The ubiquitous mask is a barrier to more than communicable diseases. It also obstructs one of the most basic means of communicating our regard for each other, the smile.
Just remember the excitement and joy of holding a baby and seeing that first smile. Who could help but smile back; it seems so natural, spontaneous and irresistible. However, as my wife informs me, it’s actually a conditioned response; ingrained in us ever since we were infants, when our own mothers held and lovingly gazed at us with a warm and endearing smile.
Smiling was a fundamental part of growing up and working at Good Food Supermarket, the family business owned and operated by my father Z”L and mother. When I sat Shiva for my dad, customers came by to offer their condolences and told me how they would arrive early in the morning at the store on their way to work. The store was inviting with the smell of newly brewed coffee and delicious fresh kosher danishes that my father had available every workday morning. It was certainly an attraction, but that was not the only reason they came. They said it was to be greeted with a warm and endearing smile from my dad and mom. It was a kind of good luck charm that started the day off right. It invigorated them and put them in the right mood to seize the day. It was so gratifying and inspirational to hear how my parents made a real positive difference in people’s life on so many levels.
Scientists explain the very complex mechanism that animates a genuine smile[i]. It begins as an emotion, which can be triggered by a pleasant thought or in response to a sensory perception, like hearing a kind word, feeling the pressure of another’s hand or seeing an old dear friend or another smile[ii]. Both the muscles around the eye and those controlling the lips are engaged to form a heart-warming smile. Those seeing the smile typically respond by mirroring it and smiling back. The effect is contagious.
The Talmud[iii] notes there are three partners in the formation of a child, the father, mother and G-d. Among the attributes G-d infuses in a person are the soul and the brightness[iv] of a person’s countenance or what amounts to the ability to display a smiling face. It’s a wonderful gift we are endowed with by our creator, as a part of the package of Divine like qualities known as B’Tzelem Elokim[v].
A genuine smile is an invaluable tool; enabling us to fulfill the commandment to walk in G-d’s ways[vi], by emulating G-d’s good and upright attributes[vii]. Thus, as a part of the priestly blessings, the Kohanim recite how G-d should figuratively bestow upon us a smiling face and be gracious to us[viii].
The Bible describes G-d’s communication with Moses as speaking metaphorically face to face[ix]. The dramatic imagery is intimate and compelling. The Talmud[x] explains that G-d was instructing Moses in the most effective pedagogical technique for teaching the Torah to the people. Conceptually, just as G-d graciously taught Moses the Halacha[xi] with an allegorical cheerful face, so too should Moses emulate G-d by communicating the Torah face to face and with a smile.
The Midrash[xii] notes, the Children of Israel, who studied the Torah with Moses over the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness, also received it with smiling faces. As a result, it was deemed as if they received the Torah that day[xiii] from G-d at Mount Sinai and became a nation to G-d.
The positive nature of the smile has been recognized for thousands of years. Thus, the Mishna[xiv] enjoins us to greet everyone with a smiling face. The Talmud[xv] reaffirms this and urges us not to wait for someone we encounter to greet us; but rather to do so first[xvi]. The Talmud[xvii] also notes that someone who does not return a greeting is deemed a thief. It goes on to stress that the only way to steal from a pauper without any tangible property is to rob the person of dignity by refusing to acknowledge and exchange a hello[xviii].
The Maharal[xix] discusses the notion of greeting someone first and not waiting until hailed to return the greeting. He notes it demonstrates the person’s humility and esteem for others. Offering Shalom and seeking out the peace of another first, rather than just passively waiting to reciprocate, is also a sign of the person’s inner peace and completeness. Proactively engaging others with a smiling face and peaceful greetings brings people closer together and propagates peace, which is a fundamental part of our mission in this world[xx]. The Maharal[xxi] also notes failing to greet another person created B’Tzelem Elokim, with a smile, in effect, denigrates the person and, by extension, is a deficiency in Yirat Hashem (awe of G-d). Our ability to smile is thus an integral component of our capacity for Yirat Hashem.
The power of a smile is very potent, despite its intangible nature. As Rabbeinu Yonah[xxii] notes, a happy face is infectious and induces a pleasant spirit in others. Indeed, as Avot D’Rabbi Nathan[xxiii] explains, it is deemed one of the greatest gifts, surpassing in quality even all the best tangible presents. In striking contrast, purporting to give those presents with a downcast expression is tantamount to giving nothing all[xxiv].
The Bible[xxv] notes the gift of a bright smile is one of the blessings Jacob conferred on Judah. As the Talmud[xxvi] discusses, based on this Biblical verse, flashing a genuine smile (figuratively, whitened with milk) is better than serving the actual milk[xxvii]. As many inspirational leaders have come to recognize, the power of a disarming and positive smile is so much more effective than the negative influence of a scowl.
