Originally posted Thursday September 24th, 2015

(Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah, September 14, 2015)

When people ask me why I moved from Burlington, Vermont to Duluth, Minnesota five years ago, I sometimes reply that Vermont wasn’t cold enough. 

Of course, that’s not a totally serious response.

Just as I’m not being totally serious right now when I tell you that I fret that our Rosh Hashanah morning service isn’t long enough. 

Yes, I know, Duluth gets cold enough and Rosh Hashanah shacharit is long enough.  Still, slimming our service today down to approximately three hours requires omitting many beautiful and thought provoking traditional elements.  And, yet I hope and trust that our time together is lengthy enough for us to be able to immerse ourselves in the spirit of the holiday. 

One specific omission from our machzor[1] that I want to lift up now for consideration is the conclusion of the traditional Torah reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah.   We read [past tense] this morning Genesis 21: 1-21, the story of the birth and weaning of Isaac, the rivalry between Isaac’s mother Sarah and Ishmael’s mother Hagar, and God’s promise that, though the Jewish people would descend from Isaac, yet Ishmael would also become a great nation. 

However, the traditional reading found in Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox machzorim continues through the end of Genesis 21.  In this section, Genesis 21: 22-34, the Torah portrays our patriarch Abraham as a diplomat negotiating a treaty with a potentially hostile neighboring people, namely the Philistines of Gerar, under their King Abimelekh:

22 At that time Abimelech ([accompanied by] Phicol, chief of his troops), said to Abraham, "God is with you in everything that you do. 23 Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you." 24 And Abraham said, "I swear it."

25 Then Abraham reproached Abimelech for the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized. 26 But Abimelech said, "I do not know who did this; you did not tell me, nor have I heard of it until today." 27 Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them made a covenant. 28 Abraham then set seven ewes of the flock by themselves, 29 and Abimelech said to Abraham, "What mean these seven ewes which you have set apart?" 30 He replied, "You are to accept these seven ewes from me as proof that I dug this well." 31 Hence that place was called Be’er-Sheva (meaning “well of the oath”), for there the two of them swore an oath. 32 When they had concluded the pact at Be’er-Sheva, Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, departed and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 [Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Be’er-Sheva, and invoked there the name of the Eternal, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines a long time.

Why is this story part of the traditional Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah?  I suppose the prosaic answer would be that we just want to keep going to the end of chapter 21 so that we can pick up tomorrow with the binding of Isaac story that starts immediately thereafter at the start of Genesis chapter 22.  However, I’d like to think that this story has more significance than being just “filler.” 

We see so many instances in the world in which differing religious and cultural beliefs and traditions can cause conflict.  And so, the story of potential adversaries Abraham and Abimelekh establishing peaceful relations through diplomacy is a counter-narrative to the narrative of violent religious fanaticism that mars our contemporary world.

Abimelekh and Phicol are not exactly identical with the leaders and negotiators of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And Abraham and his retinue are not exactly identical with the negotiating teams of Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany (the so-called P5+1).  Nor is Abraham exactly identical with the contemporary State of Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, all of whom are threatened by Iran’s nuclear development efforts and by Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups around the region.

Still, in both the Abraham-Abimelekh diplomacy and the Iran nuclear deal diplomacy, memories of past conflicts have an effect on present outlooks. 

In an earlier incident, recounted in Genesis chapter 20, Abraham and Sarah had gone to Gerar seeking food in the midst of a famine.  Abraham nearly brought a plague upon the Gerarites because of his mistaken belief that the Gerarites would murder him if they knew that Sarah was his wife and not his sister.  As the story plays out, Abraham ends up admitting to Abimelekh that he, Abraham, had erroneously assumed that אֵין-יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַהֲרָגוּנִי, עַל-דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי.  “eyn yirat elohim bamakom hazeh vaharagumi al dvar ishti” / “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (Gen. 20:11) 

That episode ends amicably, but surely Abimelekh hasn’t forgotten it when he approaches Abraham in the last section of the traditional first day of Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.

As for contemporary Iran, its leaders have certainly not forgotten how the United States (supported by Great Britain) engineered the coup that in 1953 overthrew Iran’s democratically elected president. That 1953 coup had resulted in the Shah of Iran assuming repressive, dictatorial powers for the next quarter of a century until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

So, in the recent negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, officially called the “Joint Common Plan of Action,” we can be sure that the Iranians were continuing to remember the CIA sponsored military coup of 1953. 

At the same time, we Americans were of course continuing to remember the hostage crisis of 1979 when Iranian militants, with the support of the new Islamic Republic government, held American diplomats hostage for 444 days.  And the British remember the attack on their embassy in Tehran in 2011.  And Israel, not a party to the nuclear deal negotiations yet so affected by them, remembers --- as do all of us --- Iran’s ongoing hostility to the very existence of the Jewish state.

