The Cheapest Gift
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It can be quite an overwhelming task.
A hopelessly lost young father stands in Toys ‘R’ Us, looking at aisle after aisle of toys and games, hundreds if not thousands to choose from. What in the world should I buy for my child, he wonders? Why do birthday presents have to be so difficult to pick out? I just want something simple that my kid might actually like and use, just a little something to show that I am thinking about him and that I care about him.
Before he dies, Yaakov gathers his twelve sons together, and one by one, leaves each of them with a final message. To his son Yehudah, Yaakov concludes his message with a blessing that appears on the surface to be nothing more than a promise of bounty and plenty in his portion of the Land of Israel: ‘ul’ven shinayim mei’chalav - and white toothed from milk’ (Genesis 49:12).
Rabbi Yochanan (Talmud, Kesuvos 111b), however, expounds from this phrase a lesson far more profound.
Do not pronounce ‘ul’ven shinayim – white toothed,’ but ‘v’libon shinayim - whiten your teeth.’ A person who displays the whites of his teeth to his friend is better than the one who gives him milk to drink.”
To whiten your teeth to your friend is to smile at him. As you show him the whites of your teeth, your smile, you show him your love; you show him you care. You show him that he’s valuable to you.
And that smile is more valuable to him than an ice cold glass of milk.
Milk? Is that the best the Talmud can come up with?
If you think about it, milk, in its mommy-produced form, is nothing less than a wonder food. For the newborn baby, there is absolutely nothing else it needs to survive. All of its physical needs, its nourishment, nutrients, vitamins, antibodies – it’s all contained in its mother’s milk. Even in today’s scientifically advanced day and age, the leading infant-formulas can only boast of being “the closest thing to a mother’s milk.” This simple drink is nothing short of life-sustaining.
As we grow older, in addition to our physical needs, we develop other emotional needs. We yearn to feel important, to feel valued and appreciated, and to feel like we belong. Milk cannot provide for these needs. But a smile can. And, as the Talmud declares, the smile that we provide to our friend is as powerful, if not greater than, life sustaining milk. A smile provides security, the feeling of being valued, of being cared for. The whites of our teeth simply yet unequivocally proclaim, “I am glad that you exist!”
Our children need our smile more than anything else in the world that we can give them. They need to see that we’re excited to see them, that we’re happy they’re around, that we love the fact that they’re a part of our family.
It’s sad to think that our own children might actually receive that smile from us less than everyone else does. We have a certain smile that’s reserved for when we see a friend that we haven’t seen in a long time. We’re so excited to see them; we smile a great big joyful smile that announces, “I’m so happy that you’re here!”
But our children (and our spouse), who we see all the time, don’t receive that smile when we see them for the first time in the morning. We have lunches to make, carpools to run, homework to sign (and coffee still to drink), and we sometimes forget about the simple comforting smile that warms our kids to their cores: “Good morning! It’s so nice to see you today. I’m just happy that you’re mine.”
Hashem created human beings with a default facial expression that is generally apathetic at best, sometimes even a frown. It’s simply the way that our faces appear to the outside world before any energy is invested into them. It takes effort to move our muscles into a smile. You have to want to smile. You have to choose to smile. This is precisely why it’s so valuable when we receive that smile. And we all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a real, genuine, great big heartfelt smile. There is nothing like it.
Give your children the greatest gift. Just smile at them. Let them know beyond a shadow of a doubt how excited you are that they are yours. They will take that feeling with them for the rest of their lives. As the milk they nursed sustained them as infants, our smiles will continue to nourish and sustain them with the emotional joy and security of knowing how much their parents love them.
And it won’t even cost you a cent at Toys ‘R’ Us!
Have a great Shabbos.