By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
“The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, and a man according to his praise.” (Proverbs 27:21)
Rashi and others explain this verse as follows: Just as pure silver is revealed by removing impurities in the refining pot, and gold is revealed by removing impurities in a furnace, the true nature of a person is revealed by taking note of how others praise that person. The Alshich adds that if you want to know where a person is headed after their passing, take note of how people speak of the honor of the person at their passing.
Rabeinu Yona and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (Toldos Yaakov Yosef) offer an alternate interpretation of this verse: Just as pure silver is revealed by removing impurities in the refining pot, and gold is revealed by removing impurities in a furnace, the true nature of a person is revealed by taking note of what and who a person praises. A person’s nature can be discerned by analyzing the topics of their conversations. What and who a person praises are keys to understanding what a person truly values. Is it good values, kindness, Torah study, and spiritual growth that a person values, or is it physical pleasures and possessions that a person considers primary? The role models we praise reveals a lot about us.
Our sages refer to a human being as “speaker”, as opposed to animal, plant, or inanimate forms, incapable of advanced, meaningful speech. The difference between individual human beings lies in the content of their speech. The Torah (in Parshat Tazriah and Metzorah) speaks of a physical skin manifestation (Tzara’at) that results from Lashon Harah, speaking negatively about other people. The person afflicted with Tzara’at had to undergo a purification process and come to the realization that their essential selves needed a correction.
Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as having said: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Focusing on the negativity within others is small-minded. We need to open our minds and discuss ideas. Based on Rabeinu Yona’s and Toldos Yaakov Yosef’s interpretation, I would add that the content of the ideas being discussed truly determines the greatness (underlying nature) of the individual. Let us take note of what we discuss, praise, and admire. Like a person afflicted with Tzara’at is capable of internal transformation, so too can we recalibrate our values, improve the content of our conversations, and admire what is truly noble and lofty in life.