Indeed, just last week, Supreme Leader Ayotallah Ali Khamanei declared in a widely publicized speech:

“After nuclear negotiations, the Zionist regime said that they will not be worried about Iran in the next 25 years. I am telling you, first, you will not be around in 25 years’ time, and God willing, there will be no Zionist regime in 25 years. Second, during this period, the spirit of fighting, heroism and jihad will keep you worried every moment.”[2] 

The debates over the JCPOA received lots of media coverage in recent weeks and months.  At this point, however, it’s a “done deal.”  That’s because last Thursday a vote to end the Democratic filibuster against having an up or down vote on the bill failed to get the necessary 60 votes.  This means that a Congressional resolution expressing disapproval of the JCPOA won’t even come to a vote.  Had it come to a vote, a bipartisan majority of both Houses of Congress would have voted to disapprove the deal.  President Obama would have then vetoed that resolution. And then the veto would have been sustained because less than two thirds of the members of both Houses had planned to vote to override the veto. 

If this all seems procedurally complicated, that’s no coincidence.  How this debate got to Congress is an interesting study in and of itself. The U.S. Constitution requires that treaties concluded by the executive branch be approved by two-thirds of the votes of the U.S. Senate.  However, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was characterized by the Obama administration as an executive agreement, not a treaty. The reason for this was explicitly political.  As Secretary of State Kerry testified[3] to members of Congress in July, the administration had presented the JCPOA as an executive agreement because it had determined that it didn’t have the votes to have it approved as a treaty.  As a result, the JCPOA is not legally binding on the United States and any future President can unilaterally withdraw from it.  

Indeed, originally, the administration had claimed that Congress had no right even to review the agreement.  But in May, a bipartisan piece of legislation known as the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” gave Congress an opportunity to issue a resolution disapproving the agreement. As of now, however, no such Congressional resolution will be voted on at all because such action has been filibustered in the Senate.

Though the Iran Deal will now go into effect, it has been and continues to be a source of profound disagreement in American society.  Polls have shown that the majority of American Jews favor it[4], but the majority of Israeli Jews oppose it.[5]  Polls show that the majority of the American population as a whole opposes it[6] as does the majority of the members of Congress. And in the midst of all this disagreement, the two main American lobbying groups on Israeli issues, AIPAC and J-Street, staked out opposing positions, with J-Street supporting the deal and AIPAC opposing it.

As far as I can figure it out, it all ended up boiling down to three main issues:

First: Supporters were happy that the deal delayed the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons for a few years.  But opponents mainly worried that the deal made it all the more likely that Iran WOULD acquire nuclear weapons AFTER a few years.

Second: Opponents found the deal unsatisfactory because it didn’t address Iran’s support of terrorist groups around the Middle East and, moreover, that the release of frozen Iranian assets and the removal of trade sanctions would help Iran to further fund terrorist groups even more than it does now.  But supporters counter argued that the deal was not meant to cover any issues other than the nuclear threat.  (Of course, that counter argument was undermined by the fact that, at the eleventh hour, the deal DID evolve to include such non-nuclear provisions as an end to an embargo on arms sales to Iran in year 5 and the end of an embargo on ballistic missile sales to Iran in year 8.)

And third: Both sides argued over whether the JCPOA arrangements would prevent Iran from being able to cheat on the deal.  Supporters said yes.  Opponents said no.

On the merits of the agreement, ultimately I found myself agreeing with Representative Ted Lieu (D-California) who stated his position in a lengthy press release that he posted on his website on Sepember 9th.[7]   Congressman Lieu acknowledged that it was a close call and that reasonable people could differ.  But he concluded that, even with no Iranian cheating, the deal would cause more problems than it would solve. 

He wrote: 

[..]I look at what the JCPOA allows Iran to do and then I assume Iran does it.  For example, when the ban on testing multiple advanced centrifuge machines expires at year 8.5, I assume Iran will start testing multiple advanced centrifuge machines.  When the cap on centrifuges expires in year 10, I assume Iran will start spinning a lot of centrifuges.  When the cap on uranium enrichment expires in year 15, I assume Iran will enrich a lot of uranium.  I do not believe Iran bargained for these sunset dates with no intent of taking advantage of the benefits.       

Later in his press release, Rep. Lieu summarizes his position when he writes:   

"I wanted to support the JCPOA, wanted to find a path to yes, but couldn’t get there based on the totality of the information I considered.  I believe the JCPOA will result in more regional wars and conflict in the Middle East, along with more US entanglement, in the short term; and increase the chances of a lengthy, difficult, and more deadly war with Iran in the long term.”

In the 23 pages of his Representative Lieu’s press release the words “Israel” or “Netanyahu” or “Jewish” or “AIPAC” or “J-Street” never appear. 

However, if we who are gathered here ask the proverbial question, “Is it good for the Jews” – even though I think I agree with Lieu’s analysis – I end up coming out grudgingly supporting the JCPOA.  Not because it’s a great deal.  I don’t think it is.  But rather because Israel’s most important strategic asset is its strong relationship with the United States.  And this relationship was being threatened by the opposition of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters.

