Rosh Hashana Homily (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

Sammy Davis Junior notwithstanding, most of you have probably guessed
that I am not Jewish. All the more reason for me to feel honored to
have been asked to participate in this service. Few things are more
flattering than to be entrusted with not making a mess of someone
else's heritage. I must also confess that few things are more
nerve-wracking. I fear that I have tested the patience of my Jewish
friends this past two weeks with my nightly calls for advice. Is it
okay to say this? Is it alright to say that?

I made myself such a pest, in fact, with my questions about Rosh
Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and everything that happens in between, that my
friends decided to meet to discuss what to do about me. The upshot was
that they had one final piece of advice for me and that was to stop
trying to become Jewish in two weeks. That just wasn't enough
time, they told me, even to become a Unitarian Universalist Jew.

I can only speak from my own tradition and my own heritage. No matter
how good my intentions, no matter how thorough my research, no matter
how warmly you welcome me—-and it has felt like a warm welcome—-I
can only speak about Rosh Hashanah as an outsider looking in. To try
to pretend otherwise would do violence to a tradition that I have come
to appreciate through the willingness of my friends to share their
experience of Rosh Hashanah with me and through your willingness for
me to play a small part in this service.


We celebrate many beginnings tonight. First, we celebrate the
beginning of a new year — the year 5758. Regrettably, human beings
are political creatures. Left to our own devices, we will find a way
of politicizing almost anything. Including time. Emperors of the
ancient world, in fits of egotism, preferred to have the reckoning of
time begin with their individual reigns. People of the ancient world
had to hit the equivalent of a reset button on their calendars with
the death of an old emperor and the birth of a new. We have witnessed
this even in more recent times. Flushed with revolutionary fervor, the
French Republic decided to issue its own calendar, declaring that the
year 1792 would henceforth be the year 1 to mark the birth of a new
France. That audacious calendar lasted a mere 13 years.

Jewish calendars have been political as well. It was once the custom
to reckon dates starting with the Exodus from Egypt. Still later,
dates were reckoned from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Unquestionably, these are important historical events, but a calendar
based on them would be political in that it would reflect the
interests of one particular people at one particular time in their
history.

The current Jewish calendar, however, is perhaps the least political
of the calendars I know. It takes as its beginning, as its point of
initial reckoning, the moment of human creation itself. Who can argue
with that? It seems a central event to me. We can dispute the numbers.
Jewish scholars arrived at the date of creation through a process of
estimation from the life spans recorded in biblical stories.
Consulting a book, even a presumably divinely inspired one, is apt to
be misleading. Far better to consult nature on such matters. We can
dispute whether there was even a moment of creation. Certainly the
record left behind by nature suggests it must have been a very long
moment and a very gradual process indeed.

But these are trifles. What is important is that an event of spiritual
and ethical significance to all people in all places forms the
starting point for the Jewish calendar. And though in its reaching far
back in time it is an ancient calendar. In its accentuation of what is
cross-culturally universal, the Jewish calendar is perhaps our most
modern.


Tonight the notes of the shofar entreat us to begin the Jewish New
Year with celebration tempered by reflection. Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz has
written an essay for Rosh Hashanah that talks about the importance of
beginning well. Curiously, reading Rabbi Tatz's words, I found
myself thinking of Stone Montgomery, the dreadlocked, African American
who directed the T.H.E. Percussion Choir. I hope the comparison
doesn't injure either of them. Like Rabbi Tatz, Stone used to
preach during choir rehearsals about the importance of good
beginnings. It doesn't matter what you play in between, he'd
say, as long as you begin together and end together. That's all
people will remember.

Well, what we do in the middle does matter. We all know that. In the
middle is where we live, where we work, where we interact with family
and friends. And it's in the middle that we tend to lose our way.
It's where we lose sight of the shape of the forest because of all
the trees obscuring our vision. It's where our best intentions,
where our high-minded resolutions, those things that we swear
we're going to hold tight to, it's where they seem to slip
from our grasp and to get lost in the day to day business of our
lives. That's why we need those new beginnings. Those times when
we can pause, look back, shake our heads with puzzlement and remorse,
but then lay hold again of those things we really ought to be about.


