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Joy to the World

May 9, 2009 | by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

How to bring more joy to others, and make yourself feel a little better, too.

Sukkot is traditionally referred to as Zman Simcha'teinu -- "the time of our joy."

Most of us would like to be cheerful people who can bring joy to others, but how do we begin to achieve such a high level of behavior? The first step is to begin appreciating each person, including oneself. In this spirit, the Talmud states:


"Each human being is obligated to say: For my sake, the world was created." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)


Upon saying these words, however, a person is confronted with the following question: If the whole world was created for my sake, then how can my neighbor say that the whole world was created for his sake? We find an answer to this question in the words of a Chassidic Rebbe, known as Reb Zushe of Annipoli, who taught:


Our Sages have said, "Just as their faces are different, so too are their thoughts different." There exist on earth millions of people, and they all have the same basic features on their faces: two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Nonetheless, no two people look alike. Similarly, if the outward appearances of people are so diverse, then how great must be the differences in their inner workings, the qualities of their souls, and their natures. If the beauty of the soul in all humans was identical, then why would God need to create so many millions of people, where each one is no different from the next?


However, the secret is this: Each person is sent down to this world in order to fulfill a specific Divine task, to carry out on earth a lofty, heavenly purpose. This is the mission of human beings on earth; moreover, for as many people as God sends down to earth, He has just as many different tasks and purposes. The work of one person is totally independent of the task of any other person, and each one must carry through and complete his given purpose.

Therefore, God endows each person with talents and attributes necessary for him to fulfill his task. These talents cry out within each person, demanding to be expressed and to fulfill the mission for which they were sent to this world. (Hamodia, 10 Cheshvan 5759)


In the above teaching, Reb Zushe of Annipoli has helped us to understand that the world was created for the sake of each human being -- for the sake of the contribution that each and every one of us has to offer.

Each human being is created in the image of God, the Ultimate Giver, and each human being has something and special to give to the world. We therefore need each other, and we therefore need to honor and cherish each other. In this spirit, we find the following talmudic teaching:


"Greet everybody with a warm, cheerful, and pleasant countenance." (Pirkei Avot 1:15)


When we greet someone cheerfully, we demonstrate that we are glad they are in this world! This is one of the most precious gifts of love that we can give to another human being. It is a life-giving gift that lifts the spirits of others. Through the warm smile on our face, he feels recognized and appreciated, and this feeling is more important than any material gift we could give.


A person influenced by modern western culture, with its emphasis on individualism, might raise the following objection to the above Torah teaching: "Is not the expression on my face my own personal business?"

Rabbi Israel Salanter, a great 19th century sage, taught that the expression on our face can affect the mood of those around us; thus, our face is considered in the "public domain," not within the "private domain."

One Yom Kippur eve, Rabbi Salanter met a person on the way to synagogue for the Kol Nidrei prayers. Rabbi Salanter warmly and cheerfully greeted him, but this person was so absorbed with the solemnity and awesomeness of the Day of Atonement that he did not return the greeting. In fact, he had a gloomy expression, as he contemplated the seriousness of the Divine judgment.

Rabbi Salanter then remarked to his student, "Why must I need to suffer because of someone else's preoccupation with the Divine judgment?" Rabbi Salanter was teaching that regardless of one's mood, we have a responsibility to greet everyone with a cheerful and pleasant countenance.

Rabbi Yechiel Gordon, a 20th century sage and dean of the Lomza Yeshiva, was stricken with cancer. Those who visited him during the last months of his life describe how he would tell stories and try to bring cheer to his visitors, despite his great pain. He knew that they were saddened to witness his deteriorated state, and he therefore greeted each visitor with a cheerful countenance.

The disciples of another 20th century sage, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, noticed that he had a warm smile on his face even when he spoke to someone on the phone! Someone asked him, "The other person can't see your smile, so why bother?" Rabbi Friedlander responded: "Although the listener may not be able to see my smile, he can hear my smile." He explained that a happy expression on our face when we speak on the phone will be "heard" through our voice.


When Jacob, our father, came to the land of Haran, he met a group of shepherds, and began his greeting by calling them, "My brothers" (Genesis 29:4). Rabbi Levi ben Geshon (known as the "Ralbag"), a 14th century biblical commentator, points out that although the shepherds were complete strangers, Jacob called them "brothers." Jacob's greeting should therefore inspire us to greet each person in a loving and cheerful manner, for we all have the same One Creator.

We not only have an obligation to greet each person in a cheerful and pleasant manner; we also have the obligation try to initiate the greeting, as it says in Pirkei Avot: "Initiate a greeting to every person" (4:20).

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was the leading sage in the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period, and the Talmud relates that he would initiate a greeting with each person he met in the marketplace, both Jews and non-Jews alike (Brachot 17a). We can appreciate his attitude even more when we remember that the Gentiles living in Israel were the pagan Romans and their allies, who were usually hostile to the Jews.

Rabbi Irving Bunim, a Torah educator of the 20th century, offers the following insight about initiating a greeting:


There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his "dignity," he believes.


Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the "emotional risk," while they "play it safe."

Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of conceit or importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another's feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire, if you will, after his welfare. (Ethics from Sinai)


Today, there are many people who feel despondent and suspicious of others, especially with the threat of terrorism looming worldwide. Through greeting each person with a warm and cheerful countenance, we can uplift their spirits and remind them that they are needed and appreciated. In this way, we will emulate the loving and compassionate ways of our Creator:

"For thus said the exalted and uplifted One, Who abides forever and Whose Name is holy: I abide in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit -- to revive the spirit of those feeling low and to revive the heart of the despondent." (Isaiah 57:15)


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