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Sermon for Shabbat--Iran
Pesach 5769/2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

(Note: this sermon was written at the request of the Rabbinical Assembly and distributed by the RA and AIPAC to rabbis across North America in time for Passover. I am the author.)

If you are like me, the most troubling part of the Haggadah comes after dinner. There are other parts I sometimes struggle with -- calling a child "wicked," reciting the plagues, even the materialism of ransoming the afikoman. But even the difficult passages and rituals in the Seder make sense in context. They all relate to Pesach and the table ritual in an integrated way.

But there comes a moment after we have told our story, traveled the road from humiliation to glory, eaten our fill and offered God thanks for the bounty of the meal, when we open the door allegedly for the prophet Elijah and recite words from Psalms and Lamentations: Sh'fokh chamat'kha el ha-goyim asher lo y'da'ukha, "Pour out Your fury against the nations who do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name; for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour out Your wrath upon them; let Your burning anger overtake them. Pursue them with rage; wipe them out from under the heavens of God."

In most contemporary versions of the Haggadah, readings are included that point about the modern persecutors of our people, most notably the Nazis and the Soviets. We make an attempt to link this harsh and uncompromising reading with a newer story of suffering and redemption. By doing so, this anomalous set of Biblical verses fits more comfortably into the atmosphere we have tried to create around our tables.

It should come as no surprise to you that these verses are a later inclusion in our Passover night ritual. Most historians connect the ritual to concerns about the blood libel often preached in European churches during Holy Week; either as an act of defiance or self-defense, Jews would proclaim to their Gentile neighbors who had been filled with accusations by the local priests that God would avenge those who "devoured Jacob and desolated his home." If we then call for the arrival of Elijah, harbinger of the Messiah, how much the better to demonstrate that we yearn for a redeemed world as well.

It is of little concern to me what the circumstances were that plunked this inconsistent section into the Haggadah. Whatever they were, they no longer exist. Here in America, it is far more likely that our Christian neighbors are sitting at the table with us than contemplating malice against us. As a Conservative Jew, the essential question for me is "what is the contemporary message I take away from this ritual?" Perhaps the answer is, "None," in which case I must make the decision to preserve it for tradition's sake or to remove it as outmoded.

If you are like me, this section is the most troubling. It goes against my grain to pronounce imprecations in the presence of family and friends that call down God's fury, wrath and rage on the infidels among us. It sounds know what, I can't even say it because it is politically incorrect in our polite circles of discussion.

But this year I gave a lot of thought to sh'fokh chamat'kha and its place in the Seder, and I have found that contemporary meaning. It does not have to do with remembering more recent tragedies, though we certainly should. If the purpose of including these words in the first place was to spur us to awareness and action of the real and present dangers in our lives, then it would serve us well to ask if there are such concerns that face us today. And my friends, there are.

While we sit happy and satisfied around a table of bounty, discussing freedom and celebrating our blessings, there is a threat at your doorstep. And by "doorstep" I do not mean literally on your front porch, but antagonistic, even hate-filled neighbors in this global environment in which we live. Given the opportunity, they would use the slightest excuse to devour Jacob and desolate his home. And were it not for this intrusive little collection of verses from Psalms and Lamentations, I might forget to remember it.

I speak, of course, of Iran. And I will not waste time parsing the differences between the government of Iran and the people of Iran. Iran has amassed a sufficient quantity of uranium to produce a nuclear weapon if it further enriched that material to weapons-grade level. Iran has the capacity to complete that enrichment before we finish counting the Omer. And by the time we gather again to debate the inclusion of these verses in the Seder, Iran may have a nuclear bomb.

I am your rabbi, not a foreign policy expert. I rely on others for my information in these matters, and my information comes from United States government that has been highlighted by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affair Committee. And just in case it is not obvious why AIPAC is especially concerned about Iran's nuclear capabilities, let me remind you that Iran funds and arms Hamas and Hezbollah, which operate a stones' throw from the children of Sderot and Ashkelon and Metulla. You can imagine your own scenario – they all end the same way: they devour Jacob and desolate his home.

Truth be told, neither my theology nor my values really impel me to beseech God to wipe Iran off the face of the earth. I much prefer that the hardened heart be softened and the enemy become a friend. But while I will pray for one thing, I won't be naοve about others. Without motivation to the contrary, Iran will persist in its pursuit of destabilizing policies.

And what might that motivation to the contrary be? Collectively, the United States and its allies must seek to engage Iran in constructive diplomatic engagement. But diplomatic engagement – speaking truth to power, as it were – is not always enough. It is the tactic that Moses tried with Pharaoh nine times with no lasting success. Moses never gave up the negotiations, to the very end. But he also understood the power of sanctions.

We sing songs and play games at our Seder about the plagues that struck Egypt, but if you read the Torah you know that those plagues caught the attention of Pharaoh's advisors and constituents. When they suffered because of Pharaoh's immoral and life-threatening policies, they demanded change. An international effort to prohibit the export of refined petroleum products to Iran, something backed by President Obama in his campaign, would have a dramatic effect. And divestment from Iranian companies, particularly targeting the oil and natural gas sectors, would force Iran to reexamine its nuclear pursuit by delivering the clear consequences of its belligerence in the face of international disapproval.

Many of the states in the USA have made it policy to divest from Iranian interests, particularly in those two sectors. Some of them – Colorado, for example – have done so because of a recognition of the global threat of a nuclear Iran, not a response to the particular concerns of the Jewish community. Others – like the Commonwealth of Virginia – have resisted divestment and need some more education on the subject.

I am certain there are other pressure points on Iran, but there is one we all want to avoid. If Iran will not suspend its development of nuclear weapons, then those of us who celebrate the freedom that Pesach represents are faced with the horrifying possibility of violent confrontation. If the words we recite that cause us such angst -- "Pour out Your fury against the nations who do not know You...pursue them with rage; wipe them out from under the heavens of God" – if those words sound objectionable coming from our mouths, then how much more objectionable will they sound as the news of the day?

Some of you may complain that you come to shul for sanctuary from the troubled world in which we live. You care about Darfur, you work for a cleaner environment, you volunteer to stave off hunger, you vote for the legislators who promise a better world. In here, in this room, you want some peace. At home, at your Seder table, you want some quiet enjoyment.

Me, too. That's what I want. Next year, I want to stand before you and say that we can take some time off from the intrusive language of sh'fokh chamat'kha al ha-goyim asher lo y'da'ukha. And if you will join me in spending some time and energy to turn back the increasing threat of a nuclear Iran, God willing next year we will have more cause to indulge in that luxury.

Rabbi Jack Moline
Agudas Achim Congregation
Alexandria, VA

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