> Spirituality > Personal Growth

Smile Though Your Heart Is Aching: Ethics of the Fathers 1:15

May 9, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

Work on the externals, and the internals will eventually follow.

Shammai says, "Make your Torah study regular; say little and do much; and greet every person with a smile." Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15

"Who knows the first skill every serious ballplayer needs to know?" I ask my captivated audience of teenager campers. They know I played college ball and they're in awe.

"You see," I explain to them, "there is one skill above all the rest a serious player needs to possess. If you guys can manage this one skill you'll have a huge advantage."

Their eager little faces tell me I have their full attention.

I pause…

And I pause even longer to allow the tension level rise more and increase the impact of my secret.

"And that one skill," I say….

"Yes, coach. Yes, coach, what is it?"

"That one skill -"

"Yes. Yes."

"The skill which is the most important skill any baseball player can have is…"


"… is… "


"… you have to know how to spit."


"Yes, everyone knows that if you can't spit, you can't play baseball."

You have to look the part of a baseball player. If you look and feel like a baseball player, and send the message to others that you expect them to treat you as a baseball player, then you'll be a baseball player, or at least a better baseball player.

(Of course, it comes in handy to be able to hit, run and catch, too.)

And baseball is like life. Sometimes you have to know how to play the part even if you don't feel the part… yet.

In the classic Jewish ethical writings it's called, "The outside awakens the inside." In modern psychology it's called, "Behaviorism."

In the classic Jewish ethical writings it's called, "The outside awakens the inside." In modern psychology it's called, "Behaviorism." Unlike some Behavioralists, however, the Torah approach assumes that each of us has a soul, a pre-existing dormant quality inside, that's capable of coming to the fore with proper coaxing (or proper coaching, in baseball terms), just like coal has a dormant energy capable of getting ignited with the proper methods.

This principle underlies our Mishnah. If we work on the externals, the internals will follow.


Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Torah scholars ever. What made his attainment even more remarkable was that he did not start learning Torah diligently until at the age of 40! Even after he began learning, he was very frustrated. Young children absorb the lessons much easier.

Then, one day, on the brink of capitulation, he wandered into a cave and had a transformative experience. He saw a rock that had a deep hole bored into it. Upon closer observation, the hole was made by water dripping onto the rock -- one drop at a time, time after time. Akiva reasoned, "If water which is soft can bore a hole into rock which is hard, then surely words of Torah, which are sharp, can bore a hole in my brain, which is soft." This is what the verse in Job (14:19) states explicitly, "Water erodes rock…"

From that day on, he began his steady ascent to greatness -- one day at a time, day after day, year after year.

Sometimes, a person is hit with an inspiration, and like a charge of adrenalin accomplishes superhuman things in a short amount of time. However, inspiration does not last. The goal is to convert inspiration into persistence. As the saying goes, success is one-part inspiration, ten-parts perspiration.

Our Mishnah begins by exhorting us to make our Torah study regular, steady, daily. Even when we feel uninspired, tired, dejected and defeated, we must attend that class or open that book (or both). By committing ourselves to a regular study, independent of inspiration, we acquire one of the most important tools for personal growth. And the reality is, very often we find ourselves inspired once the class starts or once we read a few pages in the book.

One of the great yeshivas in Europe instituted a five-minute study period. Each student was obligated the find a book and study from it for five minutes at the same time every day. Several months later, typically, they finished the book. Aside from the content of the book, the student absorbed arguably the greatest lesson by his mere persistence: great things can be accomplished with unswerving consistency.


Continuing with the behavioral approach, the Mishnah exhorts us to be big "doers," not big "talkers."

I once heard Rabbi Hanoch Teller describe an experience he had on an airplane. He found himself seated next to a clergyman, and over the next several hours they had many theological discussions, which, though polite, occasionally became my-religion-is-better-than-your-religion arguments.

Then, toward the end of the flight, a passenger suddenly had a heart attack. Everyone was frozen with shock as the flight personnel attended the ill man. When it was clear they had stabilized his condition, the passengers returned to their seats and thoughts -- all the passengers, that is, except Rabbi Teller. He had taken off his hat and was going around from passenger to passenger, asking them to put some money in the hat for the stricken man. By the time the flight landed, he had collected a nice sum.

