The Jewish New Year provides an excellent opportunity to “restart” — to remember that God has a different set of values than man does, and to endeavor to recommit oneself to those divine values. The prescribed haftarah (non-Pentateuch Scripture reading) for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is I Samuel 1:1–2:10, Hannah’s song of thanksgiving for her deliverance from barrenness:
The bows of the mighty are shattered,
But the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for bread,
But those who were hungry cease to hunger.
Even the barren gives birth to seven,
But she who has many children languishes. . . .
[The Lord] raises the poor from the dust,
He raises the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
And He set the world on them.
These words had a deep resonance in the Jewish tradition, to the extent that, centuries later, a lowly Jewish teenager destined for greatness would invoke them:
[The Lord] has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy.
In our age of highly politicized religion, many sermons focus on a purely economic interpretation of these passages, in the service of an agenda we might call “Occupy the Bible.” It is of course undeniable that, in most orthodox understandings of Scripture, God does call on us to take care of those who are in material need. But what’s going on in these texts is much more profound: a call to repentance, to a recognition that the human scale of values is not the ultimate one. Elizabeth Scalia has recently published a book on the universal human temptation toward idolatry – toward treating what is not ultimate as if it were ultimate. Whether one is Jewish or not, the beginning of a New Year is a good time to reflect on the values we assert as ultimate, and those we cherish as if they were.