Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | January 4, 2017

Face Facts

kissemojiImagine my surprise when I drove down the street one day to see a smiley face staring back at me from a telephone pole. Now, a plain smiley face would have been one thing, but this one was sad and crying. It turned out to be an advertisement for an organization that helps cancer patients, and they used the hashtag #feelalong to convey that we should endeavor to feel other people’s pain.

I was a bit surprised that a group I understood to be comprised of many people who eschew smartphones would use emojis (round yellow faces displaying various emotions used to convey feeling in written electronic text) but I guess that only shows just how pervasive the concept is.

It’s certainly a far cry from 1982 when Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Scott Fahlman invented the “emoticon,” a way of identifying a joke without having to write, “I am joking.” He posted on an online bulletin board: “I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: 🙂 Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark those that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use 😦 .”

It used to be a game for people to guess what you’d typed sideways, and to see how clever and creative you could be, but today’s high-tech animated figures don’t keep you guessing much. That said, (and despite the fact that Dr. Fahlman dislikes the new-fangled emojis) the underlying principle is very sound.

Studies have shown that when writing e-mails, emoticons such as smiles have produced better results in terms of motivating people to honor requests. They convey a warmth and relationship bond which works wonders.

The funny thing is that with all the cutesie images, we often forget that they are poor alternatives to the real thing: a genuine smile from a real human being!

I think people don’t understand the power of the smile. But don’t just take my word for it. In Sing You Righteous, R’ Avigdor Miller z”l wrote that in addition to the feeling of respect that a smile engenders, “The smile enters the recipient’s mind and stimulates all the glands to produce their secretions in the most beneficial proportions. Every one of the thousands of intricate processes of physical functions is optimally motivated.”

Wow. Did you ever think that when you smile at someone you were actually making them physically healthier and giving them tangible pleasure? How about a frown or angry face? Doesn’t that cause your adrenaline to pump in a fight-or-flight response? We have tremendous power in our expressions and we must learn to wield it properly.

On Chanuka, we eat dairy products because Yehudis fed cheese and wine to Holofernes, a Syrian-Greek general who had besieged her town and when he was drunk she chopped off his head. The commentaries say that one who eats dairy on Chanuka will have his sins pardoned. The Bnai Yissaschar even says that it is a merit for healing from sickness. Is this really simply because someone in history used cheese to put some wicked fellow to sleep?

I’d like to suggest that the idea is not simply that she fed him cheese to put him to sleep, but that this woman risked her life to try and help others. Once she was out of her city, she could have left and gone somewhere else. But she stood her ground in the enemy camp and followed through with her plan to rescue her people, giving her an honored placed in the pantheon of Jewish heroines (pardon the word choice, please.)

The blessing Yaakov Avinu gave to Yehuda in Parshas Veyechi included, ‘u’l’ven shinayim mi’chalav – teeth white from milk.’ The Gemara (Kesubos 111b) quotes R’ Yochanan as saying that “one who shows the whites of his teeth this his friend, i.e. he smiles affectionately, is greater than giving him a glass of milk.” While milk can nourish a person for a day or two, a smile and the good feelings it brings, can last much, much longer.

Based on what we said, that simply eating dairy and remembering how Yehudis was concerned about her people, could bring about atonement and refuah, then how much more so does doing something BETTER than milk, when we’re actually emulating Yehudis’s actions, stand to bring us these fantastic benefits?!

I wonder if her name really was Yehudis, or whether she merely exemplified the behavior of a Yehudi, a Jew, by worrying about and trying to help others. Yehuda, Yehudis, Yehudim? It’s not a coincidence, it’s a paradigm for our behavior.

Emojis may be here for now, and they may one day be replaced by something else; but let us resolve to never let them replace what they represent: the power of a smile and the importance of human connection and caring.


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