There's a story going around about a man trying to cross the street. However, when he steps off the curb a car comes screaming around the corner and heads straight for him.
The man walks faster, trying to hurry across the street, but the car changes lanes and is still coming at him. So the guy turns around to run back, but the car changes lanes again and is still coming at him.
By now, the car is so close and the man so scared that he just freezes in the middle of the road.
The car races right up to him, then swerves at the last possible moment and stops next to the man. The driver rolls down the window. Lo and behold, it's a squirrel driving the car. And the squirrel says to the man, "See, it's not as easy as it looks, is it?"
Nothing seems particularly easy these days. We are all feeling it. It seems like the world has gone mad.
Two weeks ago, a young man planted bombs in New York and New Jersey. The LA Times had the background story of his life - his personal story resembles the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. People from different backgrounds and cultures are unable to accept or tolerate their children falling in love.
Reading his story reminded me about two aspects of why we blow the shofar during Rosh Hashanah services. In ancient times, the shofar was blown when there was danger. It was a call to arms when the city was being attacked. The shrill urgent sound provoked the response to imminent peril and was a call to action.
The story of Ahmad Khan Rahami is like this aspect of blowing the shofar - alerting us to danger. Warning us that immigrants can become radicalized and plant bombs in our own backyards. Initially assimilated and growing up in a melting pot neighborhood in New Jersey, there was no reason to fear this immigrant family. Originally there was no call to danger.
It was only after Rahami fell in love with Maria, his high school girlfriend. She was Dominican and a Catholic, and Rahami's Muslim father disapproved. They had a baby and Ahmad used his earnings from working at his family's restaurant to get an apartment and provide for his young family. However, his father stridently disapproved and cut off all funding and support. Maria took the baby and left.
Depressed and adrift, Ahmad was taken by his father to Afghanistan, and told to learn how to take his religion seriously. After two years he came back radicalized, with a Pakistani wife and a new baby. Although he looked different, neighbors were still shocked at how this popular young man could be responsible for a series of bombs planted in New York and New Jersey. They were all immigrants and most thought they agreed that America was a place to find a better life.
Now, like the call of the shofar, there was a sense of danger: whom can you trust? If it happened here once, it can happen again. There is reason to be afraid.
However, this is not the only side of the story. Another understanding of why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a call for tolerance and compassion, as opposed to the call for danger.
In one of our oldest Biblical texts, the ancient Israelites were oppressed for years by the Canaanites, who stole their livestock, kidnapped their children and imposed onerous levies on their communities.
Deborah was a prophet and judge of Israel at that time. She took her people into battle against the Canaanite army and its general, Sisera. The Israelites defeated their enemy and Sisera was killed.
In the aftermath of this great victory, and finally freed from their enemies, the Bible story relates this strange observation. "Sisera's mother peered out her window - she gazed through the lattice. Crying she asked, Why is his chariot so long in coming?"
Why was the Bible concerned about the mother of our enemy?
Tradition teaches that Sisera's mother cried 100 times, and this is why we blow 100 blasts on the Shofar. The word used for Sisera's mother's crying is the same word used to describe the wailing sound of the Shofar.
The Shofar is not just used as a call to danger, but on Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis want us to listen to the wailing, crying Shofar sounds, and be reminded of the story of Sisera's mother. We are told to feel and understand the humanity and despair of all people, even our fiercest enemies!
We must develop tolerance and compassion for the plight and pain of our enemies, lest we too become like them and lose our own humanity. We find empathy and caring, while at the same time we must be aware that there is danger and people who want to harm us.
The shofar blasts convey both messages simultaneously.
Be aware of the danger of radicalized extremists full of hate and fury, who want to kill innocent people indiscriminately, and be aware of the humanity of each individual, knowing that often it is the fear of the other that causes such hate and ugliness.
The bomber Ahmed Rahami became radicalized after his father refused to accept his non-Muslim girlfriend and their child. This intolerance and adamant indifference to his son's needs led Rahmani down his violent path.
The Shofar's blast asks us to feel compassion for a broken young man, who was pushed too far by his father and lost his way, while at the same time recognizing that this man was dangerous and a threat to others.
The spiritual power of the shofar can open our hearts, allowing us to be more compassionate and humane while keeping the larger perspective of the dangers present in our crazy world.
The story of the mother's tears asks us to consider other options besides war and violence. Though necessary sometimes, it can be prevented by more tolerance and compassion for people who are different than we are.
Sunnis could tolerate Shiites and so many lives would be saved.
Israelis and Palestinians could discover how much they could benefit from living together in mutuality and understanding, and so much destruction and fear could be eliminated.
We can continue to embrace and interact with immigrant families who are not radicals but only want to find a place to live in peace. Our hearts can be uplifted and our souls opened as we help and care for others.
The optimistic, stirring words at the end of the Song of Deborah, proclaiming the victory over Sisera and the Canaanites is instructive:
Ken Yovdu Oy'Vecha Hashem
V'ohavav KehTzeit Hashemesh Big'vurato!
So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!
But may those who love You be as the sun rising in might.
May we find courage and hope that this New Year can be a beginning for more tolerance and compassion, leading to more peace and security in our troubled world, and we say AMEN.