This week is dedicated anonymously in honour of Rabbi Nancy and her wonderful Mussar group in Sacramento, California.
This week we begin a trait not commonly addressed in character development, however quite important. We explore the middah of being pleasant, which in Hebrew is usually manifested in a pleasant facial expression (סבר פנים יפות - sever panim yafot).
The Hebrew word "sever" means an “expression” or even “hope” (Talmud Eruvin 21b). There is something in a pleasant facial expression that connotes hope, but hope for what?
In Tanchuma Vayeshev (90b) it speaks of the poor relationship between Joseph and his brothers. It says:
“Joseph’s brothers hated him and would not return his greeting (Genesis/Bereshit 37:4). Joseph used to greet them, but they would not answer him. It was always his custom to greet them. Before they rise to greatness, some people will always greet other people, but when they achieve greatness, their spirit becomes pompous and they pay no attention to greeting their fellow citizens. Joseph was different. After he had risen to greatness, he still greeted others (Genesis/Bereshit 43:27).”
What might Joseph have been hoping for? Does your answer to this question affect your own consideration to always show a pleasant face? What would you hope for in maintaining this approach?
Let’s put the question of hope aside for a moment and address another question.
Does showing a pleasant face while your inner being is in pain represent a betrayal of your authentic self? The Chazon Ish said “one’s heart is a private domain and one’s face is a public domain.” We have an obligation to present a certain image to our community (and to ourselves if we happen to be looking in a mirror). However, if in the privacy of your heart you are in pain, do you still have to show an outward pleasantness? The answer appears to be “yes” which must force us to understand this statement from the Chazon Ish differently.
Reb Shlomo Wolbe, a famous Mussar teacher said that the middah of sever panim yafot follows from development of the trait of honour (kavod) rather than the trait of joy (simcha). He understands that having a pleasant face towards someone else is a manifestation of kavod, of recognizing the glory within the other and it being pleasant to be in the presence of the other person. Reb Chaim of Volozhin explained similarly that one should honour all people simply because they are the handiwork of Hashem.
Having a pleasant face then, according to these Mussar teachers, is more a result of recognition of another person’s greatness rather than a reflection of any feelings residing in your heart or hope for any particular outcome.
As with all middot, these lessons cover situations in our regular lives and may not fit exactly within extreme situations. A friend sat next to me at shul and seemed to have a pained look on his face. He usually smiles when he sees me. I smiled at him and then learned that he had buried his mother the day before (may her neshama have an aliya). Clearly, not all situations call for displays of a pleasant face [which explains why Reb Wolbe defines this middah as having an “appropriate face”].
Let’s return to the idea of hope and see if there is a link between hope and honour? Display of a pleasant or appropriate face is connected to both hope and to honour. What is it that you could take away from that connection that might help you 1) express pleasantness more often (even when you’re frustrated for example at the cashier who takes much too long to give you the right change), and 2) use the expression to build more honour and greater hope. How is hope and honour connected for you?
Practice: Think of someone you have trouble with. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and imagine yourself sitting in a comfortable chair in a comfortable living room. Now imagine that this person walks into the room and sits opposite you in a different chair. You choose to ignore all their faults for a moment and instead see something in them that is worthy of honour, however small that might be. Now, focused only on the virtuous aspect of this person, smile at them as you continue to take slow, deep breaths in (and out). Watch within yourself a rising feeling of hope for a better relationship with this person. Hold that feeling for a minute. And then, when ready, watch them stand up and leave the room and then slowly open your eyes. Repeat this exercise each day this week.