Parashah Ponderings

Why “Next Year in Jerusalem”?

I wrote this essay around the time of the Arab spring in the early 2010’s. It continues to be one of my favorites. The essay mentions the Arab spring as a prime example of what happens when liberation from oppression is not followed by the creation of a social order governed by lawfulness and caring. This year, however, is different. While the chaos of the Arab spring is hardly a thing of the past, this year challenges us to imagine the return to that mythic “Jerusalem” as a return to democratic values and the creation of a more peaceful world.

The daily headlines remind us that all we’ve been blessed with to now is not Dayenu. As long as the Will to Power stands in the way of treating all persons as holy beings created in the image of the Divine, as long as personal desire masquerades as liberty and is held as more sacred than the common good, as long as tyrants seek to dominate, all our blessings will never be enough. Only when we’ve created a more perfect world and all God’s creatures find their way to “Jerusalem” will we be able to say “Dayenu” and mean it. That’s why we must recite the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” with all our heart.

According to the traditional haggadah, the book that guides us through the Passover seder, we are to end our telling of the exodus from Egypt and our celebration of freedom with the words “Next year in Jerusalem” or, in Hebrew, “Leshana haba’a bi’Yerushalayim!” Earlier in the seder, however, we sing “Dayenu – It Would Have Been Enough for Us,” an expression of our gratitude to God for all God did for us, from liberating us from Egypt through giving us the Temple in Jerusalem. Curious it is, then, that after all is said and done we articulate the desire to be in Jerusalem next year. Apparently, all the wonders that we experienced earlier in our history really would not have been enough for us. We want one more thing: to be in Jerusalem. Maybe.

What do the words “next year in Jerusalem” mean, anyway? More importantly, what do these words mean to each of us? Why are they the words that ring in our ears as we leave the seder table?

These words reflect the Jewish people’s longing to return to Zion that dates back to the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. To be sure, the destruction of both Temples, the second occurring in 70 CE, was experienced by our ancestors as a divine punishment and continues to feel as such today, especially among traditional Jews. This longing for a return to Jerusalem/Zion is captured magnificently in Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (127:5). Since 586 BCE, Jews have sought to find favor in God’s eyes and to merit a return to Jerusalem, if not also the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

Such spiritual yearning, however, is barely to be found in the original piyut, liturgical poem, from whence comes the sentiment that concludes the seder. The prayer that we find in the final section of the haggadah called Nirtzah, or Acceptance, first appears in the 11th century as part of the liturgy for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Passover. There, the poem by French halakhic (Jewish legal) scholar Rabbi Joseph Tov Alem ben Samuel Bonfils reads as a lengthy summary of the laws of Passover. Clearly, the author intended to instruct worshipers on the proper observance of the holiday the following week. It was hardly an ode to Jerusalem!

Within the context of the haggadah, though, Rabbi Joseph Tov Alem’s poem takes on a different meaning. In the 13th century, a short excerpt from the poem was added to the haggadah, given the final verse “next year in Jerusalem,” (a phrase from a 12th century work by Spanish philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehudah Halev), and titled “Hasal Siddur Pesach – The Order of the Pesach (Offering) Is Now Concluded.” In this new form, Yoseph Tov Alem’s halakhic treatise becomes a prayer for Israel to merit observing Passover as God “intended it to be observed,” i.e. in the rebuilt Temple as a sacrificial rite. To those who added “next year…” to the haggadah, the seder we observe is a lamentable substitute for the pesach offering, a mere place holder until the messianic age comes and we can celebrate the Pesach festival in a way that will be truly nirtzah, acceptable, to God.

Like many pieces of our tradition, “Next year in Jerusalem” has taken on new meanings as Judaism and the Jewish people have evolved over the millennia. For example, few progressive Jews I know would want to return to sacrificing live animals upon the Temple altar, nor would they want to hand over their religious practices to an elite, patriarchal priesthood. Rather, for some, “next year…” may be a prayer for peace based on their belief in the actual or metaphoric coming of the messiah, when all humanity will live in harmony and the Jewish people will be gathered together once again in Jerusalem. For others, “next year…” may express the Zionist hope that the Jewish homeland of Israel will be strong and that all Jews will soon make aliyah (immigrate and become citizens of Israel). Still, for others, “next year in Jerusalem” may simply articulate their desire to literally celebrate Passover next year in the city of Jerusalem. Regardless of how we interpret the verse, its beauty lies in the possibility that at any given seder no two people will interpret it the same way!

Back to Dayenu. It doesn’t disturb me at all that the last words from our mouths during the Passover seder – “Next year in Jerusalem” – should undercut a perennially favorite Passover song. For me, the exodus from Egypt would not have been enough. If the Arab spring has taught us anything, it is that freedom from tyranny without legislation that values all people as holy, without caring community, and without a place to call one’s own in the world is short-lived, indeed. Such freedom breeds chaos, ruthlessness, and despair. Whatever “next year…” means to you or me, we can certainly agree that it involves hope – hope that our dreams will one day be fulfilled. Until all people can dream and hope, can we really sing Dayenu and mean it?

Wishing you a Zisn Pesach, a Sweet Passover,

Rabbi Dan Aronson

This article first appeared in 2014 in Kol Shofar, the monthly newsletter of Temple Beth Sholom, Salem, OR.

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