Rabbi Jeremy Schneider

There has been much emphasis during this pandemic on staying away from one another, keeping our hands clean and not touching public doors or surfaces.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that in this week’s Torah and Haftorah portions we read about three strange deaths. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, die a mysterious death when they offer — as the text cryptically states — “strange fire.” In the Haftorah, Uzzah, who is helping to move the Ark to Jerusalem, also dies of an unexplained reason. When the cart carrying the Ark nearly topples over, Uzzah reaches out to prevent the Ark from falling. When his hand touches the Ark, he dies instantly.

He “touched” the Ark and died instantly. Oy!

I recall a sign on my rabbi’s desk growing up that said: “Think!” At the time, I understood the instruction to be “think before you speak,” but now I see a deeper meaning: “You are here to enhance thinking, both yours and mine.”

Today, I believe that it means we can internalize instruction to think of the power and effect of our words before we share them and then let healthy thinking guide our actions into the world as we “touch” the lives of others.

I was thinking about how we can touch the lives of others recently as I studied with a young student talking about our responsibility for “doing Jewish.” She offered a very creative definition of a mitzvah as an action that makes someone smile. We spoke about the need for both the giver and the recipient to smile, and to take the smile out the door.

She then thoughtfully asked about people who might not be in the mood to smile: someone who is ill in the hospital or who has been touched by the death of a loved one, someone who has received bad news or even someone who has a family member in the armed forces abroad. My observation to this young woman was that a smile does not always come from the face, but from the heart.

People who have been in the hospital or members of their family have told me years later about people who touched their lives during a very difficult episode in life. Even if the heartfelt smile does not come at the time, a smile is planted deep within the soul as one remembers even the smallest acts of kindness: a telephone call, a visit, a quick note, a cooked meal.

Imagine what this world would be like if we concentrated on creating inner smiles every time we interacted with others. The key to opening the door to a brighter future is not so much the smile we share during an interaction, but the one we carry within us when it is over.

Our Jewish heritage teaches that even the most vehement disagreements can melt into wholeness and holiness when we walk away feeling good about how we touched the life of the other and how they touched ours. The power of a smile on one’s face is incredible, but the power of a smile in one’s soul is beyond imagination. It certainly is a goal worth striving for.

Even during a pandemic, we can act to touch the lives of others when we think and inspire thinking; we can smile to create smiles in others and be peaceful to help create peace. This, too, is doing Jewish. JN

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.

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