In personality psychology, agreeableness, and its opposite, disagreeableness, is one of the main traits used to describe people. People who are agreeable are considerate, supportive, empathetic, cooperative, value close personal relationships, and get along well with others. Agreeableness is correlated with more happiness, higher quality of life, personal growth, a sense of purpose, and even self-acceptance (Wilmot & Ones, 2022).
In this Mishna, Rabbi Yishmael encourages us to cultivate an agreeable personality. Maharal assumes Rabbi Yishmael is elaborating on the statement from Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa from Avot 3:10: “one with whom men are pleased, God is pleased.” It is essential that we act in a way that ensures others are pleased with our behavior. Yet, relationships are complex. The way we interact with some people would be ineffective or even inappropriate if we behaved that same way to others. As Rabbi Moshe Almosnino notes, Rabbi Yishmael teaches how to differentiate our relational stance to various types of people to better cultivate positive social relationships.
Rabbi Yishmael’s first clause is “hevei kal la-rosh,” the exact translation of which is hard to determine and would change depending on the approach of the commentator. Kal generally means easy, quick, or light, and rosh can mean head or authority. According to Rashi, hevei kal la-rosh means to be submissive to rulers and government officials. Rambam contends it means to be subservient to people of higher stature, offering any help they may need. Alternatively, Abarbanel assumes it is referring to elders or Torah sages, and it means that we should honor and respect these heads of our community.
The second part of the Mishna, “Noach la-tishchoret,” is equally difficult to translate and likewise varies depending on the commentator. Noach can also mean easy, or perhaps pleasant, but tishchoret is even more vague. Based on the Targum of Bemidbar 16:15, Rashi suggests tishchoret means the treasurer or tax collector, and the message is to pay your share without being difficult. Rambam suggests it relates to the word shachor, indicating someone with black hair, representing younger, less experienced people. In contrast to people of a higher level to whom we should be subservient, we shouldn’t act the same way to those who are younger. We should instead act like proper role models and comport ourselves with dignity. Maharal elaborates and suggests that we don’t use that position of authority as a reason to project arrogance, but instead should be pleasant even to the younger or inexperienced.
Finally, Rabbi Yishmael concludes that we should “greet every person with joy.” By greeting everyone with joy, Abarbanel suggests we fulfil the positive commandment to “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:17). Rambam, who understood the first two statements as reflecting proper behavior within hierarchical relationships, writes that this third statement qualifies and clarifies that no matter what the relationship dynamic may be, it is always necessary to greet every single person with happiness and a good heart. According to Rambam, this goes beyond Shammai’s previous maxim to greet everyone with good cheer (Avot 1:15), presumably because this doesn’t just suggest an external facial expression but is encouraging an internal emotional state of joy upon greeting other people.
If we want to work on improving our levels of agreeableness, we would do well to listen to Rabbi Yishmael’s advice, greeting everyone with a pleasant disposition, and differentiating our approach to help promote good relationships with diverse groups of people.