By Rabbi Avi Shafran
It was hardly the first or only time, but one night not long ago I learned something important from my wife.
We were driving home from a wedding in another city, both of us sneezing and coughing from the bad cold we shared. As I drove, she checked for messages on her phone, which had been turned off during the wedding. One message was from one our married daughters, who lives with her husband and family in a different part of the country. Could she call back, I heard our daughter ask, when she had a chance?
Well, the chance was right there; and so my wife returned the call, on speaker phone so I could participate. She reached our daughter’s voicemail (of course) and left a message. I expected to hear the phone snap shut then but instead heard the Ms. Monotone phone-voice offer options, one of which was “to review your message, press…” My wife did. More options, one of which was to delete and re-record her message. She chose that too.
Her new message to our daughter consisted of precisely the same words as her previous one, but it was entirely different. The first one, understandably, carried with it all the misery of a bad cold – my wife sounded exhausted, and sniffles and an occasional cough accompanied her words. When she recorded her second take, though, she somehow managed to muster the energy to sound healthy, even cheery. I admit taking my eyes off the road for a second to make sure the same person was still sitting to my right.
My first thought, after marveling at the feat of great acting I had witnessed (who knew?), was to lament how few are the opportunities for second takes in daily life. The words that leave our mouths aren’t subject to editing, and so much that is unfortunate results from our neglecting to do mental edits before we set our tongues and lips to moving.
The second thing that came to mind was a snippet of a Mishneh in Avot (1:15), a statement by the Tannaic sage Shammai: “Receive every person with a smiling face.”
People think of gifts mostly as physical things. But the Talmudic tractate Avot D’Rabi Natan (end of chapter 13) characterizes a beaming face as the equivalent of all the most wonderful gifts in the world.
Over the telephone, of course, a smile can’t be seen; but it can be heard. It’s hard, if possible at all, to sound happy without bringing one’s facial muscles into the configuration we call a smile. Forlorn as my wife felt in the car that night, she somehow managed it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I later discovered that a Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok of Vorke, commented on the Mishneh’s phrase for a smiling face, which technically, if strangely, translates as “a thinking, nice face.” “Thinking?”
Said Rabbi Yitzchok: Even if you aren’t able to feel happy, what is important is that you make the person you are greeting think that you are. Our smiles, in other words, are not for us but for others.
My wife had apparently intuited that, and took advantage of the rare gem of a second take.
But what she also taught me with her choice that night was a new facet of the phrase “every person” in Shammai’s dictum. Its simplest meaning, of course, is that we are to show good cheer not only to respected or accomplished people but also (perhaps especially) to average folk. What my wife’s act inspired me to consider with her “take two” was that the phrase might also mean to warn us away from thinking that our smiles aren’t equally vital to those closest to us.
It’s not an obvious thought. We feel comfortable with our siblings, our spouses, our children, our parents; and we know we can be more natural with them. That can sometimes mean showing something less than a shining countenance. “Every person,” though, says Shammai, deserves to be “received with a smiling face.”
Even a daughter, even at a distance of hundreds of miles, and even if the smile is holding back a sneeze.