When I was a kid I would eat a sandwich for lunch every day and so I would ask: “Who invented the sandwich?” The classic answer is the Earl of Sandwich. His real name was John Montagu and he lived in the 18th century, was a notorious gambler, and the sandwich as a meal he could take with him to the gaming tables. But every Jewish child knows the sandwich was invented many centuries earlier, by the great Talmudic sage Hillel.
In today’s Torah reading (Exodus 12:8) Gd commands the Jewish people about the Passover Seder: “They shall eat the meat (of the Passover sacrifice) that night, roasted over the fire, and matzahs; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.” At our Seders we mention the teaching in the Talmud (Pesachim 115a) where Hillel tells us to make a sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs—dipped in the apple paste called charoset. Hillel’s idea was a compromise. The Torah teaches that at Passover, we should eat the roasted Passover sacrifice with matzah and marror (bitter herbs). We no longer have a Passover sacrifice so we eat the matzah by itself saying a blessing, followed by the bitter herbs by itself saying a blessing. But Hillel was not satisfied with this. He believed we should also eat the matzah and the bitter herbs together—as the verse seems to indicate. So the sandwich was invented as a compromise to satisfy Hillel’s opinion. Sorry Earl of Sandwich, you were not the 1st.
Jewish tradition is full of compromises. When we hang a mezuzah on the doors of our homes, do you know why we hang it at an angle? In his monumental compendium on Jewish law, the Baal haTurim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (13th–14th centuries) cites 2 conflicting opinions. He 1st quotes the great Biblical commentator Rashi, who taught that the mezuzah should be placed vertically. He then cites the view of Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, who disagreed saying that placing the mezuzah in a “standing” position is not respectful. Rather, he taught that it should be placed horizontally—i.e. laying down—similar to how the Tablets of the 10 Commandments and the 1st Torah scroll were arranged in the Holy Ark in the Temple of old—which, unlike the Arks in our shuls, was a horizontal ark.
Think of our Torahs as they are removed from the Aron Kodesh. As long as someone holds the Torah vertically, all the people stand. As soon as it’s placed down to rest, the people also may sit. Rabbeinu Tam seems to be saying the same about the mezuzah.
So what should we to do? Rabbi Jacob ben Asher concludes that we should hang a mezuzah in our homes at an angle—on a slant—as a compromise to try to fulfill both opinions as best we can. Again, we hand the mezuzah not vertically and not horizontally, but we compromise and hang it on a slant. Perhaps the lesson is that for there to be shalom bayit (peace in a home)—and home is where the mitzvah of mezuzah is commanded—there must be compromise. Every time we walk into our homes or into our bedroom and see the mezuzah on a slant, it’s a reminder that we must compromise. Learning to compromise is an essential Jewish value.
Having said this, not always should one compromise. This reminds me of an old joke that asks us to ponder a moral dilemma:
Imagine you’re in the Middle East and there’s a huge flood. Homes have been lost, water supplies compromised and infrastructures destroyed. You’re traveling alone, taking photographs for a news service, looking for particularly poignant scenes. You come across the Iranian head Ayatollah who has been swept away by the floodwaters. He’s hanging on to the branch of a tree and is about to go under.
You can either put down your camera and save him or take a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of him as he loses his grip on the branch. So here’s the dilemma—and think carefully before you answer it: What lens would you use—telephoto or wide angle?!
There’s no compromising with someone who only wants to incinerate you and wipe you off the face of the earth. For example, Israel has great expertise in rescue efforts during earthquakes. Last November there was an earthquake in Iran. Despite its fanatically anti-Semitic leaders, Israel wanted to help those poor souls in the Iranian earthquake. But not only would Iran not accept Israel’s help, one of the Ayatollahs blamed Israel for the earthquake!
But in most cases, compromise is a great virtue. Have anyone of you seen the Broadway musical Hamilton? I haven’t; I’m waiting for the prices to become reasonable when it visits Atlanta again. I understand there’s a scene of the portrayal of the Compromise of 1790. Hamilton locked himself in a room with Jefferson and Madison—2 men who truly despised him. Together they worked out a compromise where the Federal government would take over the states’ debts as Hamilton wanted, while building the national capital in part of Virginia as Jefferson wanted. Here we see politicians who fervently disagree and do not like each other, working out a compromise. What a concept!
As I speak now our government is shut down. The issue is the building of a wall along the southern border of the United States. I won’t give an opinion on the wall itself because my message is not political. However, isn’t there a way for Trump, Pelosi and Schumer to follow the lead of Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison and lock themselves in a room and not come out until they hammer out a compromise that will reopen the government? It strikes me that this is what governments are supposed to do. Leaders must find a way to compromise.
I don’t know if you know this, but after I left my former congregation, I trained to become a mediator. While I don’t practice it much, I learned some valuable lessons. I remember the 1st thing I learned: If there are 2 parties that disagree, find something they can both agree about. For example, a divorcing couple can agree that children need both a mother and a father. Slowly, finding areas of agreement, a mediator can build a compromise. Both sides get part of what they want, and both sides give up part of what they want. Nobody gets everything; compromise is not about all or nothing.
So next Passover, as you build your Hillel sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs, remember that this sandwich was invented as a compromise between those authorities who said the 2 foods should be eaten separately and those who believed it should be eaten together.
The Torah (Deut. 16:20) teaches Tzedek tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue). Why repeat the word “justice” twice? Rashi comments that sometimes you must pursue absolute justice where you are right and the other side is wrong. But equally often, you need to pursue a pshara (a compromise) where each side gets something and each side gives something. It’s a lesson from the Passover Seder that we all need to learn for our homes and for our country. Amen!