A Use for Every Middah, part II: Two Dictionaries
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.