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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Behar (Bechukotai in Israel)

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Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.
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The Torah portion of Behar speaks about not causing pain to one’s fellow as the verse says,[1] “And you shall not wrong one man his fellow-Jew…” The Talmud says[2] that this verse is referring to ono’at devarim, causing pain with words.
Ono’at devorim is considered a worse sin that cheating someone monetarily.[3]The Talmud says[4] that all the gates of Heaven (for prayers) are closed except the gates of those who cry out because of pain caused to them (i.e., G-d answers their prayers).

The Power of a Good Word

The Talmud says[5] that one who gives a coin to a poor person is blessed with six blessings whereas one who speaks kindly to him is blessed with eleven blessings. The reason for this is that a person’s self-esteem is far more valuable than a coin. By speaking to a poor person kindly, even if one cannot help him financially, one can lift his spirits and give him hope for the future.
King Solomon asked, “A man’s spirit will sustain his illness, but a broken spirit – who will bear it?” Meaning that if a person is ill, if he maintains his good spirits, he can prevail over his illness. But if a person is broken-spirited (depressed), his life can become unbearable. Therefore, one who speaks positive words to a downtrodden person and reassures him that he has a bright future ahead of him may be breathing new life into him.[6]

A Pleasant Countenance

The Mishnah says,[7] “Shammai said… ‘הוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות – Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.’”
The Rambam explains that one should conduct his affairs in a gentle manner and use pleasant and pleasing words. Behaving in this manner will also benefit the person as it will increase his friends, and friends are essential to life.[8]
The Avot DeRabi Natan[9] expands on this theme and says that if one gives a donation to a poor person but does so with a sour face, it is as if he gave nothing. But if one receives his fellow with a happy countenance, even if he gives him nothing, it is considered as if he had given him all of the gifts in the world.

Vegetables with Love

According to the Midrash,[10] King Solomon was deposed from his throne towards the end of his life. During that time, he was invited to eat at the home of a rich man. The man served him the finest dishes but while doing so reminded him of all the things King Solomon used to have and no longer had. These comments ruined King Solomon’s appetite, and he left crying and just as hungry as he had come. The next day a poor man met him who said that he didn’t have much to offer, but that he would be honored if the king would join him for a meal. While he served him simple fare, the poor man spoke encouraging words to Solomon, saying that G-d would certainly restore him to his throne since He had promised King David that the kingship would remain in his family. King Solomon was consoled and he ate well. Later he wrote in the book of Proverbs,[11] “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love, than a fattened ox where there is hatred,” i.e., better the vegetables I ate at the poor man’s house than the fattened ox that I didn’t eat at the rich man’s house while he was reminding me of my pain.

Even if You’re Not in the Mood

The Me’iri points out that the Mishnah (quoted above) uses the expression “sever panim yafot,” a pleasant countenance. The word “sever” can also mean “to think.” This indicates that even if a person is not in a good mood, he should force himself to smile so that his friend will think that he is happy to see him.
According to the Sefer Yerei’im[12] one who causes pain to another by showing him a sour face is transgressing the prohibition against causing pain to someone else.

A Smile is Better than Milk

The Talmud says[13] that showing one’s teeth (i.e., smiling to a person, which reveals one’s teeth) is better than giving him milk to drink.
The Rosh wrote,[14] “Do not show an angry face to travelers (i.e., people who are passing through). Rather receive them with a shining face.”

Teaching with Joy

The Talmud says[15] if one sees a Torah scholar whose learning is deficient, it is because his teacher didn’t show him a pleasant face when he taught him. Thus, an essential aspect of a successful teacher is that he shows his students that he is happy with them.[16]

 Every Single Man

The language of the Mishnah (“Receive every person with a cheerful countenance”) indicates that one should show good cheer even to someone from whom he can expect to receive nothing in return. In addition, it also applies towards a person who is not downtrodden and “in need” of a cheerful word. The point of the Mishnah is that every person deserves to be greeted cheerfully regardless of any ulterior motive.[17]
In other contexts,[18] the words “(kol) ha’adam” also refers to gentiles. Thus, Shammai is teaching us that one must greet gentiles pleasantly as well.[19] They too deserve respect having been created by G-d. This is similar to the behavior of Rabbi Yochanan[20] who would greet every person (including gentiles) in the market even before they greeted him.

