It’s not his name but I’ll call him Yochanan, after Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, the Gemara tells us (Berachos 17a), was first to greet anyone, Jew or not, he passed in the street.
Yochanan and his wife — we’ll call them the Sterlings — have long used the services of a car repair shop run by an Egyptian Coptic Christian. We’ll call him Samir. Another of Samir’s customers is Pinchas.
Pinchas related to me last week that he was at Samir’s repair shop recently and that Samir asked him if he knew Yochanan and his wife. He did, he said, quite well. And then Samir spent the next 10 minutes singing the Sterlings’ praises. They always smile at him, he related proudly, and ask him about how things are going with his business. They never argue over charges. They show an interest in him and make him feel valued. “Some Jews I don’t like,” he admitted to Pinchas, “but people like them are the real deal.”
Coptic Christians, although they are Arabs, have been attacked repeatedly and savagely by Islamic radicals in recent years; many have been viciously murdered. So Jews and Copts today share a common enemy. But Eastern Orthodox Churches like the Coptic one have their own long histories of Jew-hatred, and it persists today among many in contemporary Eastern Orthodox communities.
Samir, though, despite his religious background, is enamored of Jews, at least Jews like the Sterlings (and, I suspect, Pinchas). He has no choice but to accept the evidence of his senses.
And yet, according to Google, the most asked question about Jews is why they are “so rude.”
We don’t have Nevi’im today; and if we did, Google would not be among them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, take to heart the yield of its logarithm. To be sure, some of the belief that Jews (and that likely means “identifiably Jewish” Jews) are less than friendly surely emerges from dark places, from hearts polluted with senseless Jew-hatred. But some of it, too, likely comes from us.
Not that we’re, chalilah, intentionally impolite. But, unlike in centuries past, we live in open societies these days, and the sort of laying low and ignoring those around us that were sensible staples of Jewish life in other lands and times strike some of our non-Jewish (or Jewish but less-observant) fellow citizens as aloofness and off-putting.
We have no choice but to face the fact that each of us today is a walking Jewish billboard, an advertisement for Torah. A case can even be made that the Gemara’s admonition that a talmid chacham must act in an exemplary fashion at all times applies today, when most Jews are estranged from Torah, to all of us, learned or not, who embrace the Jewish mesorah.
That means, of course, eschewing not only rudeness but even the appearance of the same. When entering a building or room, holding a door open for someone behind you isn’t a big deal to do, but it can be quite a big deal for the person behind you.
When facing a cashier (no less a human being, no matter how grumpy, pierced or tattooed, than any other one), a sincere “thank you” is in order.
And when driving, signaling one’s turns and lane-switches, not shooting into traffic and not double-parking when it impedes others are signs of simple civility. And unless all your car windows are heavily tinted, you can rest assured that anyone you cut off or tailgate will take note of your appearance and draw the indicated conclusions.
Then there is the thing that won’t take any toll on anyone’s time, doesn’t cost anything and is easily within the reach of us all: the sever panim yafos, or smiling countenance, of Avos 1:15. We are to greet, in the Mishnah’s words, “every human” with it. It involves eye-contact and a smile — a sincere one, acknowledging the humanity of the other. That is an imperative in its own right, the proper conduct, according to Chazal, of a Jew. But it also serves an auxiliary purpose, and it’s not a small one.
Last week, I noted the Rambam’s guide to attaining ahavas Hashem, contemplating the wonder of the world around us. Chazal also tell us, though, that the mitzvah has another dimension: that we act “so that the name of Hashem is beloved through your hand” (Yoma 86a).
That might seem like a difficult thing, but it’s really not.
Just spend some time with Samir.