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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayechi 5772 "Whiter than Milk"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern zt’l[1] once accompanied Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach zt’l to his home after davening shacharis. It was a particularly blustery day in Jerusalem and as they walked, Rabbi Aurebach’s beard and payos blew freely in the wind.

As they stood on the steps about to enter Rabbi Aurebach’s home, the Rav stopped and straightened his beard and payos. He turned to Rabbi Stern and explained that a woman does not deserve to see her husband unkempt and disheveled. When a man enters his house he should look neat and put together and he should have a pleasant countenance.

When recounting that incident Rabbi Stern would admiringly comment that even though Rabbi Aurebach had been married over fifty years, he was so meticulous and careful to greet his Rebbitzin with a happy demeanor, looking neat and respectable.”

Prior to his death, Yaakov Avinu summoned each of his holy sons in order to individually bless them. In his blessing to Yehuda, Yaakov said, חכלילי עינים מיין ולבן שיניים מחלב- His eyes are red from wine and his teeth are whiter than milk.” Based on this blessing, the Gemara[2] notes that when a person displays the white of his teeth to his friend by smiling warmly, it is more beneficial than giving him a cup of milk to drink. Avos D’Rabbi Nosson (13) adds, “Even if a person is unable to give his friend anything, if he greets him pleasantly it is as if he has given him all the gifts in the world.”

Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l[3] emphasized the importance of smiling and maintaining a genial disposition toward others. The ability to perform acts of chessed is not limited to those with time and money. A person can do chessed with a smile or a friendly word. With minimal time or effort, one can brighten a person’s day. The opposite is also true. Walking around with an unhappy expression on one’s face can cause other people pain[4].

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt’l[5] would say that one’s face has the status of a reshus harabim- public domain. If one walks around with a dour look on his face, his face is a bor b’reshus harabim- a pit in a public area, and he is responsible for any damage caused to someone who falls or hurts himself on account of his ‘pit’.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer zt’l[6] related that, one year on Erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter passed a righteous man on the street. The man’s fear of G-d and the impending awesome judgment was so apparent that tears were noticeably coursing down his cheeks. When Rabbi Salanter asked him about a certain pressing matter, the man was so focused on Yom Kippur that he simply did not respond and he continued walking. Afterwards, Rabbi Salanter commented, “After I passed this man I thought in my heart, ‘Why am I at fault because he has Fear of ‘Heaven’ and trembles from the Day of Judgment? Why is that relevant to me? Aren’t you obligated to pleasantly answer my question, because that is the proper conduct according to the paths of goodness and kindness?’”

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt"l[7] writes that even a tiny infant recognizes and reacts to different facial expressions. If his mother smiles at him his face lights up and he returns the smile. But if she stares at him angrily he immediately begins to cry.

Milk helps a child grow physically, but the constant smiles and love a child sees helps him grow emotionally and spiritually. Just like a plant can't grow with water alone, but requires the sun's rays for nutrients, so does a child need constant smiles to nurture his spirit and infuse him with vitality.

The same applies as we mature and throughout life. We enjoy and seek to be around people who are positive and pleasant and we draw strength and encouragement from being in the vicinity of positive and pleasant people.

The Mishna[8] states,”V’hevei mikabeil es kol ho'odom b'seiver panim yafos -Greet every person with a pleasant countenance." Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l explained that the Mishna’s vernacular represents a three-step process in greeting people properly:

The word סבר is an expression of ‘sevara’, which in Talmudic vernacular refers to a thought process. When one focuses his gaze on another person it should be noticeable that he is thinking about him and acknowledging him.

The word פנים means face. One should turn to the person and make eye contact with him as he greet him.

יפות means beautiful. It is not enough merely to show one’s face when he greets another, he should have a radiant and pleasant smile upon is face.

When a person greets another in this manner it is tremendously powerful and encouraging.

Rabbi Pam relates that Rabbi Yechiel Michel Gordon zt’l, the Lomza Rosh Yeshiva, was on a fundraising trip in the United States when World War II broke out. His wife and children had remained behind in Lomza and he anxiously awaited news about their precarious predicament in Nazi-occupied Poland.

One day, a Jew from Lomza who had miraculously escaped the Nazi inferno came to see Rabbi Gordon. He related that he had witnessed the massacre of most of Rabbi Gordon’s family. One can hardly imagine the anguish and pain that Rabbi Gordon felt upon hearing that his worst fears confirmed.

A few moments after hearing the news, a guest, who was unaware of what had just occurred prior to his arrival, came to see Rabbi Gordon. When Rabbi Gordon noticed his guest his countenance immediately changed and he greeted his visitor with a hearty welcome and a warm smile. The conversation lasted a few minutes and then the guest departed. The man who had related the tragic news to Rabbi Gordon could not believe that Rabbi Gordon was able to completely mask his personal pain and greet someone with a warm smile and then carry on a conversation. Rabbi Gordon explained by quoting the aforementioned teaching of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. “If a person’s face is part of the public domain, one has no right to open a pit!”

Rabbi Pam concluded that although we may not be on the level of Rabbi Gordon, we must strive to be positive people. When a husband comes home from a very difficult day at the office, it is not easy for him to put a big smile on his face as he enters his home. A human being is not a machine where, with the press of a button, the whole picture can change. Nevertheless, many things can be accomplished through repetitive actions. With practice, one can get used to having a cheerful smile on his face and thereby greet every person in a pleasant manner.

If one realizes that replacing a ‘sour’ face with a smile is an act of chessed, it becomes easier to do.

“A smile costs nothing, but gives much. It enriches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it, and none is so poor but that he can be made rich by it. A smile creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in business, and is the countersign of friendship. It brings rest to the weary, cheer to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and is nature's best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until it is given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give.”[9]

“His teeth are whiter than milk”

“Sever panim yafos”

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[1] the Kamintzer Mashgiach

[2] Kesubos 111b

[3] quoted in the book “The Pleasant Way” by Rabbi Sholom Smith

[4] Sefer Yereim (mitzvah 51) says that just as it is forbidden to inflict pain with sharp, critical words so too it is forbidden to hurt others with a “sour” face.”

[5] Father’ of the Mussar Movement of the late nineteenth century

[6] Nesivas Ohr; Rav Blazer was one of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s most acknowledged disciples

[7] Alei Shur

[8] Avos 1:15

[9] I have seen this idea quoted in the name of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch but I do not know the source within his writings.

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