Observe the glow on a child's face as he chants the customary interpretation of koreich. This unique sandwich of matzah and marror(bitter herbs) seems to evoke in the youngster a particular spark of pleasure.
But as the child slowly matures, and has already experienced this Seder sandwich several times in his life, does the initial thrill begin to fade? Probably. After all, that's human nature. Until what age would a child be ecstatic about a matzah and marror sandwich? That is, unless the growing child has probed and discovered that very magnitude of thrill on a more profound level. For, in reality, the combination of matzah and marror that we eat on Passover is a high point of the Seder for the adults as well as for the giggling kids, munching with delight.
Firstly, and understandably, fulfilling the custom of the great sage Hillel can be cause enough to rejoice. We are thereby fulfilling our obligation of "al matzos umerrorim" the way Hillel understood it which is a rewarding experience in itself.
But there are more dimensions to this interesting sandwich, which is why I've come to view it as a "hero" sandwich, no less! Not the kind that can be purchased at the local sub shoppe, its heroic measure determined by its number of layers. Rather, I've come to perceive it so, for the layer upon layer of depth and meaning that I've discovered behind it.
And that discovery I attribute to a story, true to the last detail, which contains power enough to revive that very childhood thrill for a new set of reasons.
THE CRIPPLED SOLDIER
During the tension-wrought years of World War One, many of Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg's disciples had been drafted for service in the army. The great sage, known as the Be'er Shmuel, was the dean of the then-renowned yeshiva in Unsdorf, Slovakia, and the beloved leader and mentor of many disciples. Bound as he was to his students with a fatherly love and devotion, he was deeply anguished by the plight of those who were forced onto the battlefields. These students occupied his thoughts incessantly, and their names were foremost in his prayers.
Thus, in spite of the physical barrier that war had created between them, he continued to inspire them and maintain communication with them from afar. This powerful bond was a source of hope and strength for the students on the battlefront, and at times even seemed mysteriously connected with miraculous incidents that they experienced along treacherous routes. Sometimes, however, during the rough exile that it was, tragedy struck hard in spite of the many tears that were shed on their behalf.
AMPUTATION AS A CURE
One student had been seriously wounded on the battlefield. Tragically, doctors prescribed the immediate amputation of his leg as the single remedy that would save his life.
The wounded soldier was lying in his hospital bed, his thoughts consumed by profound misery and despair. His life seemed shattered beyond repair. He could not fathom how he would ever resume heading his household again and supporting his family.
The Be'er Shmuel was informed of the tragedy and the deep despair that engulfed his beloved disciple.
He immediately sent a letter of sympathy and encouragement.
The heading of the letter contained a Torah verse, the words, Joseph consoled his brothers for having sold him, explaining that it was the will of the Divine that he end up in Egypt where he would later provide his family with the sustenance they would need. The Be'er Shmuel chose, particularly, these words of encouragement for the opening of his letter.
The rest of the letter contained additional words of consolation for the troubled soldier reassurance that everything that happens is for a person's good, and other powerful messages of faith and hope for the future.
It happened that in the unit of the hospital where this man lay, there was a gentile soldier with a condition similar to that of the Jewish soldier's. This gentile was considered a true war hero who had lost his leg while faithfully serving his country.
One day, a medal from the Hungarian government, in honor of his outstanding heroism, arrived at the hospital. Erroneously, however, the medal landed in the Jewish soldier's hands. He was awarded an honorary tribute from the government for having been the heroic warrior who lost his leg in battle!
The Jewish soldier accepted the award, although he could not fathom how he ever came to be a hero of such significance.
When he was sufficiently recuperated, he returned home to his family free at last, but crippled for life. The war ended with the seeds of the next world war sprouting soon thereafter. Thus, it was a scant two decades later when he and his family began witnessing the all-too-familiar horrors of war all over again. Deportations had begun, and people sensed the horrible fate that awaited them.
It was then that the medal of heroism came in handy. Hungarian officials, in acknowledgement of his faithful service to his country, graciously offered the crippled Jew a Hungarian home where he could shelter himself and all of the members of his household!
And so it happened that this "unfortunate" crippled soldier, along with his family and extended family of forty-eight members, escaped the ferocious jaws of the Nazi war machine. This privileged group of forty-nine remained under this protective roof till the end of the war, their Hungarian benefactors providing them with food, water, and basic necessities all throughout.
Only then did he comprehend the message that his spiritual mentor, the Be'er Shmuel, had imparted. Only then did he grasp that the terrible tragedy that had befallen him during the First World War was actually a Divine preparation and the source of his and his entire family's future survival and sustenance through the bloodiest era in history, the Second World War.
APPRECIATION IN ITS HIGHEST FORM
Often, huge spans of time elapse before one can recognize the blessing in past difficulties. The Sefas Emes explains that even the Jews who left Egypt as free men finally breathing the refreshing air of freedom were still "crippled" from the emotional pain and strain of all the suffering that they had endured. And thus, the joy of their redemption, with all of its glory, was still bittersweet for them.
It was only upon the exhilarating experience of witnessing the miraculous Splitting of the Sea that they became elevated to a higher, more heroic level of appreciation, not just of their redemption, but of their former exile, as well. They were then able to say "Zeh Keili… This is the very One Who decreed our former suffering." It was at the shores of the Sea of Reeds that they were finally able to see and acknowledge and even say wholeheartedly that all that they had endured in Egypt was worthwhile for the salvation and miracles that they were now witnessing.
This soldier, too, struggled to contend with his bittersweet homecoming after his first wartime experience. Later, though, upon witnessing the incredible survival of his entire family, he was able to achieve a better understanding of the bitter suffering of his past. At last, he was able to thank the Divine wholeheartedly and equally for the hardships as well as for the miracles.
SAVORING THE SANDWICH
Upon contemplating the chain of events in the story of the crippled soldier, we can enhance our appreciation of the significant "layers" in the matzah and marror sandwich.
The Sefas Emes explains that matzah symbolizes freedom, and bitter herbs, exile. By eating them together, we portray our firm belief that the Divine is present not only at our redemption, but during the most bitter periods of exile, as well. His Presence may not be as apparent during times of bitterness, but He is present, nonetheless. And just as the Divine was present during the slavery and torment of the Jews in Egypt, He was and continues to be so during any exile or any individual form of bitterness that a person must endure.
For the crippled soldier, in retrospect, the sacrifice of one limb, horrible as it was, turned out to be a blessing and powerful testimony to the Divine's Presence and, yes, worthwhile for the astronomical reward he reaped later.
Perhaps, like the little ones, we can savor, on a different level, the high point of biting into a matzah/bitter herbs sandwich.
The combination implies that the Divine is present at all times; everything that happens is carefully and Divinely planned. Everything, be it categorized as matzah/freedom or bitter herbs/suffering, is in our best interest only.
If we can absorb this concept, we have achieved an understanding of heroic nature. Appreciating the bitter herbs as well as the matzah is a heroic understanding. It is reminiscent of the elevated level of recognition that the Jews achieved at parting of the Reed Sea. Hence, as the youngsters delight in their Passover sandwich, the adults can delight in its meaning.
Enjoy it as you did when you were small. You are fulfilling the obligation the way Hillel did.
And relish those layers…. It's a hero's sandwich.