Remembering the Tzaddik of Yavniel on his Yahrtzeit: How can a simple “Shalom” change the person you say it to you? How can it change you? How can it change the world?
Eitan (איתן) Yakhin
הֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת
Receive everyone with a pleasant facial expression
(Pirkei Avot 1:15)
רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם.
Rabbi Matia Ben Charash says, Be the first to give Peace to every man.¹
(Pirkei Avot 4:15)
This past week, I had the delight and honor of recording a podcast episode commemorating the life of the Mohara”sh, dubbed by his followers the ‘Tzaddik of Yavniel’.² Accompanying me on the show were my co-host, Itai, and a special guest, Rav Aharon Halevy. Rav Halevy is a follower of the Mohara”sh. Rav Halevy attended hundreds of his shiurim, and shared with him a correspondence.
The Mohara”sh authored over 500 books and pamphlets, touching on a wide variety of subjects.
Among other things the Mohara”sh chose to speak about, he held very dearly the concept of greeting everyone with a smile and a “Shalom Chaver” (Hello, Friend). In his pamphlet on friendliness, he likens not greeting someone with a smile to thievery (a shocking comparison).
Hang on, What’s so important about saying ‘hi’ to people? What’s so important about smiling?
The book Shalom Aleichem explains that when we say Shalom to someone, we are really asking them, “Are you at peace? Are you alright?” Everyone has a desire for attention. However small that desire may be, it still exists, and we all want our existence acknowledged by those around us.
How many times does it happen that you walk by someone and think “He didn’t say Good Morning to me” (Or Shabbat Shalom, or whatever).
Wait a second…
YOU didn’t say Good Morning to him either! How do you know that he’s not thinking the same thing about you?
Perhaps this is why Rabbi Matia (at the top of the article) advises us to be the first to greet everyone we see.
I think, however, it’s deeper than that. And it’s an issue well worth examining.
Rabbi Dovid Kaplan suggested to his students that they always stand on the bus even if there are seats. Why? Because Observant Jews get examined and judged at a much harsher level than other Jews. From this, we can surmise how important it is for Observant Jews to go above and beyond when it comes to day-to-day ethics, including and especially friendliness.
In the book A Tzaddik in Our Time, Simcha Raz recounts how stringent Reb Aryeh Levin ZTz”L would always be about being the first to say ‘Shalom’ to his fellow. There was a man who would try his best to greet Reb Aryeh before Reb Aryeh greeted him, but the man never succeeded.
Did Reb Aryeh accomplish anything with all this? For sure he did. In the same book just mentioned, there are stories about people becoming Torah-observant just because of Reb Aryeh Levin’s example. One woman said, “If there are religious people like him, then it is certainly worth becoming religious”.³
We’re confronted with a harsh truth. If Observant Jews want to be admired, we’ll have to go the extra mile on issues like friendliness. The biggest complaint the standard (Non-Jewish) New Yorker has about Jews in New York is that they are standoffish and insular.⁴
Now, I would think that the average New Yorker wouldn’t give a greeting to a stranger walking by them on the sidewalk, regardless of affiliation. But the truth is, that doesn’t matter. We have to do more. There is nowhere in the Torah that tells us to be closed off. There’s no question a friendly smile and a wave can only be a kiddush Hashem. The Maharal says that by initiating a greeting, we show that we do not look down on the other person (Derech HaChaim Avot 4:15). Since our non-Jewish neighbors have a tendency to believe we look down upon them, it is a good idea to subvert that belief, and give a smile to every man, (Just like Shammai says [Pirkei Avot 1:15]).
There are Jews who every day put on a suit and dress nicely. They do so to show honor to the Creator. Speaking as a creator myself, what better way to honor a Creator than by honoring his creations?
On our show, Rav Halevy provided us with insight into the Mohara”sh’s mind:
“Some people came in for Shabbos with their hair in a ponytail or with tattoos all over their body… he [Mohara”sh] didn’t care, he loved everybody.”
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie points out that giving authentic unconditional love to others, it will be impossible for them to not love you back.⁵
How irresistible must the Mohara”sh’s love been! How inspiring must have been his encouragement!
In his pamphlet on greeting others, Mohara”sh provides us with startlingly clear advice:
You want to have good friends? BE a good friend.
In a world inundated with social media posts where people complain they are constantly being “used” by their friends, the Mohara”sh’s advice is well worth mentioning.
Going back to our earlier example of someone not saying Good Morning to us, we see how important it is that we always greet others first. This will help avoid hurting them, and also prevent them from developing a bias towards you or towards the group you identify with. You want to be greeted? Greet. You want others to be friendly? Be friendly to others.
With the virus’s effect on our social lives, people are feeling isolated as it is.
How can you be friendly to someone you aren’t friends with? The Mohara”sh provides us with a remarkable answer: Everyone is, in fact, already friends.
How is the possible? Well, you have one friend, and that friend has a different, and so on. Until, as the Mohara”sh points out, we see we are all truly friends.
Greeting everyone everywhere you go is like planting trees around you that shoot up and bloom instantly, providing yourself with shade, fruit, and beauty. Being friendly makes you “friend-able”. It makes you likable. People will be happier to see you. You will have created a happier world for yourself. And besides, with the virus’s effect on our social lives, people are feeling isolated as it is. Let’s do what we can do to fill that gap. Say Shalom. Not just for others’ sake. For your sake too. For the sake of bringing harmony into the world.
¹ It is my belief that this could also be understood to mean that we are advised to offer peace and avoid confrontation. For our purposes here, we will accept the traditional interpretation: that we should be the first to greet everyone we see.
² For more on the Mohara”sh, who he was, and what he did, feel free to check out the Podcast Episode at the top of the article.
³ It is worth noting that even non -Jewish sources emphasize the importance of friendliness. As I bring up later in the article, Dale Carnegie was particularly emphatic about its importance.
⁴ Whether or not this is justifiable, this idea brings to mind the idea expressed in Yoma (86b):
אבל מי שקורא ושונה ומשמש ת”ח ואין משאו ומתנו באמונה ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות מה הבריות אומרות עליו אוי לו לפלוני שלמד תורה אוי לו לאביו שלמדו תורה אוי לו לרבו שלמדו תורה פלוני שלמד תורה ראו כמה מקולקלין מעשיו וכמה מכוערין דרכיו
‘But he who Reads and Learns and interacts with talmidei chachamim yet doesn’t do his business dealings in faith and doesn’t speak nicely to others, what will others say of him “Woe is to so-and-so who learned Torah, woe is to his father that taught him, woe is to h?is Rabbi who taught him. So-and-so learned Torah and look at how corrupt are his deeds and how filthy are his ways.’
While the language here is strong, the Gemara here is timeless (and relevant as ever). Being that how others will perceive us will affect their perception of our culture, it would seem that our friendliness is an outward expression of how much we honor Hashem.* As has always been the case, Observant Jews are subject to more scrutiny than their non-observant or assimilated counterparts.
*This is similar to the line of reasoning followed by Jews who every day put on suits and nice clothing. They do so to show honor to the Creator. Speaking as a creator myself, what better way to honor a Creator than by honoring his creations?
⁵ We would do well to remember the idea expressed in Pirkei Avot 5:16: ‘What is love that endures? Love that is not dependent on anything.’ As Rav Halevy said on our show, that which comes out of the heart will go into the heart. Observant Jews obviously want irreligious Jews to become more observant. What better way is there to do that than by being friendly and likable?
Episodes of Open Book with Eitan and Itai air weekly on Saturday Nights, Jerusalem time. Our fifth episode, on The Tzaddik of Yavniel, is premiering on January 23.
Ethan Yakhin is the co-host of Open Book with Eitan and Itai, a Podcast both with and about Jewish Authors. To stay updated on upcoming episodes, you can follow Open Book on Instagram. The show is available wherever you listen to podcasts. You can have a look here at their podcast page.
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