Adele's popular song Hello became instantly ubiquitous. It was played everywhere. Hard to sing, it was, however, easily spoofed, and we probably all had a moment when we said hello to someone and wanted to break into song. I held back. I hope you did.
Hello was the first song to sell a million digital copies in a week and became the number-one song in almost every country in which it was played. The song may have climbed so quickly to the top because its message of regret and sentimentality was tied up in a single word of greeting. We are always saying hello from the other side because every act of greeting is an attempt to create a slim bond between very disparate and sometimes desperate souls.
This may explain the profound significance of a Jewish aphorism that is often trivialized. In Ethics of the Fathers, we are adjured to "Greet every person with a cheerful countenance" (3:12). How hard can that be? Did our sages really need to waste their breath teaching us how to say hello?
In a word: yes.
The impact of being greeted warmly or not being greeted at all is not trivial. A greeting is the way we take in another person and communicate affection or disdain, curiosity or dismissiveness.
The impact of being greeted warmly is not trivial.
Think about a cocktail party when you were snubbed by someone who simply couldn't be bothered. Worse, think about how often this happens in Jewish settings: synagogues, community centres, schools. And in relationships where there is real history, one wrong non-verbal gesture, even unintentional - a smirk, a shrug, a failure to make eye contact - can send a relationship into a tailspin.
We all do it. We greet people we already know. We turn up the charm to people we need or like and pay little attention to strangers. Before the High Holy Day season some years ago, I found myself in the American south helping a group of rabbis prepare sermons for the season.
I asked each of them to write down in the Yom Kippur framework of the Al Chet's - our sin confessional - three professional struggles they faced. One rabbi wrote this: "For the sin of gravitating to congregants I like when I'm the rabbi of my entire congregation."
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his seminal article, The Community, wrote of the psychic and spiritual cost of this act of neglect: "Quite often a man finds himself in a crowd of strangers. He feels lonely. No one knows him, no one cares for him, no one is concerned about him. It is an existential experience. He begins to doubt his own ontological worth. This leads to alienation from the crowd surrounding him. Suddenly someone taps him on the shoulder and says, 'Aren't you Mr So-and-so? I have heard so much about you.'
"In a fraction of a second, his awareness changes. What brought about the change? The recognition by somebody, the word!"
This happens among strangers and also among those we love the most. I'm a morning person. But I can't say the same for most of my children. I remind them often that he who hoots with the owls at night, cannot soar with the eagles in the morning. Morning moodiness is hard for us parents.
When one of my sons was in the male teenage grunt years, I asked him for a favour. Could he come downstairs in the morning and say two short sentences? It would make my day. "Good morning, mom. You look so radiant today." It's all I asked for, but it was a lot.
The next morning ,the clever boy handed me a card: "Good morning. You look so radiant today." I laughed and then asked him if he wanted it back for the next day.
In traditional services, the Al Chet prayer is recited 10 times over Yom Kippur. Three out of the first four lines speak directly to the pain of the anonymity we intentionally or unintentionally create for others:
For the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.
For the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently.
For the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.
As a community, let's make a small High Holy Day commitment: to smile at those we don't know, to greet family and friends with more energy.
One warm hello from the other side can make all the difference.