Rosh Hashanah is just such a new beginning. A chance to start over. To
reflect on where we have gotten to in the year gone by and where we
should aim our steps in the year ahead. A chance to make amends. To
embrace those whom we have hurt and to offer forgiveness to those who
may have hurt us. A chance to lay hold to our values once again and to
renew the covenant with ourselves to live and act in accord with what
we value.

But can a human being really change? Can we really redirect our steps,
abandon the foolish baggage we carry, and shoulder the burdens that
are worth the effort it takes to heft them?

The Jewish tradition, Rabbi Tatz tells us, is a pragmatically
optimistic one. It upholds the possibility of change while not
ignoring the constancy of human fallibility. The ethical person is
seen as being like a tree planted in good soil whose branches overhang
bad soil. Growing in good soil, the tree at its essence is good. But
the symbolism of the branches overhanging bad soil recognizes that
even the most ethical human being will not be without fault. The
unethical person is a tree planted in bad soil whose branches overhang
good soil. Though unethical at the core, the potential for good lies
very near.

Most of us live in between these poles, with our roots partly in the
good soil and partly in the bad. Our task at Rosh Hashanah is to begin
the process of shifting our trunks toward the soil that nourishes our
better nature. The shifting of a tree trunk. I can think of no better
image to capture the optimistic belief in the potential of human
beings to change and the recognition of the enormity of the effort
required. But at Rosh Hashanah, we only have to make a beginning. And
to paraphrase a statement of chazal [ha-zul]: Everything flows after
that beginning.


I want to end with my favorite New Year's story. I've never
told it at Rosh Hashanah, but I think it will still work. I'm told
that it's a true story. It's a story about the director of a
food bank at New Years and an old woman who calls on the phone. The
woman is alone, impoverished, and ill. Too ill to come for the annual
holiday dinner at the food bank. She asks if someone at the food bank
can bring food to her as she can not come and has no one that can pick
up a meal for her.

Touched by the woman's situation, the director of the food bank
agrees to personally bring New Year's dinner to her. The old woman
is very grateful and after thanking the director, she asks hesitantly
if there will be any sweet potatoes on the menu. No, the director
says, they don't have any sweet potatoes. The food bank depends on
donated food and no sweet potatoes have been donated for this
year's meal. The old woman sighs. She says when she was a little
girl, her father told her to always have a sweet potato at New
Year's because it would bring luck in the months ahead. And the
old woman had kept that tradition throughout her life. The old woman
ended the call by saying that she would pray for the food bank to
receive a donation of sweet potatoes.

Well the director was so touched by the old woman's request that
she decided to go out, get in her car, drive to the grocery store, and
buy a sweet potato which she would cook herself to take along with the
old woman's dinner. The director got as far as the parking lot
where she found that her car was blocked in by a large delivery truck.
The driver was just getting out. Irritated, the director ran around
and confronted the driver.

The driver was very apologetic. He had never been to the food bank
before and didn't know where to put his truck. But you see, he had
this load of sweet potatoes that his company had been unable to sell.
They were small, gnarled, knobby sweet potatoes that the grocery
stores didn't want to buy because their customers preferred big,
plump potatoes. The company was going to discard them, but they
thought that maybe the food bank could use them. Almost sheepishly,
the driver asked the director if she would like to have the sweet
potatoes. "How many do you have?," the director asked.
Again, apologetically, the driver said he had only about a hundred
bushels.

Well, the director hurried back into her office and called up the old
woman. "Please stop praying!" the director said as the old
woman answered. "We now have more sweet potatoes than we can
possibly cook." Needless to say, the old woman was overjoyed. She
thanked the director repeatedly. Then she paused and she said
thoughtfully, "Oh, I do hope they're the small, knobby kind.
Cause, you see, I just hate those big, plump ones."


Shana Tovah. May you be inscribed for a good year. And may the new
year bring those sweet potatoes that you have been praying for.

Amen.