April 8, 2009

FROM THE ARCHIVES: L'shanah haba'ah biyerushalayim

Tonight is the first night of Passover, marked by the Seder, a ritual meal. Our Seder tonight will just be our immediate family, and I will be leading the service portion of the meal from the Haggadah, the text for the Seder. When we come to the line above (it means "next year in Jerusalem"), I will say it, but will I really mean it?

We are taught that there are two Jerusalems (the Hebrew word, "yerushalayim" is plural), the earthly city, shel mata, and the ideal or Heavenly city, shel ma'ala. I have no desire to live in the actual Jerusalem. Unlike previous generations of Jews, I am free both to leave my home and to live in Israel, but I am American through and through and know that any emigration would be my loss. (Some argue that the wish is simply to celebrate the Seder in Jerusalem, not to move permanently to Israel, but tourism as religious obligation has no appeal to me.)

Turning to the ideal Jerusalem, the prayer is often understood as a hope that we will find peace and justice next year. I am as much in favor of peace and justice as the next Jew (everywhere but on bumperstickers), but I find this understanding of the prayer as unsatisfying as the first. First, unlike most Jews of my acquaintance, I don't believe that peace and justice go hand in hand, but rather I believe that they are often at odds. Second, during the many centuries of Jewish persecution during which Israel was forbidden to us, this was a powerful prayer of physical redemption. Turning it into an anodyne wish that we could all just get along is offensive to me.

So, assuming for the sake of argument that I'm not satisfied to simply be a hypocrite, what will I mean when I say "next year in Jerusalem." It came to me a few years ago that I had subconsciously come to identify the United States with Jerusalem. I don't mean this as an argument that Americans are now G-d's chosen people (although I'm open to that argument) or that the US is shel ma'ala, the ideal city. But I do believe that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and, most importantly, American life as we live it are now the best practical example to mankind of how life should be lived. Tonight, when I say L'shanah haba'ah biyerushalayim, I will be praying that next year, the world will be that much closer to living in freedom and prosperity, as Americans do.

P.S. For the non-Jews among us, I urge you, at least once, to try to attend a Seder. If you don't have any Jews conveniently close to hand, nothing can go badly wrong if you just buy some Haggadahs and take a stab at it (don't feel compelled to read the whole thing aloud. We don't). The exodus from Egypt, which the Seder recreates, is the seminal event in Judaism and is thus an important event in western culture. The Seder itself is at the core of modern Judaism and, because the Last Supper was a Seder, it is also at the core of Christianity. I would think that it could only help to appreciate Easter to recreate what was most likely Jesus' last public ritual. [Originally posted: 4/16/03]
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Posted by David Cohen at April 8, 2009 8:09 PM
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