On a recent trip to Jerusalem, my son decided that his favorite color was gold. Whenever he’s asked why, he replies with a wry smile befitting a five-year-old.
“Jerusalem is the city of gold, of course,” he says.
When we told him our family was moving to Israel this summer, he was quite pleased.
“Ima, will we live there until I’m a grown-up?” he asked.
That’s the idea, we nodded.
I know what my family will mean when we reach the end of the Passover seder this year and say “Next Year in Jerusalem.” But for those not making the trek to the Holy Land anytime soon, what do these words mean? Are we being disingenuous? Or, as the rabbis encourage with every other part of the Haggada, are we reading ourselves into the story of the Exodus from Egypt?
Of course Israelis, including Jerusalemites, also end their seders by saying “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem surely cannot only represent a physical destination. It must represent more — but what, exactly?
Perhaps the Jerusalem of the Haggada represents an ideal, a hope, a possibility.
In the language of the Haggada, Israel and Jerusalem represent the final stage of redemption. When we lift the four cups of wine during the seder, we are giving ritual expression to the four stages that the Jewish people move through, with God as their guide, to reach freedom and leave Egyptian slavery in the dust.
The Torah explains “I [God] will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt” (cup 1); “I will deliver you out from their bondage” (cup 2); “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” (cup 3); and “I will take you to me for a people” (cup 4). (Exodus 6:6-8)
But there is a fifth mention of redemption just a few verses later: “And I will bring you into the land” of Israel.
Arriving to the land is the final stage of redemption and corresponds to the cup of Elijah, the prophet who is said to be the one who ushers in messianic times. The cup, untouched yet filled with wine to the brim, represents the future ahead, filled with possibilities and promises for peace on earth.
As the late Rabbi David Hartman writes, “The cup is poured, but not yet drunk. Yet the cup of hope is poured every year. Passover is the night for reckless dreams; for visions about what a human being can be, what society can be, what people can be, what history may become. That is the significance of ‘L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim,’” next year in Jerusalem.
Now that we are freed from the bondage in Egypt, we are called to embrace our biggest dreams, and our wildest aspirations for ourselves, for Israel, and for the world.
Or perhaps “Next year in Jerusalem” refers to a more modest endeavor.
There is a midrash about the etymology of the word Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim. The Rabbis look at the word “Yerusha,” which means inheritance, and “ayim,” which connotes doubling, and understand that there are two Jerusalems: a heavenly one (“Yerushalayim shel ma’ala”) and an earthly one (“Yerushalayim shel ma’ata”). While the heavenly Jerusalem might refer to the possibilities of a world redeemed, an earthly one is rooted in the complexities of politics, economics, and daily life. It is a place filled with energy, vibrancy, and urgency.
And according to the Midrash, the earthly Jerusalem is the place where God will arrive even before reaching the heavenly Jerusalem. The Midrash imagines God saying, “I will not come into the city of Jerusalem that is above until I first come into the city of Jerusalem that is below.”
The late poet Yehuda Amichai called Jerusalem a place whose inhabitants are longing for God’s presence. Jerusalem, he writes, “is saturated with prayers and dreams / like the air over industrial cities. / It’s hard to breathe.”
What does it mean to make earthly Jerusalem a place in which God — whatever God means for us — can enter and reside? It could mean devoting more time to learning about the complexity of life in Israel through travel and research, or reading more Israeli literature and honoring Israeli artists. Or it could mean partnering with Israelis working on the ground to improve society through education, social and economic equality, and religious pluralism.
Or is Jerusalem a state of mind?
More than physical places, rabbis have noted that Egypt and Jerusalem represent two inner spiritual states. Egypt, or Mitzrayim, has at its root “tsar,” or narrowness. Egypt represents the “narrow places” in which we live, where we feel constricted and confined. It is a state in which we are quick to anger, to react, to put our own ego needs before the needs of others.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, has at its root “shalem,” or “wholeness.” It is the feeling of expansiveness, when the disparate parts of ourselves weave together into a seamless whole.
As the seder winds down and the matza crumbs are swept off the table, let the question of “next year” continue to echo — with all its hopes, plans, and the self-understandings of where Jerusalem resides for each one of us.