Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai is famous for saving Jewish life after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. That’s his imprint on the history of our people. But during his lifetime, he was most famous for an entirely different achievement. They would say about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai that no person ever greeted him first, even the stranger in the market!
Abaye used to say: A person must always be a step ahead of his inner tempter; responding softly casts away anger; and he should increase peace amongst his siblings, his relatives, and every human being, even the stranger in the marketplace; in order to become beloved in Heaven and likable on Earth; and he should be popular amongst people.
What motivated Rabbi Yochanan? He saw every human being as a reflection of the Divine. Through his lens, every individual was created in the image of G-d. How could he not rush to greet the Shechina (Divine presence)?
Where does the greeting ‘hello’ come from? It’s related to the word ‘health.’ In ancient times, when you would see someone you would inquire about their health. That still happens in Hebrew. When you say ‘shalom’ it means you’re asking about their peace and welfare. When they depart and you say ‘shalom,’ you’re offering them a parting blessing of peace.
It used to be that way in English, too. Upon meet someone, you would say ‘How’s your health?’ Later, it was shortened to ‘hail’ (as in ‘Hail Caesar’), then to ‘hello,’ and eventually, to ‘hi’. Nowadays, you’re lucky if people you encounter look up from their smartphones and nod to acknowledge your presence – contemporary interactions give a whole new meaning to ‘bumping into someone’. Actually, medical research suggests that a fist-bump (as opposed to a handshake) reduces the spread of germs and so maybe we’ve returned to a health-seeking exchange!
It’s time we started greeting one another with the proper respect that we would be showing to the Shechina! We should be acknowledging the dignity and stature of every human being. Next time you say ‘hi’ or even ‘Good Shabbos,’ stop for a moment and ask the other person how they’re doing. Make it personal. Let them know you care about their ‘shalom’ – their peace and welfare. May we all learn to be the first to greet with the warmth and respect of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai!