In our parsha, Yaakov says: “Red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk.” The Gemara (Ketubot 111) quotes Rav Dimi who explains that this is a reference to Bnei Yisrael who say to Hashem “Hint [to me] with Your eyes (that you are happy with me) which is sweeter [to me] than wine, and show me Your teeth (smile upon me) which is sweeter [to me] than milk.” As delicious and nourishing as some good wine and hearty milk may be, nevertheless, as the Maharal (Chiddushei Aggadot) says, Hashem’s love and affection for us reigns beyond any physical and material goods.
This concept may also apply to the way people relate to each other, as the Gemara there says that Rav Dimi’s interpretation supports Reb Yochanan who said that one who displays the whiteness of his teeth to his friend is better than one who gives him milk to drink, as it says “and white toothed from milk,” which can be read as meaning: whitening of the teeth [is better] than [giving one] milk.
It’s perhaps apparent that receiving positive vibes from people—which can be imparted through the simple display of the warm and cheerful demeanor that one’s face carries—can be greater and more beneficial than any physical or material goods.
This can show the power inherent in just the simple look on our faces, the way our face appears to others. If we carry a pleasant countenance, it can provide a tremendous benefit to others. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, “Receive every person with a pleasant facial expression” which Avot d’Rebbi Natan expounds and says that by doing so, it’s as if one gave that person “all the best gifts in the world.”
Ironically, although Yaakov might have imparted the importance of this concept (as he pronounced the pasuk above), he himself may have fallen short in it, and is seemingly taken to task for it: The beginning of our parsha says that Yaakov lived 147 years. Interestingly, the Da’at Z’keinim (47:8) quotes a midrash that Yaakov was originally destined to live until 180. However, when he met Pharaoh, Pharaoh (chp. 47, pasuk 8) asked him how old he was, and Yaakov (in pasuk 9) answered, but added that his years had been few and bad, etc. The number of words in the two pesukim that contain the exchange between Yaakov and Pharaoh total 33. Because Yaakov complained, he lost 33 years of his life.
The question is, the second pasuk which contains Yaakov’s response total to only 25 words! The other eight words in the pasuk only contain Pharaoh’s question of how old Yaakov is!
I heard from Rav Gavriel Friendman that since Yaakov gave off a negative impression of his life—so much so that it prompted Pharaoh to ask how old he was—he was taken to task.
We perhaps see from here the responsibility we have to ensure that our face carries a proper expression when facing others. Carrying a jovial and pleasant countenance can be accomplished, even when one is experiencing exceptionally difficult times:
When Avraham’s wife Sarah passed away, the Torah says that “Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.” The very next pasuk says that “Avraham rose up from the presence of his dead, and spoke to the children of Heth…” Why is it necessary to mention that Avraham rose up? Rav Yerucham Levovitz explains that Avraham rose up in the sense now that Avraham had to come interact with people, despite what he was just going through, he changed from his previous demeanor and put on a cheerful and pleasant countenance. Thus, he “rose up from the presence of his dead,” meaning that from his current positive and cheerful expression, no one could tell that he was just occupied in dealing with the “presence of his dead.”
We can perhaps learn from Avraham that even in the most difficult times we have the potential to carry a pleasant countenance.
It might, at times, be easier said than done, and therefore mastering this conduct may take effort. Interestingly, the Bartenura explains that when the Mishna says “receive every person with a pleasant facial expression,” this refers to the gibor, one who is strong. I wondered, however, what the Bartenura means by this: Is this conduct geared specifically to the gibor?
We know that gibor can refer to the strength one utilizes to be in control of one’s impulses (as the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says, “Eizehu gibor? Hakovesh et yitzro, Who is strong? One who overcomes his inclination.” So maybe what the Bartenura is teaching us is that a person shouldn’t think that this conduct of receiving people with a pleasant countenance is so easy and therefore one doesn’t need to focus on working to improve in this area. Rather, we are to be aware that many times in life a person’s mind may be occupied with other things, whether it be his busy schedule, a difficult experience, his occupation, etc—and yet, we may encounter many people throughout the day, or after a long day. To rise up from whatever we may be going through or have just gone through, and put on that “game face”—a pleasant facial expression to the point where it doesn’t seem to the recipient as if we were going through something, whatever it was—that can take much gevura, much inner strength. Hence, since this conduct can at times be a challenge, perhaps the Bartenura means to emphasize that it’s therefore a behavior that may require much focus and effort to improve in—in order to build that strength to become that gibor!
Incredibly, it’s brought (in sefer Toras Avraham) that Rav Avraham Grodzinski (who was the primary student of the great sage, the Alter of Slabodka) worked two years on the conduct of having a pleasant facial expression! He wore it even during the severe times in the ghetto.
We can learn from all the above, that the efforts it may take to make this conduct second nature shouldn’t be underestimated, but neither should the practical benefits it delivers.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work