Finding the Good in Students

By Joel Lurie Grishaver

In Pirke Avot, 1:15 we find this famous text. Shammai says:

“Make of thy Torah study a fixed practice; say little and do much; and greet all people with a cheerful countenance.”

There are a number of commentaries that explain that we smile at people so that they will like us. When you smile at a person, they feel good, and are likely to feel good about you. These commentaries suggest that in greeting our students we are “manipulating them” in a positive way.

One commentary by Shimon ben Zemah Duran points in a different direction. He says, “Shammai is here urging three things that are interconnected. They are about three human areas… wisdom, strength, riches… He tells us greet people with a cheerful countenance because it helps you to be strong by mastering anger. We are taught ‘Who is mighty? One who subdues his/her evil impulse.’”

…A cheerful countenance is the opposite of arrogance and anger. The deep lesson here is that we need to find something we like, something that makes us smile about each of our students. When we greet them, we are not manipulating them, we are manipulating ourselves. Greeting is a teacher’s opening meditation—spiritual preparation for entering the classroom. We are connecting not to the lesson and the activities, but to the souls we will be teaching. I like that insight.

Joel Lurie Grishaver is the Creative Chairperson of Torah Aura Productions.

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