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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayechi: Keep smiling
Each tribe received a blessing from Jacob to strengthen and direct them according to their nature and abilities. Better to smile at someone than to give them milk. All we need is to know that G'd is happy with us. A smile is more valuable than any other effort to accept and acknowledge others. Anyone who deprives others of the pleasantness of their cheerful face is a thief. We learn from Jacob's punishment. There is more to be thankful for and to appreciate than to complain about. Everyone appreciates and feels good about receiving a smile. The smile has the power to elevate, encourage, and please anyone who receives it.
In this week's portion, Jacob blesses his children before he passes away. The Or Hachaim explains, the meaning of "he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing" (Be 49:28). Each tribe was blessed to strengthen and direct them to achieve their potential according to their nature and abilities. For example, the final words of the blessing to the tribe of Yehuda, the tribe destined for kingship and leadership in general, express that they will experience prosperity. As it says "he (Yehuda) will launder his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes. Red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk" (Be 49:11). The simple meaning of these poetic words refers to the abundance of grapes producing wine and the abundance of cattle producing milk. However, as we constantly find in the Torah, there is a deeper meaning as well.
The Talmud (Ketuboth 111a) has a very interesting homiletical interpretation of the last part of this passage. "The congregation of Israel says to G'd: 'Master of the Universe, wink to me with Your eyes for that exhilarates me more than wine and smile at me with Your teeth for that is sweeter to me than milk." The Talmud continues and says this is proof to what Rabbi Yochanan said, "Better is the one who shows the white of his teeth (in a smile) to his friend, than the one who gives him milk to drink." In other words, "white toothed from milk" can be interpreted as "white toothed" is to be preferred to the milk.
We find another statement in the Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b): "Someone who gives a coin to the poor will be blessed with six blessings, whereas the one who addresses him with words of comfort will be blessed with eleven blessings (even if he does not give him a donation)." Explains the Maharal, the one who provides milk to drink or a coin for the poor provides a physical donation that sustains the person for a little while. Whereas the one who smiles at or comforts the poor with encouraging words, gives the person an everlasting feeling of self worth. This lifts the person's spirits and sustains the recipient at least as much as any donation.
In Psalms (80:8) it says, "G'd of legions, return us and illuminate Your face that we may be saved." Say our sages, the Jewish nation ask G'd to illuminate His face to us. That is all we ask for. That is all we need. When G'd illuminates His face to us it is an expression that G'd is happy with us and He wants us. What can be more important to us than knowing that G'd is happy with us?
Need for acceptance and approval
Rav Wolbe, one of the greatest Musar exponents of today, explains that just like this is all we want from G'd, in the same way there is no greater thing we can give each other. Everyone has a need to be accepted and approved of by others. People get frustrated, even devastated, when they do not get invited to a Bar Mitzvah, wedding or other event. Not so much because they want to attend the affair, as they want to be acknowledged. When we have done something, we are waiting for a sign of approval from the people around us, such as a thank you, a kind word of appreciation or encouragement, even a nod with the head. Anyone can with a smile acknowledge the other person's existence and approve of the person's actions. It is the easiest and cheapest way of accepting and approving others and it is more valuable than any other effort. When someone holds the door for the person coming behind, it is not just a matter of extending a courtesy to a fellow human being; rather, it is acknowledging the other person's existence as a worthy member of society.
The Mishna (Pirkei Avos 4:20) says, "Always be the first one to greet every person." The Talmud (Berachot 17a) relates that no one ever met the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai in the street who greeted him before he greeted them. Shammai, who was known as a stern and strict person, used to say, "Receive everyone with a cheerful face" (Pirkei Avos 1:15). Our sages elaborate on this and say, if you give the most precious gifts in the world with a stern face it is as if you did not give anything. But if you accept someone with a cheerful face it is worth more than the most precious gift you could ever give. Rav Dessler once admonished one of his pupils who was walking around with a long face. He said, "You are like a thief!" and explained that the face of a person is a public domain for everyone to see. He questioned, "What right do you have to deprive your fellow human beings of the pleasantness of a cheerful face?"
As a matter of fact, we learn from Jacob himself how important it is to appear pleasant and cheerful in all situations. The Ramban (Bereishis 47:9) explains that when Joseph brought Jacob to Pharaoh, Pharaoh was taken aback at the sight of a man who looked exceedingly old. This prompted him to ask Jacob the unusual question about how old he was. To this Jacob answered: "I am not really as old as I appear but I have suffered a lot in life and that is why I look so old." The Midrash (quoted by Da'as Zekeinim Miba'alei Hatosafoth) relates that at this point G'd said to Jacob: "I saved you from Eisav and Laban. I brought you back Dinah and Joseph, and you complain that your days have been few and bad [and that they have not reached the days of your forefathers.] I promise you that I will deduct from your life the amount of words recorded in the Torah regarding this incident, compared to the lifespan of your father Isaac." Isaac lived for 180 years whereas Jacob only lived 147 years, a difference of 33 years, the equivalent of the words of these two verses.
Says Rav Chaim Shmulevits, it is difficult for us to understand that it was considered wrong of Jacob to explain himself in the way he did. However, this teaches us how under all circumstances one must accept that everything G'd does is for the good, and the blessing of being alive outweighs all difficulties and tribulations of life. But how can we try to understand why Jacob should be punished for the eight words of the first verse recording Pharaoh's question? Answers Rav Shmulevits that since Jacob's experience of being old and worn brought about Pharaoh's question, he was punished for that as well. As my father, Reb Eliyahu Kahn, always used to teach: "In every situation in life, there is more to be thankful for and to appreciate than to complain about."
We all know the difference it makes how we are greeted when we meet or call someone on the telephone. It can make or break the day for someone. A cheerful "good morning" can put us in a good mood; whereas, the opposite can spoil our good mood. Just like little infants respond to a smile by smiling back, so too every adult appreciates and feels good about receiving a smile.
The smile has the power to elevate, encourage, and please anyone who receives it. It is something that we can all give with little effort. No one is too rich or too poor to smile. No one is too big or too little to smile. This is one of the final messages given by our patriarch Jacob. And it was recorded in our holy Torah to emphasize that this relates to everyone and at any time. Keep smiling, and may the whole world smile back at you.
P.S. Can you figure this one out?
It costs no money, yet its benefits are great.
Adapted by Rabbi S. Wagschal
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network