Seek Peace and Pursue It – Psalm 34.14

As a Rabbi and as a citizen of the United States, I support the agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran– The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. I encourage the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives to endorse this agreement.

The Obama administration has successfully brought together the major international powers to confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The broad international sanctions moved Iran to enter this historic agreement. Should this agreement be rejected by the U.S. congress, those sanctions will end. There will be no new negotiations, as the other member countries are fully in favor of this agreement and have no desire to re-negotiate. The sanctions regime is falling apart even now.

I understand that while this agreement blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, we recognize it does not deal with Iran’s support for terror, but that was never the purpose of these talks. Now that a nuclear agreement has been reached, I join many others who call upon the United States and its international partners to strengthen their resolve and dedicate additional resources to confront Iranian threats to Israel and other states.

Most especially, I am deeply concerned with the impression that the leadership of the American Jewish community is united in opposition to the agreement. I, along with many other Jewish leaders, fully support this historic nuclear accord.

No country conducts its affairs in reaction to the political rhetoric of foreign leaders. Our foreign diplomacy is not an unsophisticated shouting match which reacts to national leaders who speak to their domestic concerns. A mature and rational approach must always put an intelligent struggle for peace first. War, with all its terrors and destruction, is not an “option”; it is a failure of diplomacy. It is, and must be, a last resort.

  מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;    אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב. Do you want to live a good life, loving each day?
  נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;    וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. Then stop your mouth from words of evil and your lips from deceit.
  סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב;    בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ. Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing, Iran and Others

Our parashat hashavua, called Re’eh, urges us, “look!”. The Torah relates that Moshe our leader is exhorting our ancestors to take a moment to stop and really see in a deeper sense. That is, he is telling us to realize something essential about our ability to understand the implications of what we see – and how we respond.

This issue of seeing is vitally significant. After all, our salvation depended upon Moshe’s ability to see a burning bush in the wilderness, many years before. As the mystics point out, if Moshe had not stopped long enough to notice that the bush was burning but was not being consumed by the fire, he would not have heard G-d’s call.

If you stop and see something you have never seen before, you are, in that moment, ready to listen for that which you have never heard before.

And if you do not stop, do not see what is really happening, you cannot hear and obey the command set before you. 

Snap judgments based on a quick glance will not get you there. Partially seeing will only give you a garbled, incorrect hearing of what you are called upon to do. And the stakes are as high as can be:

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.

Look, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:

אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.

blessing, if you listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, which I command you today;

וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם.

and curse, if you will not listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, but turn aside from the way you are commanded this day to follow, and go after other gods, which you do not even really know. (Devarim 11.26-28)

Moshe tells us here that we do have the power to choose between blessing and curse, and the way to do so is by seeing carefully, and therefore opening your eyes and ears – and heart – to the possibility of being able to hear accurately, and obey correctly.

It is easier to follow one’s first impression, more comfortable to come to one’s conclusion quickly, to leave the wilderness wandering of indecision. But the Jewish understanding of wisdom is that it is only found in looking again and deeper, staying open to what we have not yet seen – and perhaps has never been seen in the world before.

I do not often share political comments in this religious teaching, but it is also true that I am guided by the mystical insight that All is One – there is no such thing as “just politics” or “just religion”. All our best and highest acts in any sphere of life are simply our human striving to perceive G-d’s will and do it (even if we don’t use that word, debased by so many, and prefer to say “seeking to move with the flow of the universe” or “creating a sense of wholeness with the highest”). But our religious teachings are either true everywhere in our lives or they are not true teachings. 

So with that prelude I offer you this thought: our people, no matter where we live in the world, are always concerned for the fate of our State of Israel. We do not agree on how best American Jews should express their support. Shir Tikvah has stood for respectful dialogue, makhloket l’shem shamayim, when we discuss these things that we care about most. It is because I believe in looking more deeply – and arguing less than listening – and keeping my heart and mind open to learn more, that I am coming out in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as “the Iran deal”). This is why:

– It is easy to quickly see and agree with other Jews that it is too dangerous, without stopping to hear that the sanctions regime is unravelling anyway and if we do not have this deal, we are left with nothing in its place. We cannot go back to the status quo ante.

– It is easy to see the public threats Iran makes against Israel, without hearing the reports (this link from the Jewish Forward) from Iran and elsewhere that describe a much more nuanced reality.

– It is hard to read the entire text of the agreement, and then read Torah and all the commentaries, and then listen to both sides, and consult with your teachers and those who are wise, and finally come to a carefully considered decision. It is much easier to fall back into the Jewish defensive position that the world is against us and no one understands us or cares about us – but it may well be that our best way forward to is thank the President for this good start toward a safer world, and use the opening to push for the kind of cultural contacts and economic connections that will make it easier to pressure the Iran regime in the direction of becoming a good neighbor, or at least a less bad one. We have no proof that isolating a regime works, and if we look, we will see plenty of examples in world history of where it has not worked. Those who do not learn from history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.

I offer you this final thought from Jewish mysticism about the nature of good and evil as we look for the blessing and the curse regarding Iran and so many other significant decisions our government makes on our behalf, and of course, those we ourselves are called upon to make:

When Moshe says Re’eh, “see”, to the people of Israel, he is inviting them to see the true nature of evil – that it is nothing more than a distortion of Divine good. When we see it for what it really is, we have the ability to transform it into the good that it essentially is. 

May it be that our representatives have seen a path toward that which is good, and may we demand of them nothing less than a constant, careful looking, and listening, beyond the surface and the already-known, for the sake of peace in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout our precious, precious world.