Harsh Words

The Talmud[21] tells various stories about how Shammai spoke sharply to several gentiles who wished to convert. He even pushed one of them away with a building tool. This seems to contradict his own teaching in Pirkei Avot.
Several explanations have been offered:
·        Originally Shammai was stern and harsh, but after he heard the teaching of his colleague Hillel, that one should be a student of Aharon and love and pursue peace,[22] he decided to adopt that view. It was at that point that he imparted the teaching to receive every person cheerfully.[23]
·        In the cases mentioned, the potential converts had spoken (somewhat) disrespectfully about the Torah, and Shammai wanted to negate their view completely.[24]
·        It is only necessary to greet people cheerfully when they behave like “people” (i.e., a mentch), whereas if they are behaving (or speaking) in ways that are inappropriate, this doesn’t apply.[25]

Inner Joy

In the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, [26] Rabbi Yishma’el said, “Receive everyone (both young and old – Bartenura) with simcha – joy.” As a Kohen, Rabbi Yishma’el was following the ways of Aharon, the Kohen, who loved peace and pursued it.[27]
The word simcha means inward joy. Thus, Rabbi Yishma’el was teaching us that it isn’t sufficient to simply smile to one’s fellow. Rather one should appreciate the good qualities in that person and be truly happy to see him.[28]
The Good Word that Saved a Life
I heard from Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, of blessed memory, that a good word saved his life.
Rabbi Wineberg grew up in Poland in a family of Trisker Chassidim.  One day several Chabad bochurim were passing through his town. As this was somewhat unusual (I think he said that they davened for many hours after the community finished), he asked his father about them. His father said simply that Chabad Chassidim serve Hashem with sincerity.
Several years later when he was learning in a Yeshivah in Warsaw, there was an option to join the local Lubavitcher yeshivah. Because he remembered the positive words his father had spoken about Chabad Chassidim, he decided to do so. This changed the course of his life positively in terms of his service of Hashem. (He became a renowned Chassid, author of Lessons in Tanya and fundraiser.)
In addition, this also indirectly saved his life. In the beginning of World War II, when he was in the Lubavitcher Yeshivah outside of Warsaw, he and several other bochurim were advised by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe to cross the border into Lithuania. As a result of this he joined the group of Yeshivah students who got visas from Chiune Sugihara and were able to escape the horrors of the Holocaust by going through Japan and Shanghai.
In the merit of our smiling to others, may Hashem smile upon us!
[1] Levit. 25:17
[2] Bava Metzi’ah 58b and Torat Kohanim, quoted in Rashi on the verse
[3] Peleh Yo’etz, erech Ona’ah
[4] Bava Metzi’ah 59a
[5] Bava Batra 9b
[6] HaMusar VeHada’at, Bereishit (by Rabbi Avraham 1887 – 1970 of Novardok and Yerushalayim), page 196
[7] Avot 1:15
[8] Tiferet Yisrael
[9] End of chapter 13
[10] Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei 15:17
[11] 15:17. See also there, 17:1
[12] Amud HaYirah, siman 51, based on Rabbi Yehudah in Torat Kohanim
[13] Ketubot 111b, quoted by the Vilna Ga’on on Avot 1:15
[14] Orchot Chaim, ot 57
[15] Ta’anit 8a
[16] Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern of Benei Berak in his Midrash Halacha on Gen. 49:12
[17] Biurim LePirkei Avot by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
[18] Tosfot D.H. Ve’ein on Yevamot 61a
[19] Ibid
[20] Brachot 17a
[21] Shabbat 31a
[22] Avot, 1:12
[23] Biurim LePirkei Avot on the Mishnah. This explains why, in this Mishnah, the teaching of Shammai is listed after those of Hillel’s although usually Shammai’s opinion precedes that of Hillel (Tosfot D.H. Shnayim on Chagigah 16a).
[24] Biurim LePirkei Avot
[25] Shoshanim LeDavid in the Likutim on the Mishnayot
[26] Mishnah 12
[27] See Avot 1:12
[28] Biurim LePirkei Avot on the Mishnah
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorah!

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