A Use for Every Middah, part II: Two Dictionaries

Among the ideas I touched on in “A use for every middah” was that oftentimes the use is when dealing with others.It’s okay to be an “apiqoreis” and worry about Hashem not providing, when it comes to providing for others.At ne’ilas hachag last night, I heard R’ Yitzchak Wolpin (Rosh Yeshiva of Slonim, Boro Park) repeat a thought from his rebbe, R’ Shraga Feival Mendlowitz zt”l, that jogged the following thought.R’ Medlowitz asked a question about the laws of marriage. If someone gets married “On the condition that I am a chakham“, we ask him some questions and if he answers them like a wise man, the marriage holds. If he says, “on the condition that I am a gibor“, we check his stength. “That I am an ashir“, we compare his net worth with the norms.

But isn’t there a mishnah in Avos? “Who is wise? Someone who learns from anyone.” Why do we check the person’s knowledge and intellect? Shouldn’t we check if the person does indeed take lessons from everyone he encounters? Similarly, “Who is strong? One who conquers his inclination.” Shouldn’t a puny person, the proverbial “90 pound weakling”, but who has truly gained control over his yeitzer satisfy the condition of being a gibor? For that matter, shouldn’t a powerful man who falls pray to every desire not satisfy the condition? “Who is rich? Someone who is happy with his lot.” And yet, the man with much wealth but always hungry for more would be married “on the condition that I am an ashir“, not the poor man who is happy. Why?

R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explains: We all need to have two dictionaries. The words we use in common discourse, and the words we use for ourselves. When looking at ourselves, it is fair to say “I am rich; what more do I need?” But conditionals are based on common language. When speaking to others, “rich” refers to wealth, not contentment.

Perhaps we can extend this. When thinking and speaking of others, we shouldn’t be satisfied that another is happy with what he has. That’s good for personal development, not for addressing the needs of others. We need two dictionaries: one for the world inside ourselves, one for the one in which we interact with other people.

Related to this idea is a quote from Rav Yisrael Salanter that I recently added to my email signature generation system:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.

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