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Monday, April 25, 2005

Next Year in America

Yesterday was Passover, a very widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Indeed, many non-practicing Jews and even non-Jews end up participating in a Seder, the traditional Passover dinner during which the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is described. The last line of the Seder service is "next year in Jerusalem", which, during the many centuries of oppression and persecution of the Jews, was a statement of hope. Now its meaning is more difficult to understand, since there are actually Jews in Jerusalem and the rest of us could go and have a Seder there if we really wanted to. I think David Cohen expresses nearly exactly my feelings when he wrote:
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.
There has never been a better time and place to be Jewish than now in the United States. When I say "next year in Jerusalem" I really mean "next year in America".

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