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Parshas Vayechi (5769)

Got Smiles?

"Red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk" (Genesis 49:12).

The Talmud in Kesubos 111b interprets this verse as follows: Showing your teeth to your neighbor [in a broad smile] is better than giving him a drink of milk, for it says, "white toothed [l'ven shinayim] from milk." Don't read l'ven shinayim, "white toothed", but libbun shinayim, "showing the teeth" [i.e. smiling] is better than milk.

The obvious question is, when a hungry person approaches someone for food, how will a smile fill his empty stomach? Keeping in mind that in times of old people went hungry in the streets, how can the Talmud advise that it is better to smile than to give a substantial food donation?

I think that if we have asked this question, it is because we underestimate the power and importance of a smile. A smile is not merely a kind thing to do, making the world a more pleasant place. A smile is an essential ingredient in the healthy continuity of the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt"l, in his wisdom-filled book Alei Shur, writes that even as a tiny infant, a child recognizes and reacts to the different facial expressions that he sees. If his parents smile at him with an expression of love and adoration, his face lights up and he returns the smile. And if they stare at him with an angry face, he immediately begins to cry.

Who knows which helps the child grow and mature more - the milk that the mother gives him, or the smiles and expressions of love that she showers upon him? The milk might help the child grow physically, but without the constant smiles and love that his parents give, he will not thrive emotionally and spiritually. Much the same way a plant can't grow and thrive with water alone, but requires sunshine in order to convert the sun's rays into life-giving nutrients, so, too, does a child need constant smiles which it converts into energy and strength, and without which it will wilt and perish.

And the same applies as we mature and grow into adulthood, whether we realize it or not. Just as everyone is in agreement that a child that grows up being shown love and good cheer will be emotionally sound and stable, so too, do adults require smiles and warmth to function properly. It's as necessary for us as food and drink.


The problem is, though, that for most people, smiling at a total stranger passing by us on the street is a very difficult thing to do. Some of us are too shy, others are convinced that if we make any eye contact with someone we don't know our lives could somehow be in danger, and still others simply don't care enough to smile at random people. But just because it doesn't come easy to us doesn't mean we should give it up either. You see, the world is full of too much hate and discrimination and pettiness and low self-esteem and depression. How different the world would be if more people would start smiling at each other!!

Luckily, the Rabbis were on it well over 2000 years ago, and they gave us some advice and guidelines for "successful smiling". They taught in Pirkei Avos (1:15): "Greet every human being with sever panim yafos - a cheerful face." With these three words - sever panim yafos - the Rabbishave given us a three-step program for properly greeting another human being.

1) Sever - Your face has to express sever, which means sevara, or thought. When you focus your face on another person, he has to be able to see that you are thinking about him. You notice him. You appreciate that this total stranger, no matter what his color, ethnicity, culture or religion, was created in the image of G-d just as you were, and is therefore worthy and important enough for you to concentrate on him, even for a split second's time.

2) Panim - This is the Hebrew word for "face". You have to turn your face to that person, not your ear. Look directly into the face of the person as you greet him and give him the full attention he deserves.

3) Yafos - It is not enough merely to show your face when you greet another person, it should be yafos - a pleasant, beautiful face. Give him your best smile. Show him that you are happy to see him.

When we greet people with a warm, pleasant, and cheerful countenance, we are demonstrating to them that we are glad they are in this world! This is one of the most precious gifts of love that we can give to another human being. It is a life-giving gift, for a warm and cheerful countenance can lift the spirits of the person we are greeting. In this spirit, our Sages give the following commentary on the above teaching about greeting every human being with a "sever panim yafos": They teach us that if one gives his fellow human being all of the gifts in the world but with a downcast face, it is considered as if he gave him nothing at all. But if one welcomes his fellow human being with a warm and cheerful face, even though he unable to give him anything, it is considered as if he gave him all of the most valuable gifts in the world. (Avos D'Rabbi Nosson 13)


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once wrote: "A smile costs nothing, but gives much. It enriches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it, and none is so poor but that he can be made rich by it. A smile creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in business, and is the countersign of friendship. It brings rest to the weary, cheer to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and is nature's best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until it is given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give."

So the next time we pass by someone on the street - whether or not we know who the person is - let's remember the amazing power of a simple smile. Even if we have no money or milk to share with someone who is needy, we have in our possession something far more powerful and life-giving - it is what every human being needs in order to function and thrive - and all it takes is for us to "show our teeth" and give a great big smile.

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