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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayechi: Keep smiling
Each tribe received a blessing from Yacov to direct them according to their nature and abilities. It is more important 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 anything else. Anyone who deprives others of the pleasantness of their cheerful face is a thief. We learn from Yacov'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.
In the beginning of this week's Parasha, the Torah relates how Yacov blessed his children before he passed away. After he finished blessing them it says (Bereishis 49:28): "and he blessed them, each according to his blessing." The Or HaChaim asks what does it mean that he blessed each one according to his blessing. The Or HaChaim answers that Yacov blessed each tribe to direct them how to achieve their potential, utilizing their specific nature and abilities. For example, in his blessing to the tribe of Yehuda, Yacov said (Bereishis 49:11): "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". The simple meaning of these poetic words refers to an abundance of grapes, wine and large numbers of cattle producing milk. This is a blessing fit for the tribe of royalty.
The Talmud (Ketuboth 111a) interprets the last part of this passage with a very interesting homiletical interpretation. "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. Smile at me with Your teeth, for that is sweeter to me than milk." The Talmud continues and says that this proves 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, it is more important to smile at a person than to give him milk.
We find a similar 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)." This seems strange. Is it not more important for the poor person to get some money rather than just a few words? Says the Maharal, the one who gives the poor milk to drink or a coin provides him with a physical donation that sustains him for a little while. But the one who smiles or comforts him with gives an everlasting feeling of self worth. This lifts the person's spirits and sustains him a lot more than any donation.
This applies to every individual, and it applies to all of us as a nation. As it says in Tehillim (80:8): "G'd of legions, return us and illuminate Your face that we may be saved." Our sages explain that when G'd illuminates His face to us it expresses that G'd is happy with us and wants us. What can be more important to us than knowing that G'd is happy with us? This is what we celebrated on Hanukkah when we commemorated how G'd let the oil burn in the Menorah for eight days.
Need for acceptance and approval
Rav Wolbe, one of the greatest Musar exponents of our times, explains that just like this is all we want from G'd, in the same way there is nothing greater we can give each other. We all have an urge 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 wait 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. We can all acknowledge another person's existence with a smile and approve of his actions. It is the easiest and cheapest thing to do, and it is more valuable than anything else. When we hold the door for someone coming from behind us, 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.
Cheerful facep> It says in Pirkei Avos (4:20): "Always be the first to greet every person." The Talmud (Berachot 17a) relates that the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai always made sure to be the first one to greet others. Shammai, who was known as a stern and strict person, took this a step further and said, "Receive everyone with a cheerful face" (Pirkei Avos 1:15). As mentioned above, our sages elaborate on this and say that you can give the most precious gifts in the world. If you do it 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 disciples who was walking around with a long face. He said: "You are like a thief!" He explained that the face of a person is like a public domain for everyone to see. He therefore said: "You have no right to deprive your fellow human beings of the pleasantness of a cheerful face"
In last week's Parasha, we learn from Yacov himself how important it is to appear pleasant and cheerful in all situations. When Joseph brought Yacov to Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked (Bereishis 47:9): "How old are you?" The Ramban explains that Pharaoh was taken aback at the sight of a man who looked exceedingly old. This prompted him to ask Yacov his age. To this Yacov answered: "I am not really as old as I appear, but I have suffered a lot in life, 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 Yacov: "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 Yacov 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 why it was considered wrong of Yacov to express himself in the way he did. However, this teaches us that under all circumstances we 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, asks Rabbi Shmulevits, even if Yacov was punished for what he said, why was he punished for all 33 words in the two verses? The eight words of the first verse deals with Pharaoh's question? Answers Rav Shmulevits, since Yacov's appearance of looking old and worn brought about Pharaoh's question, he was punished for that as well. This brings to mind what my father always used to preach: "In every situation in life, we have 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. A cheerful "good morning" can put us in a good mood; whereas, the opposite can spoil our mood. Just like little infants respond to a smile and smiles back, so does every adult appreciate and feel good when greeted with a smile. This is one of the final messages we received from our patriarch Yacov. And it was recorded in the holy Torah to emphasize that this relates to all of us at any time.
P.S. The following poem was adapted by my father-in-law Rabbi S. Wagschal
What is it?
It costs no money, yet its benefits are great.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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