What Do We Mean by “Next Year in Jerusalem”?
I hope you are recovering from seders and having a meaningful Pesach! As I have written here before, Seders are perhaps my favorite evenings of the year, and this year did not disappoint. Friday night at the first seder I made a point of focusing on the last line of the Haggadah:“L’shanah Habah Birushalayim! (Next year in Jerusalem!)” I spoke about the idea of a Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, a Utopian ideal, the typology of perfected society that will pervade the entire world during the messianic age. It was a beautiful drash (if I do say so myself!) and an idea that I certainly believe in. However, as the days of Pesach pass I find myself thinking of my words and feeling discomfort.
What does it mean when we gloss over these profound words and their clear, literal meaning? On a “meta” level, the “Jerusalem” of the Haggadah might be some idealistic vision of peace, harmony, and holiness, but invoking this notion during Pesach points to a clear discomfort with the entire idea of the Diaspora and our people’s 3,000 year old desire to physically live together in the Land of Israel. I am sure that I am not alone in my ambivalence. I count my blessings every day to live in the United States, in Northern California, in a wonderful community of Jews dedicated to increasing the role Judaism plays in their lives. We have kosher restaurants, grocery stores that carry kosher food. We live in relative comfort and safety without the threat of rockets or bombings.
Given these realities, what role does the concept of Diaspora play in our lives? Do we feel that we are living in Diaspora?
In February, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Jeff Cymet, wrote an article about the idea of Diaspora and its centrality to Judaism, particularly to Conservative Judaism, which is the only movement that claim to have been Zionist in outlook from its origins until today. I invite you to read the article, published by Haaretz online, and see some of my thoughts below:
Diaspora Jews need to be reminded that they are living in exile. By abandoning the feeling that Jews outside of Israel are in exile, we risk losing everything.
By Rabbi Jeff Cymet
According to the Jewish sources, there is no worse fate than living in exile. Without the hope and the inspiration that a nation can be restored to its land, a people in exile will eventually die out. Only the Jewish people survived homelessness for almost twenty centuries, and we have done so in large part by cultivating the doctrine of exile.
As Jews, not a single day is allowed to pass without reminding ourselves that we are in exile; we pray daily for our ingathering. As comfortable as we may be personally, wherever we may be, we regularly remind ourselves that we are part of a nation that yearns to return home. Regardless of how loyal or grateful we may be to the host countries that provide us with refuge and sustenance, we are meant never to mistake those countries for home: this year in exile – next year in Jerusalem.
After two thousand years of praying for a return from the exile, a new generation of Jews – the Zionists – emerged late in the 19th century and decided to rebel against the accepted halakha. They worked to end the exile. Those Zionists recognized that if the Jewish people were going to rise above the degraded circumstances to which they had been led, they needed to demand the full benefits of modernity – including the human, civil and national rights that are essential to the progress of any people – while requiring full emancipation from the rabbinic leadership that opposed it. The Zionist founders of the State of Israel knew that Judaism, as the national culture of the Jewish people, was something that could not be lived naturally outside of its own land. The Zionists worked diligently to undo everything that signified our exile, and sacrificed much in order to end the exile once and for all.
When the State of Israel was created in 1948, our exile was meant to be over. The ingathering of the dispersed from around the world proceeded speedily and Jews poured back into our restored homeland. We were home again – or at least we could go home, if we wanted to do so. The redemption of the entire nation appeared close at hand.
However, over 60 years later the redemption has not yet been completed. Millions of Jews still have not returned to Israel. There are many reasons why this is true. Israel is still not at peace, and it can be daunting to leave peaceful lands for life in a country that is always under threat of war. Others worry about their ability to support themselves or their family if they were to return to the Jewish state. Not everybody is able to take advantage of this unique opportunity in history.
More importantly, however, not everybody wants to move to Israel. Many Jews today refuse to consider life outside of Israel as “exile.” Israelis, for example, often resent any ideological demand that potentially threatens to limit their freedom of choice regarding where to live – the era in which moving away from Israel was considered disloyal is long gone. Meanwhile, Diaspora Jews, especially in lands with little anti-Semitism, increasingly feel completely at home in their countries of residence among their non-Jewish neighbors, a fact that naturally attenuates their feeling of exile or the primacy of their bonds to the Jewish people.
However, by abandoning the feeling that Jews outside of Israel are in exile, we risk losing everything. Jews who no longer feel that they are in exile when living in a non-Jewish land are increasingly on a trajectory of assimilation in which they find that they identify more with the peoples of their host countries than with their own people throughout the world. Meanwhile, Jews who no longer feel the primacy of Zion over other Jewish communities in the world might not necessarily be willing to sacrifice as much on her behalf.
But trajectories are not destiny. They can and must be reversed. We must once again have the courage to remind Jews worldwide that if they choose to live outside of Israel, they risk exiling themselves from their own heritage and from sharing in their national destiny. Many cultures, religions and peoples share our universal values. None share our particular history. Only in Israel can we live not only according to our universal values but also immersed in our unique Jewish culture as it has been shaped by our own heritage.
And if anyone continues to believe, as they very well might, that they need to remain in exile, they must constantly remind themselves, on a daily basis, that the Jewish people is their extended family, that Israel is their home, and that though they may be in exile this year – next year, if possible, they pray to be in Israel.
Rabbi Cymet’s article sparked quite a debate amongst my rabbinic colleagues, and I have thought quite a bit about his words. I disagree with Rabbi Cymet’s statement about Jews living in the Diaspora. I do not believe we more closely identify with others in the US than our Jewish brethren throughout the world, nor do I believe living in the US attenuates our bond to the Jewish people. However, I ultimately agree with Rabbi Cymet in his overall assertion. Diaspora is a reality for us as Jews living outside of Israel. And that reality raises some existential difficulties. To think of ourselves as being in exile is to acknowledge that the United States is not really home. Embracing the concept of Diaspora means grappling with the thought that we are in some way “foreigners” here in the United States. It is unpleasant and perhaps difficult to imagine a time when we will not be welcome in the US or persecuted for our beliefs.
I humbly and readily admit to you, my beloved congregants, that this is an aspect of Jewish faith with which I struggle, as evidenced by my glossing over it at our seder. On certain days it is hard to imagine living in Israel, dealing with the issues of being a Conservative/Masorti Jew, struggling with my Middle School level knowledge of spoken Hebrew, all while eking out a meager living. Yet, on other days I find myself in tears while looking at a new website about Machane Yehuda (the shuk) in Jerusalem, wanting to be in Israel more than anything. Like many of you, I live with this tension.
For me, there is only one way of living with this tension and that entails keeping it at the forefront of our consciousness. We must become chovevei tzion, lovers of Zion. Educating ourselves about the political realities in Israel, buying Israeli products, giving money to Israeli causes, and visiting frequently are all positive ways of being cognizant of the fact that we do not live there.
As we enter into the final days of Pesach with the melody of “L’shanah Habah Birushalayim! (Next year in Jerusalem!)” playing in our heads, we all have an opportunity to contemplate how we might make Jerusalem and Israel more a part of our lives in the coming year. Perhaps you will visit Israel this year, give more money to an Israeli cause, or make learning about Israel a priority. While fulfilling these goals cannot take the place of making aliyah, they are ways of keeping the tension of living in Disapora a part of our consciousness.
Rabbi Philip Ohriner
P.S. While I always welcome your comments, this week I heartily encourage you to write me with your own thoughts about Diaspora, making aliyah, and the place of Israel in your beliefs.