Originally posted Tuesday July 28th, 2015
Thoughts on Devarim/Shabbat Chazon (5775/2015)
(Deut. 3:23 – 7:11)
[Edited version of Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 7/24/15]
This Shabbat is traditionally known as Shabbat Chazon – “The Sabbath of the Vision” after the first phrase in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah:
א חֲזוֹן, יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן-אָמוֹץ, אֲשֶׁר חָזָה, עַל-יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם--בִּימֵי עֻזִּיָּהוּ יוֹתָם אָחָז יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ, מַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה.
1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
ב שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמַיִם וְהַאֲזִינִי אֶרֶץ, כִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר: בָּנִים גִּדַּלְתִּי וְרוֹמַמְתִּי, וְהֵם פָּשְׁעוּ בִי.
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Eternal has spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me.
(Isaiah 1: 1-2)
We read these words in the haftarah tomorrow morning because this is the Shabbat immediately preceding the observance of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. The Mishnah teaches that the 9th of Av was the date of a whole slew of calamities in Jewish history, including the destruction of both the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Indeed, this Shabbat is the climax of a series of the three Shabbatot known as Tlata Depuranuta (“The Three [Sabbaths] of Rebuke”).
Next Shabbat, the first Shabbat that comes after Tisha B’Av, begins the new cycle of Sheva DeNechemta (“The Seven Sabbaths of Consolation”), leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
As I mentioned at the beginning of our service, in fact, Shabbat this week falls exactly on Tisha B’Av but our tradition is that the joyfulness, peace, thanksgiving and hope of Shabbat trumps the mourning and sadness of Tisha B’Av, so, those who observe Tisha B’Av will not begin doing so until tomorrow evening when Shabbat ends.
Just as our sacred texts for this time of year speak of existential disasters and dangers for Jerusalem in particular and the Jewish people and the Land of Israel in general ---- so this year do many of us find ourselves particularly concerned with the existential security of the State of Israel. As I’m sure you know, an agreement among Russia, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Iran was successfully concluded earlier this month. The agreement purports to block Iran from producing nuclear weapons for fifteen years in return for the elimination of existing economic sanctions.
Of course, all of this has everything to do with the security of the State of Israel, even though Israel was not a party to any of these talks. That’s why I was not personally opposed when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepted House Majority Leader John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress earlier this year. The negotiations with Iran were then ongoing. Those negotiations fundamentally impacted on Israel’s security -- yet Israel was not a party to those negotiations. Under those circumstances it seemed to me that it was not inappropriate for Netanyahu to use the forum that he had been offered to push for his vision of what an appropriate agreement might entail.
But now the deal has been negotiated and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini has given it his tacit approval. The U.S. Congress will now have a couple of months to review it. And the Iranian legislature will review it as well --- but not until two weeks after Congress has finished its review.
Caution is still in order. Reuters reported last week on a televised speech that Ayatollah Khamenei gave in a Tehran mosque following the conclusion of the negotiations. In that speech he said:
"We have repeatedly said we don't negotiate with the U.S. on regional or international affairs; not even on bilateral issues. There are some exceptions like the nuclear programme that we negotiated with the Americans to serve our interests."
But the Reuters article notes that he continued his remarks by asserting that U.S. policies in the region were "180 degrees" opposed to Iran's” and that,
"We will never stop supporting our friends in the region and the people of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. Even after this deal our policy towards the arrogant U.S. will not change."
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that his speech was punctuated by chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel".
President Obama and his advisers have acknowledged that the treaty deals with one specific problem, Iran’s path towards nuclear weapons, and that it is not any sort of holistic game changer that reforms Iran’s relationships with the world at large, let alone with Israel.
As such, it is certainly prudent to be wary about the negotiations that led up to the deal and about the current stage of the deal’s review by the U.S. Congress and by the various sectors of influence and power centers in Iranian society.
It’s easy to go into sensory overload on all of this if you try to keep up with all the news reports and analyses. So much of it has gotten tied up with American partisan politics --- as has been true for so many issues in the United States in recent years. One wonders whether some of those who are opposing the deal are doing so mainly because they oppose President Obama generally. One wonders whether some of those supporting the deal are doing so mainly because they support President Obama generally.
Israeli society is split. The American Jewish community is split. The U.S. congress is split. American society as a whole is split.
As for my own humble opinion, with which of course you may or may not agree, at this stage it concerns me that the deal doesn’t solve the problem of Iran’s support of terrorism and its danger to Israel in general. It merely kicks the can down the road for ten to fifteen years. However, it seems to me that “kicking the can down the road” is worth doing nonetheless. The analyses I’ve read have suggested that if the U.S. and/or Israel were to attempt military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that would delay Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb by just two to four years. So, ten to fifteen years in my book is better than two to four years.