A number of Israeli defense analysts and military and political leaders made this very point. For example, in a July 19th New York Times op-ed, American-born Israeli defense analyst Chuck Freilich observed:

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.[8]

Last month, the Union for Reform Judaism, wisely I think, declared that it would neither support nor oppose the Iran Deal.  On August 19th the URJ issued a policy statement[9] noting that the JCPOA had both significant positive and negative aspects and that reasonable people could differ on its merits.

Rather, the URJ statement declared:

Whether the JCPOA is approved or defeated, there will be a day after.

“It is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis, or among American Jews”

And the URJ statement went on to say:

“We call upon the Israeli leadership, the U.S. Administration and members of Congress, and those on all sides of this debate to tamp down their rhetoric. If the debate is allowed to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance, or further sharpen partisan divides over what it means to be “pro-Israel,” Israel will be less secure. And on the day after the vote, as on the day before, Israel will need the United States’ continued military and political support, bilaterally, in the United Nations, and more broadly on the world stage.

“Our Movement believes in vigorous debate. But that discourse must be civil and constructive, which has too often not been the case. There must be an open and welcoming tent as we continue to debate not only the future of this agreement, but also the very nature of what it means to be pro-Israel.”

For me personally, I can honestly say that I feel very fortunate and blessed to be a part of our Temple Israel community.  When I compare the atmosphere here in Duluth to what I have heard from my rabbinic colleagues in other parts of the country, it seems to me that we are actually pretty good at embracing diversity of opinion.  Not just in our Jewish theologies and practices but in our political views as well, including on issues that affect Israel.  This is something for which we should be thankful.  And this is a value that we should continue to nurture.


And so, Abraham and Abimelekh entered into a covenant at Beer-Sheva, ensuring peaceful coexistence.  

Let us hope and pray that, with diligent enforcement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will at least begin to do the same between Iran and the rest of the world. 

Of course, a generation later, the Torah reports in Genesis chapter 36 that Abraham’s son Isaac ends up fighting with the same Gerarites over the same wells.  And ultimately Isaac negotiates a new treaty with the same King Abimelekh.

Similarly, I suspect that the current deal with Iran will not be the end of the matter.

In a certain way, international peacekeeping is like our High Holiday liturgy. 

In the traditional prayers of the machzor we pray for the well-being of ourselves and the world not for eternity, but, rather, just for one year at a time. 

And, similarly, in international affairs, we recognize that the messianic era, as it were, is a long way off….  but that day by day, year by year, treaty by treaty, negotiation by negotiation --- we can gradually, incrementally, painstakingly, establish peace and justice in our world.

לג  וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיִּקְרָא-שָׁם--בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, אֵל עוֹלָם.

33 Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-Sheva, and invoked there the name of Adonai, the Everlasting God.

According to a classic midrash, the tamarisk that Abraham plants at Beer-Sheva symbolizes the value of hospitality.  That’s because the word for tamarisk in Hebrew is Eshel – spelled with the three Hebrew letters Aleph, Shin and Lamed.  The midrash teaches that the word Eshel is an acronym for three things a conscientious host or hostess should provide to his or her guests:  “achilah”/food, “shtiyah”/drink and “levayah”/accompaniment – meaning making sure that one’s guests arrive and depart safely.  (Though others say that the lamed stands for “linah” meaning “lodging”.) 

The Talmud teaches that Abraham’s invocation of Adonai as “El Olam”/”The Everlasting God” comes about BY MEANS OF the Eshel, that is to say, by means of his hospitality to all whom he would encounter:

As we learn in Tractate Sotah:

 “And he invoked there the name of Adonai, the Everlasting God.”  Resh Lakish said: Read not (“Vayikra”) (“And he invoked”) but rather (“Vayakri”) (‘’and he caused to be invoked”) thereby teaching that our father Abraham caused the name of the blessed holy one to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless [Abraham]; but, he said to them, 'Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe. [Instead you should] thank, praise and bless the One who spoke and the world came into being'.  (Sotah 10a-10b)

Ideally, this is the way that all humanity should engage with one another.

Barukh Sheamar vehayah ha-olam.  Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being. 

May our faith, just like the faith of people of all religious traditions, inspire us towards deeds of hospitality, reconciliation, and friendship.   And may there be peace for us, for all Israel, for the Palestinians, for the Iranians, the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Yemenites, for all the peoples of the Middle East, and for all the world in this new year 5776.    

L’shanah tovah tikateyvu/ May we all be inscribed for a good year.



© Rabbi David Steinberg 5776/2015



[1] Special prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (plural: “machzorim.”  By contrast, the regular prayer book for the rest of the year is called a “siddur” (plural: “siddurim”).









Posted on April 13, 2016 .