Every year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College, there is a fall Shabbat retreat. I still remember the nerves and excitement I felt as we gathered together for Kabbalat Shabbat, the opening service of Shabbat, at the retreat my first year. We made our way through the first six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, reaching the climax of the service, and the grand entrance of the Shabbat Queen, with “Lekha Dodi”, the stunning love poem composed by Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz in the 16th century. When we reached the last stanza we sang:
בּֽוֹאִי בְשָׁלוֹם עֲטֶרֶת בַּעְלָהּ. גַּם בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְצָהֳלָה
תּוֹךְ אֱמוּנֵי עַם סְגֻּלָּה. בּֽוֹאִי כַלָּה, בּֽוֹאִי כַלָּה
Or as we pray here at BJ,
בּֽוֹאִי כַלָּה שַׁבָּת הַמַּלְכָּה
Come in peace, crown of your spouse,
Surrounded by gladness and joyous shouts.
Come to the faithful, the people You treasure with pride,
Come my bride, come my bride (come my bride, the Shabbat queen)
As the words began to flow out of our mouths, everyone stood up and faced the door—a custom that I was used to. But then some of my teachers and fellow students proceeded to walk out the door, their arms wide open, eagerly ready to greet Shabbat. Growing up, in camp and synagogue we would stand and face the back of the room, and as a young adult I prayed with other communities that would turn toward the door wherever it was located in the room, but I had never before seen anyone walk outside.
Each of these practices has roots in our tradition. Turning to face the back of the synagogue, which is customarily facing west, stems from a teaching in the Gemara that the Shekhina, Divine Presence, arrives from the west, while the tradition of facing the door has to do with the idea that guests, even Divine, always come through the door. Finally, there is the tradition of my Neo-Hassidic teachers, who, like the 16th-century kabbalists, would go out “in the fields” to welcome our holy day. The act of going out into the fields captures the Biblical origins of the chorus of “Lekha Dodi,” from Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs:
לְכָ֤ה דוֹדִי֙ נֵצֵ֣א הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה
Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field. (7:12)
The physicality of welcoming Shabbat each week during “Lekha Dodi” is a magical moment and one in which many of us can relate to. There is a unique feeling that arises when we are welcomed by others who eagerly await our arrival, or even when someone simply chooses to greet us first.
Our sages teach this in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers:
רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם
Rabbi Mathia ben Harash said: Upon meeting people, be the first to extend greetings. (4:15)
In the 18th century, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto used this mishnah as the basis for his teaching on humility saying that the act of greeting others first is crucial to attaining this middah, character trait, and leading a just life. Hundreds of years later, 20th-century Orthodox philanthropist and lay leader Irving Bunim commented on the same mishnah, reiterating the significance of greeting others first:
There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his “dignity.”…They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the “emotional risk,” while they “play it safe.” Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another’s feelings. Give them a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire of their welfare. (Ethics from Sinai – A Wide-Ranging Commentary on Pirkei Avos, 587)
As we find ourselves once again slowly emerging and returning to in-person gatherings, the office, and shul, we are confronted with the sacred opportunity to greet others first. We currently live in a world full of masks, where it is easier than ever before to walk by people we know and to avoid saying hello. And while it is more challenging to recognize someone in a mask, masks also give many of us an excuse to hide as we tell ourselves that we don’t have to say hello, or that the other person likely doesn’t see us or even know who we are.
This week, may we literally and metaphorically walk toward Shabbat, with renewed intention. Like my teachers and classmates at Hebrew College, may we be blessed with the vulnerability and humility it takes to open our arms, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Divine Presence, and may we continue to honor that Presence within each and every individual we encounter by being the first to say hello.