April 12, 2023
Make a Hillel Sandwich
"Make a Hillel Sandwich"
Passover Yizkor Service
Andrew Kaplan Mandel
With all due respect to the Earl of Sandwich, the Jewish practice of Korech - the Hillel sandwich during the seder - predates British royalty by centuries.
I’d argue our sandwich gets under-appreciated because it is the one thing standing between us and the festive meal. It can almost be a throwaway after the crack of the middle matzah, the dramatic Passover story itself, the wine-soaked plagues, and a rousing Dayenu.
It can feel redundant since we’ve already had the matzah and the maror separately.
Yet we spoon together a little makeshift nibble because we are told that Hillel used to do so.
It turns out we may owe his invention to grammar.
While everyone else was eating matzah separately from the maror, Rabbi Hillel was busy reviewing Numbers Chapter 9, which says: Yaasu oto al matzah, make this meal ON matzah. He’s like:
“People, we need to spread that maror on top of our unleavened bread.”
And some people loved it:
“Whoa, nice! That is pretty convenient and clever.”
There was also a spiritual component to the combination.
The symbol of our flight – the matzah – is combined with the symbol of our bitterness.
It’s like when we break a glass at a Jewish wedding.
We’re always remembering that there’s brokenness in the world, even at our times of joy.
Still, today, our Hillel sandwich is missing something.
Hillel lived before the destruction of the Temple, so his practice involved a slice of the Pascal lamb, a central component of the sacrificial exercise.
When the temple was destroyed and there was no more sacrifice, the creators of the seder made a sandwich anyway.
I do not take this for granted.
The generations who developed our seder could have said that eating this sandwich was no longer possible.
One of the ingredients was missing.
In fact, its key ingredient – the Passover sacrifice, the Pesach, the name of the holiday – was missing.
The animal symbolized the center of gravity of their sacred practice.
Its absence evoked the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Our ancestors could have easily gotten lost in grief and hopelessness – and given up.
Granted, the Hillel sandwich became way more difficult to eat now than when there was the meat involved.
Now the bitter herbs are the main event, rather than a condiment.
That’s why we have charoset at the ready,
Not only because it adds sweetness to the bitterness,
But its mortar-like consistency can also symbolize the hard work to make something difficult palatable.
Many of us who come to this service this morning are observing Yizkor, recognizing the loved ones who are no longer physically in our lives.
Whether all of those memories are happy ones or if they are mixed with bitterness, those individuals loomed large for us.
Some of us have lost grandparents, parents, siblings, partners, children, close relatives, dear friends.
These people were often centers of gravity in our lives.
We may be asking ourselves: how do we carry on in the face of their absence?
The seder humbly suggests that we make a sandwich.
By that, I mean taking the ingredients that surrounded our relationship, the pieces they left behind, and lovingly carrying them forward in homage, to allow what we had to live on in a new form.
Some of us are still fresh in our mourning.
Even conjuring memories may be painful and raw.
With time, we’ll have the opportunity to ask ourselves – am I going to set up my life so that I avoid encountering reminders of my loved one?
Will I say it’s just too hard, or am I going to make a Hillel Sandwich?
Making a Hillel sandwich is different from either being consumed by the past or moving on.
It is incorporating the past into the future.
We can ignore that the people who were at our table in years past are no longer there.
Or we can purposefully set aside a chair, and use their dishes.
An extra chair and grandma’s dishes are a Hillel sandwich.
We can stop going to the beach because our companion is no longer there, or once a year, we can go and bring the cooler with the margaritas like we used to, and play his favorite music, and splash around.
The cooler, the music, the splashing make a Hillel sandwich.
We can stay away from the marathon that our loved one used to run because it’s too painful to watch, or we can organize a fundraiser and cheer with the rest of the crowd in her memory.
The fundraising and cheering form a Hillel sandwich.
It’s not the same sandwich as before.
It’s not the same relationship as before.
But it acknowledges, rather than ignores, what was and seeks to find some beauty in what could be, given what is.
If you’ve been through a difficult loss, you know that nothing will compensate for it, nothing will replace it.
But may we have the strength to pick up the broken pieces, make a Hillel sandwich and share with others who may be experiencing pain along with us.
In so doing, we can bring new meaning to the words of our ancestors:
“To all who are hungry, come and eat.”