought our cousins together.

On January 31st, our class will be hosting one of these poetry and wine salons, and we are opening it to the wider CNS community. In another year, we would have gathered in person—and I would have splurged for the wine. This year, we will gather by Zoom at 7 pm. I hope you will join us. Please have your own appropriate libation handy at home. Yes, tea, water or coffee is acceptable. Each student in the class will share a Jewish poem. If you’d like to bring a poem by a Jewish author, ancient or modern, please do so and if there is time I will ask you to share it.

Another great American poet from another era was William Carlos Williams. One of his famous later poems is called “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” Toward the poem’s conclusion, he writes: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

Amanda Gorman reminded us of what a poem contains. And sometimes, as she demonstrated so ably, you can discover the deeper news that we all need to hear.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you recall the first poem you remember thrilling to? Was it a childhood rhyme? Dr. Seuss? A Bob Dylan song?
  2. Have you ever had a meaningful relationship with a tree? Perhaps a treehouse you could escape to with friends? Or one you regularly sheltered under in the rain?
  3. What sort of connection do you have with trees today? What do they mean to you?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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