When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the highlight of the Passover celebration was eating the Passover sandwich, which consisted of matzah, the meat of the Paschal offering, and bitter herbs. Once the Temple was destroyed and we were no longer able to offer the Paschal lamb, there was no biblical obligation to eat a sandwich. Instead, we eat a portion of biblically mandated matzah,1 after which we eat the rabbinically mandated bitter herbs, followed by a sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs to commemorate the Passover sandwich of Temple times. Before we bite into the sandwich, we say: “Thus did Hillel do at the time of the Holy Temple: He would combine Passover (lamb), matzah and maror and eat them together, as it said: ‘They shall eat it with matzah and bitter herbs.’"

In our lives, we each have "matzah moments," moments in which we experience the blessings of life. Moments when we feel truly free and liberated. We also have "bitter herb" moments, moments in which we feel the bitterness of challenges and difficulty.

The bitter herbs are part of life. Every person experiences some measure of hardship and challenge. The “free” person is one who is not enslaved by life’s difficult challenges, but rather grows from them. The bitter experiences of life, when approached with faith and courage, can bring out the greatest potential of the human being.

Yet, initially, the matzah and the bitter herbs are eaten separately. Because in the moment of pain, we often don’t see any redeeming factor. In the moment of challenge, all we see is difficulty. Only after the fact, once we overcome the challenge, once we attain freedom, can we look back and view the past suffering as a step toward freeing our deepest spirit. From our perspective, the pain and the freedom cannot mix. We therefore eat the matzah and the bitter herbs separately.

And then we make a sandwich.

We remind ourselves that there was was a time, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, when spirituality was easily accessible. At that time, a person like Hillel could combine the matzah and the bitter herbs. He could combine the suffering with the salvation. At the very moment that he was experiencing the challenge, he could feel that his challenge was part of a sandwich. His challenge was an integral part of the free person he would become.

The Jew living in spiritual exile may not be able to feel that the challenges in his life are part of a bigger story of freedom. However, he can and should remember Hillel’s perspective. Eating the sandwich will remind him that the bitterness of life is the catalyst for redemption.