A few years ago, when I spent Shabbos in New York with my daughters, a few girls they knew from college passed us on the street. Even though my daughters smiled and said hello, some of them continued walking as if they heard nothing. Being from Florida I’m not used to this type of behavior, but having attended camp in New York for several years, I knew the game. Yet even as a child, I could not understand how people can be so downright rude.
Recently I met a person who left his shul because he told me that the rabbi and his wife were only friendly to the wealthier people in the community and ignored him and his family. I even met an individual who joined a new shul because the rabbi in the community acknowledges each person and hugs each guy after an aliyah. I understand how some people are friendly and others are not, but what I cannot fathom is how any of these people can consider themselves religious when their behavior is anything but.
In case we missed it, the halacha for being rude is pretty clear. Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: One who is aware that another person is accustomed to greet him is not only obligated to return his greeting, but he must greet him first, as it is stated: “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). If the other person extended his greeting to him and he did not respond, he is called a robber, as it is stated: “It is you who have eaten up the vineyard, the spoils of the poor are in your houses” (Isaiah 3:14). The only way to steal from a pauper who owns nothing is to rob him of his dignity by refusing to return his greeting.
Wow! We would run for the hills before eating treif, or violating the Shabbos, chas v’shalom, yet how many people violate this simple halacha out of sheer ignorance? Not only are we obligated to respond when someone says hello, but we are supposed to say it first. I witnessed this first hand by the saintly and revered Rav Nussi Zemel, z”l, who made it a point of always greeting everyone immediately upon seeing them each morning.
How then can some people who wear skirts below their knees and pray with such alacrity ignore the most basic rule of humanity: be kind.
Embarrassing another is tantamount to murder. Isn’t ignoring another person when they walk by you embarrassing someone? Yet when many parents spoil their children or fail to teach them that not responding to a person who acknowledges you is reprehensible, how can we blame our children for behaving this way? G-d wants us to be nice to the convert because we were strangers in a land not our own. G-d tells us throughout the Torah to be mindful of others, to be careful not to charge interest to a fellow Jew, to never embarrass another person, to visit the sick, to give charity in a less embarrassing way, to be a rodef sholom, a pursuer of peace. And all of this can start with a simple “hello” when you walk by a person, or respond in kind when they acknowledge you.
Four quick stories – two personal and two I read about – to illustrate both the highs and lows:
My wife recently met actor Lee Majors, who was not particularly friendly, and contrasted his behavior with famed author Neil Gaiman. At a book signing she assisted with, thousands of fans lined up for hours on end where she witnessed the author look each person in the eye, shake their hands and personally thank them for coming. Hundreds of times, for nine hours straight.
When I attended yeshiva for my gap year in Israel, there was a kind man named Rabbi Mendelovitch. He would sit and learn and the only thing that every single guy from the yeshiva remembers about him was his warm smile and kind greeting. A smile always leaves an impression.
I read a story many years ago that said that during the Holocaust, a Jew was miraculously saved by a Nazi who remembered him from their town. Why did he decide to save this one Jew, while killing countless others? Apparently, this Jew made an indelible impression on him: he always greeted him with a kind hello.
On a less-than salutary note, I saw an interview where a woman was justifying her neighborhood’s maltreatment of Jews because, she said, the very Orthodox Jews rarely say hello and aren’t friendly. (Not that this is a reason to attack Jews – but why give them an excuse?)
We live in a world of increasing hatred toward Jews. For better or worse, we are always being watched when we are in public.
But this isn’t the reason to be kind to others. We should remember that sinas chinam, gratuitous hatred, is what destroyed the second Beit HaMikdash. The antidote is to extend kindness to our fellow brothers and sisters. And that starts with a kind hello.