Giving With a Smile
The Torah portion discusses the mitzvah of charity and promises a special blessing to one who fulfills this mitzvah with joy: "You will surely give to him [the poor man] and you should not feel bad in your heart when giving him, because of this thing (davar hazeh) HaShem, your God will bless you in all your deeds and your every undertaking." (1) The Talmud elaborates on the number of blessings one receives when he gives charity: "Rebbi Yitzchak says, 'one who gives a prutah(2) to a poor person is blessed with six blessings and one who speaks kindly to him [whilst giving the prutah] is blessed with [an additional] eleven blessings." (3) The Gra explains that these 17 blessings are alluded to in the verse - the Torah says that a person will receive the blessing, "because of davar hazeh" - the word hazeh is gematria (numerical value) of 17, thus alluding to the maximum amount of blessings one can receive if he gives charity in the optimum manner.(4)
However, this Talmud seems difficult to understand. It says that a person receives nearly double as many blessings for speaking in a friendly manner as for giving money. Being friendly is a good form of behavior but why does the Talmud consider it so much greater than providing a poor person with the money he so desperately needs?
The Rabbis discuss a similar issue that can help us answer this question. It says,"One should greet every man with a friendly countenance... if a person gives to his friend all the gifts in the world, but his face is sullen, it is considered as if he gave nothing. But one who greets his fellow with a friendly countenance, even if he gave him no gifts, it is considered as if he gave him all the best gifts in the world." (5)
The Sifsei Chaim explains that what people want more than anything is for others to show an interest in and care about them. A gift is merely an indication that the giver thought about the needs of his fellow and how he could give him joy. However, without an accompanying show of warmth the main purpose of the gift is lost because the person does not feel as if he is being genuinely cared about. In contrast when a person is friendly to his fellow even without giving any gifts, then he is providing him with his primary need, the desire to feel cared about.(6) This explanation can also be used to answer our question. A person who gives charity with a friendly attitude is giving much more than money, he is nourishing the poor man with a sense of importance by showing that he is cared about.
We learn from here how showing an interest in our fellow is one of the greatest possible acts of kindness that we can perform, even surpassing giving charity. There are Rabbinical sayings that stress the importance of being friendly. The Talmud tells us that Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai greeted everyone before they could greet him.(7) Rabbi Dan Roth explains what we can learn from this: Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai was the greatest Sage in his time and was the Nasi (Prince), the highest ranking position amongst the Jewish people. And yet, despite his high rank and prestige, he never failed to greet other people first. He recognized the power of a friendly greeting. Wishing someone 'good morning' shows that you acknowledge who he or she is. In a world where people are often not appreciated enough, by greeting someone we show that we see him as something of worth. This applies to everyone and especially to those people that we tend not to notice or acknowledge such as taxi drivers, street cleaners and security guards.(8) The following true stories demonstrate how important it is to learn from Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai.
A Jew was working in a meat-packing plant in Norway. Towards the end of the day he went into one of the freezers to do an inspection. The freezer door slipped off its safety latch and closed, trapping the man in the freezer. He tried banging on the door and yelling but no avail. Most of the workers had already gone home and the sound was muffled anyway by the heavy freezer door. He was in the room for five hours and on the verge of death. Suddenly the door opened. The security guard put his head in and came to his rescue and saved his life. The security guard was later asked why he thought to open that freezer door. He explained, "I have been working here for thirty-five years. Hundreds of workers come to this plant every day. This Jew is the only one who says hello to me in the morning and good-bye in the evening. All the other workers treat me as invisible. Today he said hello, but I never heard the good-bye. I wait for that hello and good-bye every day. Knowing I never heard it, I realised that he must be somewhere in the building so I searched for him." (9) A simple 'hello' and 'goodbye' were so important to this security guard that he waited for them every day. We should strive to be like the Jew who greeted him so regularly and not like everyone else who treated him as if he did not exist.
It should be noted that being friendly does not merely constitute a praiseworthy act; rather it is an obligation that is incumbent upon every Jew. Rav Elyahu Dessler points out that the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers which tells us to greet people in a friendly manner is said in the name of Shammai. It would have seemed more appropriate for Hillel, who is associated with kindness to express this idea, than Shammai who is known for his stricter approach.(10) Rav Dessler explains that this comes to teach us that greeting our fellow in a friendly way is an obligation.(11) Moreover, the Gemara states that anyone who knows that his friend regularly greets him should strive to be the one to initiate the greeting. Moreover, if his friend greeted him first and he does not return the greeting then he is called a thief.(12) Rav Dessler explains that when one refrains from returning his friend's greeting, he is stealing his self-worth and this is a terrible sin.
We have seen how there is a clear obligation to show warmth in our interactions with our fellow man and that by doing so we can give him a true sense of self-worth. How can a person strive to improve in this vital area of Divine Service? It is recommended to notice anyone in our neighborhood who does not seem to know many people and to try to befriend them. This applies especially to new members of the community who naturally feel unknown and unimportant in their new neighborhood. But it is even worthwhile to say a friendly word to anyone in the community with whom we have thus far not made any effort to do so.
1. Re'eh, 15:10.
2. That is a very small amount in the currency that was common in Talmudic times.
3. Bava Basra, 9b. The parentheses are used to explain the Gemara according to the understanding of the Gra. See the next source.
4. Quoted in Tallelei Oros, Devarim A, p.261.
5. Avos d'Rebbi Nosson, Ch. 13.
6. Sifsei Chaim, Moadim, 3rd Chelek, p. 275, footnote 11.
7. Brachos 17a.
8. Roth, Relevance, p.170-1.
9. Kaplan, Impact, p.76.
10. This encapsulates an emphasis on giving exactly what one deserves, without giving extra leeway.
11. Michtav M'Eliyahu, Chelek 4, p.146-7.
12. Brachos, 6b.