L’shanah haba’ah biYerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem.
This last line of the traditional haggadah challenges me this year more than ever. What does it mean to say these words in San Francisco in 2019, after the most recent Israeli elections?
First I wonder, what did these words mean to my ancestors?
When Jews said “next year in Jerusalem” in medieval European ghettos or the faraway corners of Asian trade routes, they were not making pledges about their travel plans. They were expressing hope, exercising the redemptive imagination. Next year in Jerusalem — next year may we be safe at home, next year may we have the freedom to travel to our most sacred place.
Even as the phrase names Jerusalem and forges strong attachment to a real place in the physical world, it has never been intended on a purely literal level. For thousands of years, Jerusalem has been both a physical place and a mythological symbol in the collective Jewish imagination. The classical Jewish way to name this duality is to say there is a Yerushalayim shel mala, a heavenly Jerusalem, and a Yerushalayim shel mata, an earthly Jerusalem.
Good things happen when the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem align. Bad things happen when they don’t.
Classically, the Jewish story of Jerusalem is that we lost the city because we could not bring the ideals of the heavenly Jerusalem down to earth when we had the chance. Jeremiah and Ezekiel, contemporaries of the destruction of the Temple and the exile, believed that these tragedies were Divine punishments for our sins and that our suffering was a call to repent. Likewise, rabbinic interpretation assigns responsibility not to ancient geopolitics, but to us. The destruction of both temples and the exile are understood to come out of our own moral failings — idolatry, immorality, bloodshed and hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b).
In Jeremiah we read: “The word which came to Jeremiah from Hashem said: Stand at the gate of the House of Hashem and proclaim there this word…Thus says the Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place… if you do justice between one person and another, not oppressing the stranger, the orphan and the widow, and if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, if you do not follow other gods to your own hurt. Then, only then, will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time” (Jeremiah 7:1-7).
A few years ago, I was living in the earthly Jerusalem, walking its footpaths on my way from buying fresh challah on a Friday afternoon. In my mind, I was in the heavenly Jerusalem, feeling deep joy to live by the Jewish ritual rhythm in a place where the community around me was doing the same, a place with such depth and meaning to my people.
Jerusalem has been both a physical place and a mythological symbol.
Suddenly, in the midst of my reverie, Jeremiah popped into my head and yelled: “You may love fresh challah from the local bakery, and you may love the glowing Jerusalem stone catching the light of sunset as Hebrew prayers quiet your neighborhood on a peaceful Friday night — but you know, just beyond your neighborhood are other neighborhoods: Jabba Mukabel, Issawiya. Places where the roads are not paved and the trash is not collected. Places where homes have been destroyed and lives have been ruined. In your name! These villages are also Jerusalem. East Jerusalem. And they cry out to God from behind that winding concrete barrier. … Mend your ways! Do justice! Do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, the widow! … Only then will I let you dwell in this place …”
And now, April 2019, Jerusalem staggers further to the right. An alliance is forged between those who see only the heavenly Jerusalem and those who care only about controlling the earthly Jerusalem. The chances of Jerusalem on earth living up to its heavenly potential seem smaller than ever.
To some progressive American Jews this means it’s time to stop saying “next year in Jerusalem” at the seder, time to stop participating in a myth gone bad.
I understand the issue — how can I say “next year in Jerusalem” after an Israeli election full of fearmongering and hate? An election many say has buried the prospect of peace and democracy if not the long-term viability of a Jewish or a Palestinian state? Would I really want to live in today’s Jerusalem, where the religious right declares me not to be a rabbi, because they do not like rabbis to come in female bodies? In 2019, can I still say “next year in Jerusalem”?
For me, the answer is yes. I do still want to be part of it, broken though it may be. I refuse to relinquish the sacred symbolic language or ideals of my people to those who would corrupt them with narrow, fear-based politics. I refuse to let religious extremists “own” Jerusalem or define Judaism. And still I hold out hope that the heavenly Jerusalem can yet manifest in that earthly city I hold so dear.
But when I say, “next year in Jerusalem” on Pesach, I will also have Jeremiah in my heart. And I will be praying, with all my soul, that the Jewish people can yet mend our ways and prove ourselves worthy of the great gift and responsibility of sovereignty with which our generation has been entrusted.
When I say these words at my seder this week, this is what I will mean:
Next year in Jerusalem, may there be peace and justice for all who dwell there.
Next year in Jerusalem, may there be hope, may there be love.
Next year in Jerusalem, may there be freedom — for Jews, for Muslims, for Christians, for people of all faiths.
Next year, may my small life in some real way, move the earthly Jerusalem closer to its heavenly potential.