Having spent most of my working life in journalism, I can’t imagine beginning my
day without a newspaper. It’s as much a part of my morning ritual as a cup of
tea and a slice of toast.
I can, however, understand why people I talk to
here in Israel increasingly make a point of not reading a paper, whether in
print or electronic form. It’s just too depressing, they say – with more
than a little justification.
The news is unremittingly bleak, with
violence, callousness and corruption at home, and unspeakable dangers
threatening from outside. And the worst thing is that there’s not much
the average person can do about any of it.
We ourselves may drive
carefully – but will our care and consideration make the next hit-and-run driver
slow down and think? We may operate within the law, but will that prevent the
next Holyland scandal? As for the threats looming from elsewhere in the region,
the most we ordinary citizens can do is pray – which might not be a bad idea,
come to think of it, especially at this portentous time of year.
be powerless on the giant canvas of world affairs, but within the smaller orbit
of our own lives we can have great influence, and with surprisingly little
A BRITISH friend who visited recently for a family wedding and
stayed with us attended a local Orthodox synagogue on Friday evening and Shabbat
morning, and had this to say on his return: “I spent more than an hour in the
shul last night, and several hours again this morning – and not a single person
spoke to me.”
“What,” I responded, “not even to say Shabbat shalom? Not
even the guy sitting next to you?” “Not a word,” he replied. “I was completely
Now this friend is a quiet, unassuming sort of fellow, not the
kind who expects a fanfare wherever he goes. But he was clearly surprised that
his fellow worshipers, far from welcoming a stranger in their midst, hadn’t even
I too was dumbfounded. I have seen reserve in the
women’s section of an Orthodox shul, where most of the “action” – and therefore
interaction – takes place in the men’s section; but I have always thought of
this latter section as a sort of living organism whose many parts are in touch
with each other and therefore sensitive to newcomers.
congregations worldwide will honor a Shabbat morning visitor by offering him an
aliya to the Torah.
While there clearly was no deliberate shunning of my
friend during the Shabbat services he attended, the worshipers sitting around
him obviously found it easier and more natural to greet those people they
already knew, and with whom they already had a relationship, than to make the
effort to relate to someone new.
It’s a human and understandable tendency
to keep social interaction within our own familiar circle – but this inclination
is perhaps what prompted the sage Shammai to write in the compilation of wisdom
called Ethics of the Fathers: “Greet every human being with a cheerful and
pleasant countenance” (1:15); and, later, in the same collection, Rabbi Yishmael
to enjoin: “Receive every human being with gladness” (3:16).
seemingly small gesture that is a welcoming smile will likely not – to pick up
the opening lament of this column – prevent the next act of random violence; nor
will it deter the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it can have quite impressive
The contact engendered by even a fleeting smile has
surprising human warmth and strength. It can put heart into someone who is
lonely or troubled, and do wonders for a worried patient in hospital – which
makes me think there should be smiling seminars held for student doctors who are
so overwhelmed by the critical nuts and bolts of their profession that they
forget there is a person at the receiving end of it.
The value of medical
clowns who work in hospitals to cheer the patients has also been
proven.And who knows how often a cheerful smile has put new heart into
someone contemplating a desperate act? “When I have a problem that is really
getting me down,” a friend confided, “I look in the mirror, smile at myself, and
say: ‘This [cheerfully] is the way I want to live my life.’ And it
THE SIMPLE action of smiling at a stranger has a very different
power from that of greeting a friend or someone we already know. It is a
reaching out, a sympathetic statement of shared humanity, an instant, unspoken
understanding of the ups and downs of life.
The “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,”
Reb Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), would make a point of greeting the street cleaners
he passed early in the morning on his way to synagogue. He understood their
thankless, low-paid, repetitive job and expressed his appreciation of its
The disciples of another 20th-century sage, Rabbi Chaim
Friedlander, noticed the warm smile on his face even when he spoke on the
Someone asked him why he bothered since the other person
couldn’t see his smile. “He can hear it,” the rabbi
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), who lived in Jerusalem, once
asked a young man who had opted to explore his religious heritage: “What led you
to begin studying Torah?” The man replied that he had grown up in a secular
neighborhood in Israel, and whenever he went to school each morning, the only
person on the street who daily greeted him was an elderly man who wore the garb
of an Orthodox Jew. Years later, when he began to search for more meaning in his
life, the memory of the religious man who had greeted him so warmly every
morning inspired him to enter a yeshiva.
SMILING, IT appears, is not just
an act of altruism, but very good for our health. Apart from making us seem more
attractive and confident, lifting our faces and making us look younger, it can
positively change our mood, relieve stress and boost our immune
Not only that: Experts say that smiling helps lower blood
pressure and releases endorphins, natural pain killers and serotonin, all of
which together make us feel good.
There’s also something the experts call
“emotional contagion,” conveyed in the lines of a well-known song: “When you’re
smilin’ when you’re smilin’ / The whole world smiles with you / And when you’re
laughin’ oh when you’re laughin’ / The sun comes shinin’ through...
when you’re cryin’ you bring on the rain / So stop your sighin’ be happy again /
Keep on smilin’ / Cause when you’re smilin’ / The whole world smiles with
I CANNOT conceive of a lovelier tribute to the smile than this one,
which I discovered on the SimpleToRemember.com site for Jewish Self Help and
Growth: “It costs nothing, but creates much. It enriches those who receive,
without impoverishing those who give. It happens in a flash and the memory of it
“None are so rich they can get along without it, and none
so poor but are richer for its benefits. It creates happiness in the home,
fosters good will in a business, and is the countersign of friends.
is rest to the weary, daylight to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and
nature’s best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed or
stolen, for it is something that is no earthly good to anybody till it is given
away! “If someone is too tired to give you a smile, leave one of yours. For
nobody needs a smile so much as those who have none to give.”
spirit of the rabbi who smiled even when speaking on the phone, may I greet
readers of my column with the wish of a cheerful year to come.