By Rabbi Ohriner
Bein hameitzarim: Journeying Through Periods of Distress
גָּֽלְתָ֨ה יְהוּדָ֤ה מֵעֹ֨נִי֙ וּמֵרֹ֣ב עֲבֹדָ֔ה הִ֚יא יָשְׁבָ֣ה בַגּוֹיִ֔ם לֹ֥א מָצְאָ֖ה מָנ֑וֹחַ כָּל־רֹדְפֶ֥יהָ הִשִּׂיג֖וּהָ בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים׃
Judah has gone into exile Because of misery and harsh oppression; When she settled among the nations, She found no rest; All her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places.
This verse from the book of Lamentations is the source for the name of the period in which we find ourselves this Shabbat, bein Hametzarim, in narrow places. Rashi, the great 11th C Torah commentator tells us that bein hameitzarim, narrow places can also be understood to mean “days of distress”. The insight Rashi offers is that there are times in our lives when our distress manifests geographically and other times when distress manifests temporally.
During the lead up to the month of Av Jews throughout the world engage in semi-mourning practices that intensify as Av begins. This is done as a way of triggering the collective memory of the Jewish people. We seek to re-open millennia old wounds culminating in the observance of the intensive 25 hour fast of Tisha B’av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed. Much has been made over the centuries regarding our tradition’s attribution of causality for the destruction of the Second Temple. The story of kamtza and bar kamtza catalogued in tractate Gittin focuses on the rampant hatred Jews felt towards one another as the primary cause for the horrors that befell our ancestors, casting them into a distress.
Over the past few months, I have reflected with many of you on the internal work we as a people must do, particularly in Israel, to usher in a new era of religious tolerance and pluralism. Yet, this week I have been reflecting on the rest of the story and the chronicle of “days of distress” that have befallen our people so frequently since the destruction of the Temple. It is a narrative of hatred, anti-Semitism, and destruction wrought upon our people by others. And while a significant strain of Jewish thought wishes to see the historic fall of Jewish sovereignty as Divine punishment, we must also recognize that the Babylonia and Rome also had a hand in our plight, as did so many other people in the millennia that follow.
As we approach Tisha B’av, the specter of additional existential distress exists. This year, being bein hamitzarim feels more distressing than in other years, for it is hard not to draw comparisons between the leadership of Iran and the leaders of other nations who have sought our destruction throughout history.
This week in Vienna, an agreement between France, Germany, Great Britain, China, Russia, and the US and Iran was ratified. It is an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities for approximately 15 years in exchange for a gradual lifting of oil, arms, and financial sanctions crippling Tehran. The agreement is almost 150 pages. It is complicated, mind numbing (at least the first 70 pages or so that I have read), and also of critical importance.
Like most of you, I am not a policy analyst, lobbyist, negotiator, or an expert in international affairs. I am just a concerned citizen, a lover of Israel, and a human being trying to sort through punditry, spin, and politics of this deal. I have read half of the agreement or so and spent the week seeking to better understand what it all means. Ultimately, this morning I’d like to simply raise some of the issues regarding this deal that call for our consideration, to learn more about, and perhaps act upon.
The first aspect of this deal to note, is that whether good or bad, it is certainly historic. For close to 40 years the US policy with regard to Iran has been one of containment and confrontation. President Obama is now seeking to shift our position to one of cooperation. Of course, this does not mean the beginning of some Golden Age in US-Iran relations, but it does point to new patterns of behavior, efforts to thaw the relations, and as Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center wrote this week, “a willingness to test whether Tehran is ready to cooperate on regional matters.
The second noteworthy aspect of this accord is that it is limited specifically to sanctions relief and a verifiable cessation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program at least in the near future. Iran is currently somewhere between three months and a year away from becoming a “break out” nuclear power. It is critical to recognize that this agreement will not end Iran’s nuclear program and this is of tremendous concern. Rather, it will produce a slower, smaller, more easily monitored and verifiable Iranian nuclear program. As Miller put it, the accord “ is a mere transaction, a narrowly focused business deal designed to defuse a short-term problem — Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions — with some long-term and likely unrealistic hopes for how it may change the Iranian regime thrown in for good measure.” It’s not a transformation that will make Tehran more compliant or willing to respect international norms, or accommodate U.S. Interests with regard to Iran’s egregious human rights record or its support for Assad, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, the Houthi militants in Yemen, and Hamas. Iran’s views of the region are likely to remain unchanged, which does nothing to alleviate the existential threat Tehran poses to Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
Finally, this deal is not about trust. President Obama and his administration believe that there are sufficient safeguards in place to verify what will be going on with the Iranian nuclear program, a claim contested by many, but affirmed by others, including Frmr. Ambassador Dennis Ross who wrote this week that “Indeed, the monitoring of the whole supply chain from the mining of uranium to the enriching of UF6 gas in centrifuges will make it difficult for Iran to divert materials into a covert program without us knowing about it.”