Rabbi Teller explained that this was his first instinct, because since he was a little boy he would collect money for the poor, walking up and down the aisles of the synagogue every morning with a pushka (money jar) so people could give tzedakah (charity). This was the conclusive theological argument favoring Judaism: the Jewish instinct to act with charity and compassion at the time of crisis spoke louder than any words.

It is preferable to give one dollar to a hundred people than $100 to one poor person; the trait becomes inculcated through persistent giving.

In truth, philanthropy is a Jewish "instinct," in part, at least, because it's been burned into the culture all these millennia through repeated action. People are people, across denominations and religions. Some tend to be more charitable than others. Nevertheless, the personality can be trained. Judaism teaches that it is preferable to give one dollar to a hundred people than $100 to one poor person; the trait becomes inculcated through persistent giving. Drop a few coins in that pushka every single day if for no other reason than to train yourself in the act of giving.

Interestingly, according to a Bar Ilan University study, Orthodox Jews in Israel give four to seven times what their non-religious counterparts do, even though they tend to be on a lower economic level. A study by the Gutmann Institute, which is affiliated with the Israel Institute for Democracy, exposed the social conscience of those who define themselves as anti-religious. In this group, only 28% see helping others in need as a guiding value in life, and 88% oppose giving to charity. Amongst the observant in Israel, the study showed, 90% view assisting others as a paramount value.1

Even in some of the poorest communities in Jerusalem charity is practiced to a degree unmatched anywhere else. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised regularly for widows and orphans from bank orders of couples who are barely scraping by themselves. Hundreds of free loan societies, covering everything from medicines to bridal gowns to diapers to bedwetting alarms to income tax advice to monetary loans, can be found advertised in the phone books. If people don't have money, they volunteer their time.

The urge to give may be a natural instinct to a degree, but it can and must be nurtured. Jewish communities through the ages, down to today, have nurtured that natural instinct to the point where it is often a knee-jerk reaction even among those who leave the community. The act of giving can be trained and inculcated to the point where it feels like something very natural.

"The external awakens the internal."


The last clause in the Mishnah can be summed up along the lines of a famous contemporary aphorism: "Smile though you heart is aching."

A great rabbi once said that a person's face is "public domain." This means that we have the obligation to smile, even though we may feel pained on the inside. We live in a world of others and the very expression of our face can affect the mood of another human being. Happiness is contagious. You have an obligation to make others feel happy; and certainly not to make them feel sad.

And the world mirrors back to us what we show it:

"As water reflects one's face, so too the human heart reflects the heart of another." (Proverbs 27:19)

It may just happen that by flashing a smile at others, they will flash a smile back at you, and you in turn will experience a change in your internal state.

Some say smiling when you don't feel happy is phony. However, it's phony to deny that we humans need a little phoniness -- a little "externalness" -- now and then to help us over a hump. It's a mistake to deny that "the outside can awaken the inside."

There was a study once where Downs Syndrome children were trained to smile, even a forced, plastic smile. Nevertheless, the study found that as a result others treated them better, which in turn made them feel better about themselves, which in turn made them smile naturally more often.

Who says that feeling unhappy, lethargic and downbeat is our true state, anyway? None of us were born that way. If you can't shake lethargy, then fake it a little. Stand up. Jump around. Scream at the top of your lungs.

We're not talking about a lifestyle of hypocrisy. We're talking about using something external to awaken something internal -- even if it takes a long time before that internal something comes to the fore and feels "natural."

So learn how to use the "externals" to awaken your "internals." One day you may find yourself living up to the image you project, which in turn will make you feel better about yourself and help you be a better person.

1These statistics and others can be found in, "Who Are The Real Givers?" by Jonathan Rosenblum; Jerusalem Post, November 15, 2002.

This article was written with my father, Chaim Benyamin ben Esther, in mind. May he have a refuah shlaimah.

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram