Did You Forget to Smile & Say Hello?

When we lived on Long Island, in a largely Jewish, and heavily Orthodox neighborhood, it was the norm to say “Good Shabbos” to those we walked past on Friday night or Saturday. In our earlier years there, 90% of the time or more, even a total stranger would return the greeting. We were shocked when, by the time we prepared to move on, some 17 years later, that number had declined to more like 60%. Still more than half, but why did it drop? I theorized that it geographic – depending on areas from which newcomers had moved. Was greeting others not a thing in Brooklyn? Did people move from neighborhoods where it was unsafe to greet someone, even a fellow Jew? Was there some new theological thing that limited who one could be friendly to? Had the divisiveness that permeates America today done its damage? I never conclusively learned the answer.

Moving to Florida, I found that, once again, it was and still is the norm to say “Shabbat Shalom” [North Dade County] or “Good Shabbos”[some of my Hollywood peeps…we’re still guessing who is a Good Shabbos and who is a Shabbat Shalom person]. We were, and are feeling very good about this, and even more delighted that many who are not Jewish (including my work colleagues) appreciate Shabbat Shalom greetings, and often even initiate them.

So, I was actually disappointed and quite surprised when I was speaking to a homeowner not far from us, who described himself as “the only goy” in the development in which he lives. He is a wonderful gentleman, who saw my kippah, learned that I was a rabbi and described his hurt: So many of the observant Jews that are his neighbors don’t bother to say hello to him or even acknowledge his greetings to them. My explanation to him (an insufficient one, but the best I could manage) was that religion does not always prevent a person from being a jerk.

We are guided, in Judaism, by three great texts from the rabbinic tradition:

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר…וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת

Shammai used to say…receive all people with a pleasant countenance. (Avot 1:15)

רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם

Rabbi Mathia ben Harash said: Upon meeting people, be the first to extend greetings (Avot 4:15)

And the coolest of the texts:

והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות כיצד מלמד שאם נתן אדם לחבירו כל מתנות טובות שבעולם ופניו (זעומות) [כבושים] בארץ מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו לא נתן לו כלום אבל המקבל את חבירו בסבר פנים יפות אפי’ לא נתן לו כלום מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו נתן לו כל מתנות טובות שבעולם

Greet everyone with a smile. How so? This teaches that if a person gives his friend all the finest gifts in the world, but does so with a pained face, Scripture considers it as if he had given him nothing. But one who receives his friend with a smile, even if he gives him nothing, Scripture considers it as if he had given him all the finest gifts in the world.

So, my message is as follows: The person who is walking along near you? They are in the image of the Divine. They may be having a terrible day and can use a smile. They may be the gentile person who is waiting to see if you’re a mensch. They may be enjoying their Shabbat and want to share the joy with you. The rabbinic teachings don’t care, they just say: remember to greet another person and smile.

Oh, and Shabbat Shalom!

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