When you walk through your neighborhood how many people say hello to you as they pass by? Any? Probably not very many. Did you ever stop to ask why that is?
Did you know that in Pirke Avos (The Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15) it directs each of us to “receive every person with a cheerful face.” Why did our Sages find it necessary to teach us how to greet one another?
What is it about giving a smile to someone or offering a friendly “hello” that is so difficult to do? This all came to mind this morning while on my daily fast walking tour through my neighborhood.
As I was walking I saw ahead of me a young boy about nine or ten years old sitting alone on a sidewalk bench. His place in the middle of the bench said: this whole bench is mine. I guessed he was waiting for his school bus. He sat there peacefully taking in the early morning.
I recognized the boy. I recently moved to a different neighborhood and last Friday night I went for the first time to a shul near to me. I was taking note of who was there. I am acutely aware of people who look different because my second son has Down syndrome and has been stared at by young and old all his life. On my first scan of the room this young boy caught my attention because he wears a hearing aid in each ear. A pre-adolescent boy wearing a hearing aid in each ear is different. So was his behavior. It was that same behavior which he displayed in shul that I experienced as I passed him on the bench this morning. And it is that behavior which inspired me to write this blog post.
While I was still a few meters from the bench the young boy was turned away from me. As I came up in front of him he turned his face to me, raised his right hand, his palm and fingers open in greeting, beamed the brightest, warmest and most genuine smile at me and said: “Hi”. The young boy’s smile and “hi” instantly uplifted me. When I stop now and reflect on what so instantly touched me, I believe I felt validated. I was a stranger to this young boy but he put no barrier between us. In fact, he invited me to connect with him. He smiled and said “hi”, a natural open invitation to reciprocate. Which I did.
Reflexively, I beamed a smile back and said: “Hello”. Neither his posture nor his smile changed so I assumed he didn’t understand English, and said in Hebrew: “shalom aleichem” (how are you?). He didn’t respond, though his captivating smile broadened. (I was so engrossed in the young boy’s shining eyes and giant smile that it didn’t occur to me that he might not hear me.) Maintaining my fast walk pace, I passed by him quickly, but his buoyant greeting and his winning smile stayed with me. And will continue to stay with me for as long as I wish to hold them.
His greeting also triggered memories of my second son at age three or four. Typical of Down syndrome my son was hypotonic (low muscle tone, often called “floppy”). Long after parents of typical children are chasing after their toddlers who generally abandon walking in favor of running, I had to push my son in the stroller whenever we went out any distance. But I didn’t mind. Because as we rolled down the street, over and over again my son’s behavior awed me. As someone approached us my son would raise his hand, broadcast his endearing little smile, and say: “hi”. It was a rare, hardened soul who passed by my son without returning either a smile or a “hi”.
My toddler son and the young boy did not have to be taught this Pirke Avos. Their default mode for receiving others is with a cheerful face. And their cheerful greeting draws out from others a likewise response. This is what the Sages were telling us in their teaching: if you greet others cheerfully they will respond in kind; greet people cheerfully because it validates people (and all people seek validation); validation brings people together; it puts peace into the world.
In shul I watched the young boy raise his hand in greeting and broadcast his magnificent smile to at least a dozen men, some nearby, others across the room. He got a response from them all. Friday night in shul welcoming the Sabbath Queen, neighbors coming together to be uplifted from the drain of the week to the joy of Shabbos. The young boy understood where he was, enlivening tired souls with a smile and a waving hand.
It is true that there are times and places where the behavior of my toddler son and the young boy may not be appropriate. In a quiet audience a spoken “hi” may be disruptive. But the young boy seemed to know this and at the appropriate times greeted others silently with just his hand and his smile. And if an adult were not present to protect a child who initiates interaction with an unsavory character trouble could result. We must do what we can to educate our children to behave properly. But we also have to reframe how we look at children with disabilities. These little guys who look and behave differently than typical children, who carry labels that usually cause the rest of us to expect less of them—these deeply evolved souls intuitively know how to connect with others. They connect without fear of rejection and without assessing first what they might get in return.
Why don’t we reach out with the ease of my son and the young boy? What is it that keeps us so wrapped up in ourselves? Why do we need Pirke Avos? I can think of two reasons : first, if one is either categorized as a giver or a taker, most people are takers; and second, we have little appreciation of just how validating a smile and a warm hello can be.
At the levaiya of Rav Avraham Goldberg,h”yd, one of the five men taken in the Har Nof massacre over a year ago, a young man with developmental disabilities who lives in the neighborhood came to pay his respects. He related that every day on route to shul, he passed Rav Goldberg who greeted him with a friendly “hello.” The young man said that he looked forward every day to Rav Goldberg’s “hello” because it made him feel like a regular person, and not like someone “special” with a disability. We all need to feel important. And a simple smile and a friendly “hello” from a neighbor can do just that.
It may take an effort for some of us to transition from being a taker to a giver. A place to start is with a smile and a friendly “hi”. Let go of the fear that you won’t get a response. If it happens, reframe it to be thankful that you are not shut down from others. And hope that the one who ignored you either reads Pirke Avos or crosses the path of an elevated soul like my son or the young boy.