Yesterday was the first of Av. Av is a unique month in the Hebrew calendar, in that it is a time for focused sadness, it is a month for wailing. In just over a week Jews all over the world will commemorate Tisha B’Av, a day in which we remember and mourn some of our most tragic historical low points. On Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) in 587 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and on the same day in the year 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second – effectively beginning 2000 years of Jewish exile. Several other collective tragedies also occurred later in time on this date, such as the expulsions of the Jews from several European countries over the centuries and the adoption of the Final Solution by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Yet, while we have experienced triumphs and great loss wherever we have lived, Tisha B’Av focuses our attention on Jerusalem.
Reform Jews do not want to pray for the re-establishment of a Third Temple, run by a hereditary priesthood that revives the ancient Jewish sacrificial cult. We do, however, mourn the loss of life and the destruction. Just two weeks ago I stood with members of our Buffalo Jewish Community in Jerusalem right over the ruins of the city wall destroyed by the Babylonians; and at the base of the Temple Mount I touched the only walls remaining from the Roman destruction.
Yes, Av is a month for wailing, and for the past few days, you should know that I have been wailing. I have been wailing not about the past, but about the future. I have been wailing about the proposed Nuclear Agreement with Iran. Now, a great many people, really intelligent people, have been hailing the agreement as a triumph of diplomacy in the avoidance of war. I vastly prefer successful diplomacy to war, so I want to applaud the Obama administration for using diplomacy in the pursuit of peace. In Deuteronomy, we are taught that before attacking a city we are required to first offer peace, and if our enemies accept our terms then we must grant that peace. (Deut. 20:10-12) The administration has said that this agreement has likely prevented a war, and that now we have the ability to prevent Iran from nuclear breakout to a bomb for ten years or more. They remind us that ten years is a long time in the Middle East, and that much can change in that time. This is certainly true, for the Middle East has changed dramatically over the past ten years.
The supporters of this deal also observe that an influx of economic support may bring Iran more into the community of nations, because even if the mullahs do not moderate their own plans for regional and global Islamist hegemony, the people on the street will be less likely to follow because of their own self interest. To be fair, there is evidence that this is already working on a smaller scale with Palestinians living in the West Bank, who seem much less interested in pursuing acts of terrorism than their brothers living in Gaza under Hamas. I hope and I pray that this assessment turns out to be true and lasting. I really do. But I think it will not, and because of this deal, I think the world has just become a much more dangerous place.
As far as I can tell, we started from a position of strength two years ago with the success of a robust program of sanctions, and we have in effect given Iran more than they possibly could have hoped for to aid them in their dangerous extremist agenda. We have made them stronger, and have weakened ourselves. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the nuclear restrictions will be maintained for the next ten years, and that Iran will not make any attempt to ‘game the system.’ Even if that is true, Iran will soon have access to billions of dollars of previously frozen funds, not to mention new income that will start pouring into their economy. They are currently funding and training terrorist organizations and cells in almost every continent, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthi rebels. At the same time, in their fight to control Iraq, Syria and Yemen they have overextended themselves. This sudden influx of money, even if most of it goes to the Iranian economy, will certainly be used to finance their operations everywhere. And lest we forget, throughout the entire two year period of negotiations they have not only continued their rhetoric against the United States and Israel, but have intensified it, openly and proudly calling for the destruction of both of our nations.
Even worse, history has demonstrated that Iran cannot be trusted to uphold its agreements. The proposed inspection regime is so weak that it looks like Iran has been given plenty of ways to sidestep and delay inspections. I think it far more likely that Iran will try give the appearance of compliance while continuing to pursue a nuclear weapon until they are ready to break out – at which point they surely will. Has any other rogue nation ever acted otherwise? And even if they do adhere to the terms of the agreement, then we are simply giving them international permission to become a nuclear power in ten years. Do we really think that Iranian policy, especially if the current regime now receives a massive influx of funding, will change by then?
I fear that our leaders know this despite what they are saying to the American public. I suspect that they understand that the Iran Nuclear Agreement will lead to an arms race in the Middle East, making an already unstable neighborhood that much more dangerous. After all, why is the United States now reaching out to Israel with offers and promises to significantly upgrade her military capacities? Because this deal will increase peace in the region? I think the prospect of war has just been heightened. And I think there is very little we can do about it. If somehow congress manages to block the deal, which is unlikely, then what will happen? What is to prevent Europe, Russia and China, not to mention the U.N., from relaxing their sanctions even if the United States does not participate?
Av is a month for wailing. It does not matter whether we live in times of feast or famine, wealth or poverty, freedom or oppression – during the month of Av we remember the difficulties we have faced along the way. We take the time, and we wail and wail. Yet what then? What do we do when there are no more tears?
We do what we have always done. We lift ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and do the best we can. We take our memories of the past, and we remember that we are still alive. We remember that we have the resilience to endure – that no matter how bleak today may look, a Jewish future beckons. We do the best we can.
For now, it looks like the nuclear agreement is a done deal. It is likely going to happen. So I pray for its success, and even while I doubt, I offer this additional prayer with full heart, and with hope for a better future:
Eternal Source of Creation, Guiding Spirit of the Universe, Timeless Inspiration of our people, Maker of Peace from on High, we pray for Your support and strength. Help us to seek out real and lasting peace, and give us strength to stand tall when we need it most. Guide our leaders to make wise decisions, and our peoples to learn to live together as neighbors, in mutual respect and over time, with real amity. Protect us from harm, from war and from hatred, and from the famine, disease and loss that often follow. Fill us with reverence for Your Name, and for all of Your Creation, that we may rise up to do Your will and to bring the world closer, step by step, towards your Vision for what we one day can become. Blessed are You, O God, who brings Peace into our world.
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Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras