Next Year in Jerusalem

Understanding the familiar phrase in light of modern realities

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Jerusalem has acquired something of a superhuman status because of its religious and legendary status as the ancient center of the world and the site of the two Temples. The Holy of Holies within the Temples was the physical space where human and divine would meet, once a year, at Yom Kippur. The High Priest would approach the inner altar to ask forgiveness for Israel's sins from God's Shekhinah, or Presence. Some say the Shekhinah still dwells near the broken Western Wall of the Temple.

This sense of divine presence, which can create a powerful sense of the holy, can also go awry into the reaches of fanaticism, as recent history records all too well. Regardless of where they stand on issues of politics and how to solve Jerusalem's problems, Jews worldwide look to the Land of Israel with sorrow at the ongoing bloodshed and hatred there. Is there a way, then, to reconcile these extremes so that all Jews can look to "next year in Jerusalem" with hope and not despair?

One possible answer is found in another midrashic understanding of Yerushalayim's name as a combination of yerushah, or inheritance, and the plural ending, ayim, suggesting a "double" inheritance. Then add the creative imagination of the Rabbis. In a midrash they interpret Psalm 122:3, "Jerusalem built up, a city knit [connected] together," to mean there are two Jerusalems. Yerushalayim Shel Matah is the earthly Jerusalem, which may be the object of our ambivalence but is also the source of Torah, and Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, the upper Jerusalem--a heavenly version relieved of the contradictions of human life.

For some Jews, this upper Jerusalem is perhaps the appropriate object of our longings at the end of the seder. It represents the possibility of intimacy with God that is relieved of the trappings of religious polemic. It offers us the shelemut, completeness, that often feels beyond reach in our shattered daily lives. Finally, it may represent the final peace of messianic redemption.

God in the Earthly Jerusalem

But the rabbis were wary, as we should be, of the consequences of making Jerusalem into an ideal, abstracted from the realities of its everydayness. A midrash related in The Book of Legends, edited by H.N. Bialik, asks what is meant by Hosea 11:9, which states, "The Holy One in the midst of thee, and I will not come into the city"? Rabbi Isaac related the following explanation by Rabbi Yohanan: "'The holy one' refers not to God but to the holy city, and God the Holy One is 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.'"

Perhaps, then, it is our responsibility to make the world, and the earthly Jerusalem, into a place where God can reside, and if not now, then perhaps "next year." In every Torah service, we repeat the words of Isaiah 2:3, which proclaim Jerusalem as the source of God's Torah and ethical teachings: "For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." The very next verse in Isaiah offers a classic description of the messianic future: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nations shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war."

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.