This fundamental ethic of greeting each other with a smile is one of the essential elements in sustaining the world. As the Mishna[xxviii] records, the world stands on three things; to wit: the Torah, Avodah (the Divine Service, which is equated to prayer) and Gemillat Chasadim[xxix] (the kind and good deeds we do for each other)[xxx].
The nature of Chesed is universal in application. While giving charity to the poor is critically important, Chesed is not limited in scope to just one segment of the society nor does it require money to be performed. Acts of kindness can be performed for everyone[xxxi].
True Chesed begins with a smile. As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe[xxxii] explains, a kind word or a smile has the power to reinvigorate someone who appears to have given up. These may seem like insignificant gestures; but that’s the point. The sensitivity to see and appreciate precisely what is needed, no matter how small, and then to remedy the deficiency in a kind and respectful manner is the very essence of Gemillat Chasadim. As the Gra[xxxiii] so vividly notes, the main object of the Torah is to cause us to bring joy to others.
Smiling reportedly[xxxiv] yields numerous tangible and intangible benefits. This includes elevating a person’s mood, relieving stress and making them appear more attractive. It also helps regulate our body chemistry, including levels of cortisol and endorphins, as well as, reduce blood pressure, increase endurance, reduce pain and strengthen the immune system.
A smile; it’s a relatively simple gesture. It sometimes may feel trite; but don’t underestimate its power or significance. It’s the most basic building block of Chesed and one of good things in life that are free. Its benefits are manifold, improving both the lives of the person smiling and the recipients of the smile.
G-d willing, the life saving universal vaccination effort will successfully be consummated soon and grant us immunity from the highly infectious Covid disease. We will then once again be able to communicate with each other in person and face to face and unleash those beautiful, nourishing, inspirational and thoroughly infectious smiles.
[i] See, for example, The Duchenne Smile: Emotional Expression and Brain Physiology II, by Paul Eckman PhD, Richard J. Davidson PhD and Wallace V. Friesen, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 58, No.2, Pages 342-353 (1990).
[ii] See, for example, The Psychology of Smiling, by Eric Jaffe, dated February 11, 2011, the Association for Psychological Science Observer.
[iii] See JT Brachot 9:1 (86b in Artscroll edition and 62b on Sefaria) and BT Niddah 31a.
[iv] ‘Kloster’ in Talmudic Aramaic. See BT Brachot 7a and Rashi commentary thereon, as well as, Jastrow.
[v] Genesis 1:27 and 9:6.
[vi] Deuteronomy 13:5 and 28:9.
[vii] See BT Sotah 14a (as to Deuteronomy 13:5) and Sifrei, Deuteronomy 49 (as to Deuteronomy 28:9). See also Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mizvot, Number 8 and Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:5-7.
[viii] Numbers 6:25 and see Rashi commentary thereon, as well as, Numbers Rabbah 11:6.
[ix] Exodus 33:11.
[x] BT Brachot 63b and see also Rashi commentary thereon.
[xi] The body of Jewish Law, based on the Bible, as elucidated in the Talmud and codified by early and later Halachic authorities and decisors.
[xii] Shir HaShirim Rabbah, Parsha 2:5:3.
[xiii] Deuteronomy 27:9.
[xiv] Avot 1:15.
[xv] BT Brachot 17a. See also Brachot 6b.
[xvi] See also Avot 4:15.
[xvii] BT Brachot 6b.
[xviii] Ibid, Rashi commentary thereon, s.v. Gezelat HaOni.
[xix] R’ Judah Loew ben Bezalel, in his 16th century Derech Chaim commentary on Avot 4:15.
[xx] See also Psalms 34:15, as well as, Gra on Avot 4:15.
[xxi] Derech Chaim commentary on Avot 1:15.
[xxii] Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi, in his 13th century commentary on Avot 1:15.
[xxiii] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 13:4. See also 15th century Magen Avot commentary on Avot 1:15, by R’ Simeon ben Zemah Duran (Rashbatz).
[xxiv] See also 15th century Bartenura commentary on Avot 1:15, by R’ Ovadia ben Abraham Bartenura
[xxv] Genesis 49:12.
[xxvi] BT Ketubot 111b.
[xxvii] See also Minor Tractate Kallah Rabbati 4:3.
[xxviii] Avot 1:2.
[xxix] Plural of Chesed.
[xxx] The Talmud (BT Sota 14a) notes the Torah begins with an act of Chesed (Genesis 3:21 records G-d fashioned and presented Adam and Eve with garments to wear) and ends with an act of Chesed (Deuteronomy 34:6 reports G-d buried Moses).
[xxxi] See BT Sukkah 49b.
[xxxii] In his work the Alei Shur, Volume I, page 93.
[xxxiii] R’ Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon or HaGra, an 18th century Torah giant, in his Iggeret HaGra 14.