Beyond that level of examination, I’m no defense analyst. And, while I did support the right of House Majority leader Boehner to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress, and while I thought Netanyahu gave a good speech there --- I think at this point it would be counterproductive for Israel to try to influence any further the political discussion going on in Washington now.
A fundamental tenet of Zionism, in which I wholeheartedly believe, is that the Jewish People -- as championed by the State of Israel -- should be actors in history and not just acted upon by others. However, I found very cogent the words of Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of “Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.” In the concluding paragraphs of an op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago he had this to say:
Over decades, Israel has built a unique alliance with the United States. This partnership has provided Israel with extensive aid, turned the Israel Defense Forces into one of the world’s most advanced militaries and safeguarded Israel’s interests in hostile international forums. Without America, the I.D.F. would be an empty shell, and Israel would be isolated and sanctioned.
Part of being a junior ally is knowing when to say, “Enough, we have made our case, time to be a team player.” Nothing is more important for Israel’s security than the vitality of its relationship with the United States — which Israel will still need in order to deal with Iran in the future.
So much for the political analyses.
What about our Jewish religious values?
There’s a really striking incident buried amidst the narrative of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim. As we begin the book of Deuteronomy this week, Moses is portrayed as addressing the Israelites at the end of the forty years of wandering, just prior to the crossing of the Jordan River into the Land of Israel. He’ll spend most of this last book of the Torah, preaching to the new generation on the importance of walking in the ways of God and creating a just and compassionate society as free people in our ancestral homeland.
But first he reviews the history of the previous forty years. At Deuteronomy 2:24, Moses speaks of how God had earlier instructed him:
כד קוּמוּ סְּעוּ, וְעִבְרוּ אֶת-נַחַל אַרְנֹן--רְאֵה נָתַתִּי בְיָדְךָ אֶת-סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ-חֶשְׁבּוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶת-אַרְצוֹ, הָחֵל רָשׁ; וְהִתְגָּר בּוֹ, מִלְחָמָה.
24 Rise up! Set out across the wadi Arnon! See, I give into your power Sihon the Amorite, king of Cheshbon, and his land; begin to possess it, and contend with him in battle.
Surprisingly, Moses seems consciously to disobey God in response. Instead of coming out fighting, Moses recounts:
כו וָאֶשְׁלַח מַלְאָכִים מִמִּדְבַּר קְדֵמוֹת, אֶל-סִיחוֹן מֶלֶךְ חֶשְׁבּוֹן, דִּבְרֵי שָׁלוֹם, לֵאמֹר.
26 And I sent messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemoth unto Sihon king of Heshbon with words of peace, saying:
כז אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ, בַּדֶּרֶךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֵלֵךְ: לֹא אָסוּר, יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול.
27 'Let me pass through thy land; I will go along by the highway, I will neither turn unto the right hand nor to the left.
כח אֹכֶל בַּכֶּסֶף תַּשְׁבִּרֵנִי וְאָכַלְתִּי, וּמַיִם בַּכֶּסֶף תִּתֶּן-לִי וְשָׁתִיתִי; רַק, אֶעְבְּרָה בְרַגְלָי.
28 Thou shalt sell me food for money, that I may eat; and give me water for money, that I may drink; only let me pass through on my feet;
Moshe’s divergence from God’s instructions reflects another teaching in the Torah that doesn’t get explicitly expressed until later in Deuteronomy:
י כִּי-תִקְרַב אֶל-עִיר, לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ--וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ, לְשָׁלוֹם.
10 When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer terms of peace.
And Psalm 34 is more adamant about this point. The psalmist declares (at Ps. 34:15):
בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.
Bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu/ Seek peace, and pursue it.
Be a “Rodef Shalom” --- “One who pursues and chases after the possibility of Shalom. One who does not rush to military solutions if there is even a chance that diplomacy will be more productive.
It’s certainly possible to be thoroughly cynical about the motivations of politicians or generals or pundits. However, call me naïve, but I’ve always believed that we should “dan lechaf zechut” as it says in Pirke Avot 1:6 – which, roughly translated, means to “give people the benefit of the doubt” as to their honest intentions.
Whichever side of this particular debate on the Iran nuclear deal you find yourself, I’d suggest starting from the premise that peaceful diplomacy is always -- all things being equal -- the more moral, more Jewish, more humane path to follow.
I don’t think that anyone opposing the Iran deal would disagree with that claim.
The more focused question is, considering all the factors -- and since all things are not equal --what is the more productive path right now with respect to this particular case?
What do you think?
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5775/2015