Next Year In Jerusalem?

This Passover, the simple words “Next year in Jerusalem” are sitting heavy in my mind. Seders around the world are ending with families and friends reciting them. What do they mean? What do we mean? Why do we say them when we don’t actually intend to spend next year in Jerusalem? Does speaking those words make me a supporter of the Israeli state and its policies? This year I am asking my family to use our Seder as a time to reflect on the meaning of these words for each of us, for the contemporary world, and for how we reconcile the sacred image of Jerusalem with the modern Jewish state.

The phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” first became part of the Seder in the fourteenth century among Jews spread across the Mediterranean world, far from the holy city. The phrase was likely used then—as it is now—to evoke different meanings for different people. Most explanations I’ve seen, however, can be described as either literal or spiritual.

To literalists, the Seder is only a stand-in for the rituals that must be carried out in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. The Passover Seder as we know it today is a symbolic service that emerged from a diaspora. The ceremonial meal hearkens back to a time when Jews sacrificed animals at their temple’s altar. These words remind us that as long as we are far from there, the ritual is never quite complete.

A more spiritual interpretation of “Next Year in Jerusalem” comes from Jewish messianic thought. The Messiah is a messenger of God whose form we cannot yet know. Jews are still waiting for the Messiah, and we believe that when he/she/it arrives, so too will the holy city, the city of peace—Jerusalem. Thus, there is no physical Jerusalem, at least not yet. Jerusalem, rather, represents an ideal time when the whole people of Israel will be united and there will be peace on earth.

Jews today disagree about how to bring about the arrival of the Messiah and realize the spiritual Jerusalem. Some Orthodox groups believe that God’s hand must be behind any return to the holy land—going there now, on their own, would be premature. Others, like the Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, see repopulating the physical land here and now as their religious duty. Many Jews, though, dismiss the earthly meaning entirely. The Messiah and the holy city of Jerusalem become synonymous with acts of “repairing the world” like social justice, dialogue, and peace.

What is Jerusalem for me? These days I can buy a ticket on El Al and arrive in Israel in a matter of hours, so asking God for help would seem like laziness on my part. If returning to Israel were so important to me, I would have done it already. But Israel is not my home, New York is. The things that matter in my daily life aren’t there, but here. I couldn’t take a plane to my Jerusalem if I wanted to; it is an ideal, a utopia without bureaucracy or borders.

On the other hand, the all-too-real Jerusalem is a place full of conflict, not peace. It is first and foremost the seat of a government whose purpose is to serve its own interests, like every other government. Despite its efforts to keep donations and investments from American and European Jews flowing, the Israeli state does not act in the interest of Jewish people around the world. It is a country, not an ideal, and it’s time that we treat it like one.

Seeing Jerusalem through pious lenses prevents us from being willing to criticize the state of Israel. To celebrate the physical Jerusalem has become an affront to the messianic hope for justice. Rather than creating a city of peace, we have allowed Israel’s failed policies to continue unchecked. By not treating Israel as we would any other foreign country, we only encourage conflict in the Middle East to continue without an end in sight.

Jerusalem, this Passover, is not a city of peace, but a violent mess. Jews today need to find a way to understand this, to separate a holy ideal from an unholy reality. I don’t care whether you hope for a two-state or a one state solution, or whether you think Israel should extend from Jordan to the sea. All I ask is that we remove the ritual film from our eyes, look at the facts, and see the real city for what it is.

That is why this year when my Seder ends, I will not be saying “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Others—including my family members—will. I just hope they mean it: next year, together in justice and peace.

Rachel Leven works for a policy magazine in New York.