The question facing our elected officials in congress over the next 60 days is whether these facts contribute to forming a good deal or a bad one. Both the administration and congressional leaders have stated numerous times that in the end no deal is better than a bad one. Thus, it becomes incumbent upon us all, standing in narrow straits faced with distressing days to decide whether to push our elected officials to vote up or down on the accord. In contrast to the views of the Obama administration, many believe this agreement legitimizes Iran as a nuclear threshold state internationally and raises the prospect of war when the agreement expires, if not sooner. Another concern is the potential loss of credibility facing the United States with Arab allies and the potential nuclear arms race that could break out across the middle East as a by-product of the accord, as well as the worry that the billions of dollars that will quickly flow into Tehran as sanctions are lifted will be used to exponentially increase Iran’s support for terrorism around the world. AIPAC, as well as the vast majority of the the Israeli government, both its leadership and the opposition, are calling on congress to vote against this deal. Isaac Herzog is set to arrive in the US the coming weeks in the hopes of convincing Congress that this is a bad deal. AIPAC is sinking $20 million into a new organization to garner broad-based support for no vote, as well.
So what happens if Congress fails to approve the accord and somehow musters enough support to override a promised presidential veto should that occur? Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for New East Policy addressed a group of Conservative rabbis this week and told us that it might compel President Obama to go back to the bargaining table to secure certain improvements including less time for Iran to delay nuclear site inspections; a longer period for the maintenance of the arms embargo; or the addition of clear and agreed upon consequences for various types of Iranian violations. [However] we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can just go back to square one with negotiations or that we can keep the current sanctions regime in place as if the past two years of diplomacy never happened. We will be in a different place, much grayer than before.
In fifteen minutes, that is as plainly as I can describe the current situation.
Perhaps the only silver lining to these “days of distress” is the fact that we have agency this time around. Jewish history is littered with tragedy after tragedy wrought upon us without us having any say at all. This time we have a say in whether Congress votes up or down on this agreement. And since we do have that agency, I believe we also have an obligation to act. In truth, the consequences of the upcoming congressional vote are quite limited, but that should not keep us from voicing our opinion on this agreement to our elected officials. And when you make those calls to your congressional representative and Senators in the coming weeks, all I ask you to consider is the following: There are risks in this deal as there are in all compromises and the stakes are extraordinarily high. Our history as a people testifies to the truth that when someone says they want to destroy you, you should believe them. Indeed, any time Bibi Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid, Isaac, Herzog, and Tzipi Livni agree on something so strongly it is worthy of consideration. I always hasten to share my opinions on these kinds of matters from the pulpit, but these are days of distress and we stand bein hamitzarim. In the end, I am grateful to the president and Secretary of state Kerry in seeking to create a new reality than the one they inherited and their efforts to break through stagnancy. However, a deal allows $150 billion to flow back into Tehran’s coffers to be used to foment terror throughout the Middle East and the world, legitimizes Iran as a Nuclear threshold state internationally, a deal that leaves open the possibility of a nuclear Iran in fifteen years while simultaneously encouraging nuclear proliferation in response and strengthens the will of Iran’s ruling clerics to destroy the US and Israel is ultimately a bad deal for us all. It is why I will reach out to Rep. Eschoo’s office, as well as the offices of Sen. Feinstein and Boxer and encourage them to vote against this agreement.
This Shabbat we stand bein hamitzarim, we stand in the breach. and as US citizens and Jews we must not allow ourselves to stand passively, watching as things that effect our interests are decided without our voices being heard. But we also have an obligation to think and speak about this issue and all others from a place of civility and mutual respect. During these days bein hamitzarim our highest obligation is to not allow the external forces that threaten us to catalyze the internal strife and hatred that contributed to our people’s most difficult moments. I encourage you to read the agreement, to speak with friends and family about it, and make your voice heard.