Monday, September 29, 2014
Did you know that it is a mitzvah to smile? The sage Shammai was one of the most ornery people in all of Jewish history. He was famous for always being in a bad mood, often chasing people away when he was annoyed by their questions. So it is noteworthy that of all people, HE is the one who says in Pirke Avot, “Receive every person with a cheerful expression.”
The Talmud says of Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest rabbi of his era, that “no one greeted him first, even the Gentile in the marketplace.” He could have rested on his laurels and waited for people to come to him. He lived at a time when Jews were fighting Romans for survival – and, as always, Jews were fighting other Jews too. But it didn’t matter to him. Yochanan saw that every other human being is created in God’s image and he made it his business to greet them – and to do it FIRST.
And to that I will add the corollary – EVEN IF YOU DON’T MEAN IT! We all have our moods and that’s OK. But when you pass a person just at the moment you are thinking about last night’s horrifying 9th inning, and you make a face, that person will think you are upset with her. As a rabbi I have become especially attuned to how people try to read my body language. But this is really for everyone. People who are naturally shy or just depressed may not realize that that scowl appears to others as standoffish and angry. We’re not very good at reading faces – we’re even worse at reading faceless letters and e-mails. When you can’t look into the eyes, you can’t really see into the soul.
The medieval Talmudist Rabbi Menachem ha-Me’iri said that even when we resent a visitor’s intrusion we should STILL act as if we are happy to see him.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them.”
Jewish law permits us to interrupt prayer in order to return a greeting. Why? Because that person who greeted you is also a manifestation of the divine image. Either way, we are still talking to God.
Never ignore a greeting, the Talmud instructs us, for to do so would be akin to robbery – to have stolen from the other the pleasure of being greeted! This ethical quality of cheerfulness is considered one of the middot, a prime Jewish virtue.
So what can we do to bring this virtue into our lives during these ten days? Six quick suggestions:
1) Become like Yochanan ben Zakkai. Make it a game – be the one to greet first. I can imagine a student pulling a prank on him, standing behind a pillar, jumping out and shouting, “Shalom, Rabbi! HA!” You don’t have to hide behind a big Greek column or jump out from behind the bananas at Stop and Shop. But don’t go the other way! We don’t have to be so dramatic, but let’s try to be as enthusiastic. Don’t wait to be greeted. Be the first.
2) And do it enthusiastically. Smile. The Talmud states, “The person who shows his teeth in a smile is better than the one who gives milk to drink.” From which the rabbis developed their “Got teeth?” marketing campaign and the ubiquitous Jewish smiley face.
3) When you shake hands, mean it. A Hasidic master named Reb Arye, when greeting another, used to take that person’s hands in his own and hold them in a loving, caressing way that his students said was “electric with holiness,” sending God’s energy directly into the other person’s heart. There should be a degree of Kavvanah, feeling, in every greeting, whether a big bear hug, a simple wave or a high five. We need to recall always that greeting someone cheerfully is a holy act. It’s a prayer! Every handshake is a prayer!
4) And every greeting should be a “Shalom.” As we shake or hug and as we lock eyes, the clasped hand is both pulling in and sending off. There is the excitement of greeting and the real concern about letting go, all in that word, all in that simple gesture.
5) Make no exceptions. Halacha is clear that we especially should be greeting cheerfully those who are the weakest. When the queen of England comes by, by all means greet her – a high five is not recommended - in the film “The Queen,” the most moving scene was when Elizabeth finally went public to share the grief of her people after Diana’s death and took some flowers from a little girl and offered to place them on the pile outside the palace – and the girl said, “No – they’re for you.” Even a queen could use a little warmth from time to time. But we must also greet the poor, the downcast, the needy. Anyone here who has been to the homeless shelters when we’ve served dinner there knows exactly how powerful such a greeting can be.
6) We must understand that doing these things takes us one big step toward being our happier people, a more Sacred community and a repaired world.