Heed the Words: Next Year in Jerusalem

November 1, 2003
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By Shimon Felix

L’shana ha’ba-ah b’Yerushalayim.” “Next year in Jerusalem.” At Passover sedarim the world over, the Jewish people optimistically look forward to leaving their homes and celebrating next Passover in Jerusalem, fulfilling the ancient dream of being a free people in their own land. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, if not even earlier, it is hard to contemplate this practice with anything but a jaundiced eye. If you want it so much, why don’t you – as they say – ‘just do it?’ The trip is not that long nor very expensive; millions of Jews already live in Israel; what’s holding you back?

The answers to this question are many. I would like to focus on one of them by taking another look at our opening phrase, “next year in Jerusalem.”

For 2,000 years, Jews have understood Jerusalem, and Israel, as being about the future, about next year. On a simple level, this reflects the fact that, when we said “next year in Jerusalem,” we were not there but were looking forward to a time when we would be. On a deeper level, this phrase expresses a specific role that Jerusalem plays in Jewish life and thought, a certain quality that Jerusalem has come to embody. The Diaspora, traditionally understood as dysfunctional at best and dangerous at worst, was not where our destiny was to be played out. Jerusalem came to stand for our commitment to thinking about the future of the Jewish people.

As the years went by, however, “next year in Jerusalem” ceased to refer to next year, or, actually, to any year at all. With the passage of time, Jewish communities, and the collective Jewish psyche, became more and more rooted in the on-going Diaspora present, which contained within it the only real future imaginable, as well as the only past that the Jews in exile actually remembered. The older, Jerusalem-based past had long been relegated to the realm of half-forgotten, half-imagined myth.

And so, Diaspora Jews lived in a time warp. Their real past – the synagogue in which their parents prayed and the cemeteries in which they were buried, the venerable communal institutions to which they affiliated – was rooted in their relatively recent exilic experience. Their present and future – the future they could actually plan for and work toward – were there in exile as well, static, without any hope of radical change or transformation, only of survival and incremental improvement. In addition to this unpromising continuum, there existed another chronology, an almost mythical past and future, located far away, in a hazy, other-worldly landscape, with deserts and palm trees, populated by Canaanites, Babylonians, Macabees, prophets, Romans, and Ishmaelites – a past that one could study and dream about, but not visit, and a future so unreal that it was almost beyond imagining. And so, “next year in Jerusalem” became a myth, rather than a plan, a fantasy about a mythical future in a mythical city, unconnected in any way to a real, tangible commitment to the future of the Jewish people.

When, miraculously, the Jewish people began, in very small numbers, to view “next year” as next year and “Jerusalem” as a place one could actually go to – and rejected the Diaspora in order to embrace the dream of Jerusalem as a reality – it was an expression of a radical shift in the way these Jews understood the future, as well as the past and present. The Zionist movement was an attempt to refocus the Jewish gaze. It attempted to wrench that gaze from the very real and very unpromising past, present, and future of exile, as well as from the starry-eyed, dream-like vision of “Jerusalem,” and refocus it firmly on a future that held within it the possibility of radical change and transformation. Eschewing both the Diaspora’s inexorable demands of continuity and preservation as well as the beautifully undemanding dream of a heavenly city, the early Zionists insisted that the imagined future of the past 2,000 years be returned to the realm of the real.

But, tragically, many Diaspora Jews did not see it this way. Held hostage to once-magnificent edifices and institutions, locked-in to tried-and-true exilic strategies, and hypnotized into inaction by dreams of an unreal “Jerusalem,” they are much more focused on the Jewish past and present than the Jewish future. In the case of far-flung communities, this is obvious and needs little argument. These communities once had a raison d’etre that made perfect sense and served their purpose with distinction, but now they exist in order to recapture and enshrine their own past. Unable to contemplate abandoning the beautiful shuls and old neighborhoods, these communities have become museums, expending tremendous amounts of money and energy maintaining a community that has lost its reason to be. And so, instead of creating a transformed Jewish future, a real Jerusalem, these people are lost in a reverie about an irretrievable and unworkable Diaspora past.

There are many Diaspora communities that have a future; they should be supported. There is no question, however, that many communities clearly do not and only survive, synthetically, on memories of days gone by and former glory. The key indicators of a community’s future are: the involvement and commitment of its young people; its educational system; its marriage and birthrates. These factors clearly show that, for many Jewish communities around the globe, the time has come to pack up, sell the shul, learn Hebrew, and heed the words of our practical dreamer-ancestors: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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Rabbi Shimon Felix is Executive Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He was born in New York and lives with his family in Jerusalem.

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