“Each person according to his praise.” (Mishlei 27:21)
The conventional understanding of the above proverb is that we can discern a person’s true character from which of his qualities stand out to others, the praises they choose to share about him. It’s nice for a person to consider himself to be thoughtful and generous, but it is the perspective of those around him that is most telling. The impact he leaves on others is what will ultimately determine a person’s legacy. This is the classic approach to the verse (see Rashi, Metzudos, ad loc.).
However, Rabbeinu Yonah (Avos 4:6) offers an additional level of interpretation: We can learn a lot about a person by examining what he chooses to praise. What gets him excited? What is he passionate about?
Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l would make this point on Parshas Lech L’cha to provide insight into the true character and values of the Egyptian people. After Avraham’s plan to keep Sarah “boxed in” proved unsuccessful, the p’sukim describe how the Egyptians were immediately enthralled by her exceptional physical beauty and “praised her to Pharaoh” (B’reishis 12:15). Clearly, this was a nation and a culture obsessed with superficial appearances and fulfilling lustful desires. No wonder Avraham was so worried about bringing Sarah there!
Rav Miller remarked that he could usually glean meaningful information about others from how they reacted to an enjoyable shalosh s’udos. One man would effuse praise for the d’var Torah, another the z’miros, and a third the herring. “Each person according to his praise.”
Taking note of the ways that others perceive us is one method to judge our true character; self-examining our priorities is another. We all can self-profess to be family-oriented, kindhearted, or religiously committed, but it is our decisions that truly reflect our values. With whom do we choose to spend our free time? How do we allocate any extra money that we have? What aspects of avodas Hashem are we most excited about?
The answers to these questions can help us gain insight into our underlying character and morals. If we are not satisfied with our discoveries, then we must remember that it is never too late; it is within our power to align our actions with our values. We have the ability to change what we are “praising.”
With this understanding, we can strive for a life of meaning and fulfillment. “Each person according to his praise.”