by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman
I always detested the "have a nice day" culture. The happy face icon, that little yellow circle with its merry upward curvature stamped on everything in sight seemed to be the ultimate in the commercialism of good feeling; a caricature of the show of cheerfulness in public places which seemed to me in any case to be an outward mask of decidedly different inner feelings. What was I to do, then, when, in the middle of the first chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, the classic Jewish handbook of right conduct, I was confronted by the words of Shammai: "Greet every man with a cheerful countenance"?
What if I didn't feel like it? What if I was in a bad mood, or thought the "every man" who just appeared at my door to ask me to vote for E. Fudd for President did not deserve such a greeting? Was I nevertheless to put on a happy face for him? Was it an ethic of the fathers that hypocrisy is a positive value?
The short answer to the question is "Yes." But, of course, nothing in Judaism is simple; it needs some explanation. Yes, it does not matter what mood I am in when every man comes knocking. Being Jewish means being a mentsch (human being) in all circumstances. Anyone who has ever gone door-to-door for a cause knows how depressing the rejections can be. The single cheerful countenance is a blessed ray of graciousness in a dark corridor of bolted doors and sour looks. Even if they don't vote for your man or donate to your cause, you feel grateful that such people live in the world. And it requires nothing in the way of time or money; it's a kindness without overhead.
Effort, though, it does require. Unless one is naturally friendly and cheerful, the effort that goes into overcoming one's desire to huddle under the blanket of introversion can be considerable. I recall once I was on my way to fulfilling a social obligation in the grip of a bad mood that only W.C. Fields could have cherished. But I had to go; my absence would have offended. So, as I walked up the stairs to my host's home, I simply shaped my mouth into a little happy face, literally putting on a smile for the evening's travail. I began almost at once to feel slightly better (perhaps because of the silliness of the thing), and it got me through.
But what about hypocrisy? Doesn't it also say in the Torah that we should stay away from falsehood? Should I lie about my true feelings? Again, the answer is yes. And here we come to an important principle in Judaism: our outward actions influence our inner feelings. I may not be a generous person by nature, but if I give money to the poor on a regular basis, I will thereby train myself to be generous. I may be a lazy bum by nature, but if I act with alacrity, I will teach myself to get things done. If I am a grouch, the deliberate (albeit forced) upward curvature of my mouth will slowly change me into a different kind of guy. As one of my teachers once put it, "Even if you're not a nice guy, think what a nice guy would do in your situation, and then do it." The element of hypocrisy is neutralized as long as the positive behavior is indeed the goal. It is not called hypocrisy for a selfish person to perform an act of altruism; it is called self-improvement. Only if the act of giving is done cynically, in order, say, to deceive others into thinking you're terrific so that they'll vote for you, is it false. Politicians don't kiss babies because they love the babies; they kiss them because they love their parents' votes.
Still, it's not easy. You have to send out the instructions to your facial muscles in order to make that happy face. You have to make a decision to pronounce those horrible words, "Have a nice day." It doesn't just happen, you have to will it. How does one summon the will to will it?
Just knowing that this minor act will make you into a better person should be an incentive. If you're not feeling so idealistic, though, there is a peace dividend. If you are nice to them, the chances are that they will be nice to you in return. Maybe not right away and not always, but people do tend to mirror the face that we show them.
In the years prior to the Holocaust, there was a man who was careful always to say "guten morgen" to the people he met on the way to work. Each day, as he passed the German policeman on the street corner, he would wish him his "guten morgen" with a smile, and the policeman would respond in kind. When the war came, this Jew was taken away to the death camps, and one day his turn came to undergo the "selection," to be selected for extermination or another day of life. The Nazi officer at the head of the line who was to make the selection was none other than the former policeman that he used to pass every morning. He was an older man who expected to be sent off to death, but when his turn came, he uttered his "guten morgen" in the same way that he had done so many times in the past. The Nazi was caught short. He simply could not bring himself to order the death of this human being who had always treated him with such refinement, and he ordered him to join the line of those who were selected for life.
Finally, the words of Shammai that we started with, if examined carefully, will yield a subtle key to this line of self-improvement (and then I'll leave you alone). Irving Bunim in his Ethics from Sinai points out that the Hebrew text actually reads, kol ha-adam. Although the standard translation is "every man," the literal translation is, "Greet the whole man with a cheerful countenance." "In other words," writes Bunim, "if there is something about a person that displeases you, look at the total personality and find his good qualities; then you will be able to greet him with a cheerful countenance."
If necessary, one must wear a mask, a happy face, until the day when he can smile and wish others a nice day and really mean it. But Bunim has found in the words of Shammai the key to cheerfulness without deception. The happy face is not the goal; genuine love and respect for others is the goal. The wisdom of Shammai can help us to reach it.