Vayelech Batmitzvah

D'var Torah

by Noa

Rabbi Hackenbroch and Gila, RabbI Akiva and Batya, wardens, family and friends ,Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Woodside Park shul .Thank you so much for coming here to celebrate with me on this special day of my Bat Mitzvah .

 As I look around the room, I see a sea of faces, some that I know well, some that I recognise, some that I have never seen before. Some are young, some are old. Some of you have serious faces, some worried, some bored and some of your faces are simply still. Some of you sweetly smile at me if I happen to catch your eye. That makes me feel good. And it begs a smile in return. Did you know that it is a mitzvah to smile at someone? To greet them first? I’m the biggest smiler there is. Wow. I had no idea how religious I actually am. 

Today, I celebrate my journey into adulthood, this may be the last time you see my young child-like face…. 

For soon I shall become older and my face will change. I used to wonder what I will look like when I am 50 or 80. Now I don’t have to wonder anymore…. As there is an app that can generate a picture of you when you are much older, Face app is a Russian app that is sweeping the world with more 150 million downloads. 

We are a generation that spends billions of pounds on attempting to look younger and suddenly FaceApp comes along and we are just as obsessed… Who would have thought that in the age of selfies, we would also want to see ourselves old and wrinkly as well? 

But before you try it, there’s something important that you should know about your face and what it says about you.

According to studies, within a tenth of a second of seeing a new face we have already made a judgment about that person. Unfortunately, once that snap judgment has formed, it is surprisingly hard to budge. 

So, is it possible that our faces accurately reveal our character? Can you tell a lot about me just by looking at me? 

There is an idea, going back to the time of the Greeks, which claims that faces tell the story of character and personality and possibly even tell our future life. 

In Hebrew the word for face is panim. This word shares the same letters as the word pnim. Which means inner essence. The Torah is telling us that our face is the outer expression of our inner selves.  

It is famously said that Abraham Lincoln was advised to include a certain man in his cabinet. When he refused, he was asked why he would not accept him. 

"I don't like his face," the President replied. 

"But the poor man isn't responsible for his face," he was told.

"Every man over 40 is responsible for his face," stated Lincoln.

Lincoln explained: it wasn't that the man was physically ugly. Rather, he had an ugly personality and a bitter look about him. His face was a living portrait of his character. That’s why Lincoln didn't want to hire him.

And that’s why no app can really predict what your face will look like in 50 years – because you haven’t finished creating it.

And this brings me back to smiling…. Because if we are a culture that is so obsessed with the way we look, surely the first thing we should all start with is a smile? But don’t just smile at those that you already love and know, use your smiles to spread love where it doesn’t exist. Be a giver of smiles. 

I learnt that the Torah says it is preferable to give one pound to a hundred people than £100 to one poor person. Why is this so? Surely, a £100 is more useful to one person. The Torah is trying to train us to be givers, rather give a pound to someone every day for one hundred days then to give it once. 

In the same vein, the Mishna encourages us all, “Be the first to greet each person.” The Maharal, a famous Jewish commentator, explains that when you walk by someone without offering a smile or a greeting you make him or her feel invisible and insignificant. By making a point of greeting someone you show that you don’t see yourself as superior or better than another. And if you can’t greet someone, surely a smile is possible? Smiling is at the root of who we are as human beings. Smiling is universal, it needs no language or structure. Even a baby understands a smile.

The Torah ideal is to greet each and every person with a pleasant facial expression. And I think possibly the best and easiest mitzvah of all time. 

Smiling is easy. Or is it? Why do we sometimes choose not to smile at a person or wait for a person to greet us first? Why would we do that? If smiling makes me feel good and it makes you feel good, why not smile more? 

I think that sometimes, we find it hard to connect to people when we feel different from them. We look at people, we look at their faces, their clothes, their mannerisms and then we make a judgment on that person. We judge whether we will like them based on what we see. These judgements are not always true. Who I am to judge anyone by what they look like? I don’t know about you, but I barely know myself, so how I am to decide who you are?

When we smile at a person, especially someone we haven’t met, we connect to them and we tend to drop any judgements we may have had. We forget our differences for a moment. We lose ourselves in the moment as all barriers are down. 

But we forget this as instead we look after our own needs, we forget others, we don’t see who they are. We don’t see their point of view, we fight, we argue, we take. 

A smile can dissolve all of this. A smile connects us. A smile tells the other person that you accept them, as they are. A smile shows you care. And in some cases, a smile can do much more…. 

I would like to conclude by sharing a story with you all… a true story about a large complex housing a slaughter-house in Argentina. There were several buildings in the complex and over 200 employees worked there. One evening as the manager, Yisroel, was leaving, he called out to the guard, “Good night, Domingo, you can lock up and go.” “No,” Domingo called back, “not everyone has left yet.” “What are you talking about,” Yisroel said, “everyone left two hours ago!” “It is not so,” Domingo said, “Rabbi Berkowitz, hasn’t left yet.” 

Yisroel knew that Domingo was trustworthy and he decided to listen to him and together they searched the buildings within the complex, but they could not find the Rabbi anywhere. Finally, they came to the huge walk-in refrigeration room where the large slabs of meat were kept frozen, they opened the door and to their shock and horror they saw Rabbi Berkowitz rolling on the floor, trying desperately to keep himself warm. They ran over to him, lifted him off the floor, helped him out of the refrigerated room and made sure that he was warm and comfortable.

Yisroel was shocked, “Domingo,” he asked, “how did you know Rabbi Berkowitz hadn’t left? There are over two hundred workers here every day. Do you know the comings and goings of every one of them?”

The guard’s answer is worth remembering. 

“Every morning when the Rabbi comes in, he greets me and says hello. He makes me feel like a person. And every single night when he leaves, he tells me, ‘Have a pleasant evening.’ He never misses a night – and to tell you the truth, I wait for his kind words. Dozens and dozens of workers pass me every day – morning and night, and they don’t say a word to me. To them I am a nothing. To him, I am a somebody. “I knew he came in this morning and I was sure he hadn’t left yet, because I was waiting for his friendly good-bye for the evening!”

Friends and family, what I am beginning to see is that the Torah is there for everyone, not just religious Jews. It is for me and for you, for all of us. I don’t have to take on all the commandments, but I cantake on a few. I have learnt that one can use the Torah to help become a better you…  And what could be better than a better version of yourself. I may not have as much Torah knowledge yet but every one of us can be extraordinary just by making a point of greeting everyone with a smile, and in this way, we bring pleasure to others, ourselves and to G-d. Thank you for listening. 

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