Rich people and poor people alike are victims of the same fallacy. They overestimate the importance of financial wealth. As a result, they forget that the value of a person is not determined by how much money he has but by the human qualities that make him unique as an individual.
Unfortunately, the misconceptions of both rich and poor tend to feed on each other. A poor person may see the wealthy person, not for who he is, but as someone who could very well help him with a loan or gift. The rich person in turn sees the poor person as a failure who has only himself to blame for his inadequacies and is therefore not really deserving of financial assistance.
When a poor person approaches a rich person his misconceptions may cause him to diminish himself in the way he asks for help. That reinforces the rich person’s view of the poor person as somehow unworthy. The rich man is therefore inclined to speak more harshly to his unfortunate neighbor than he should. This experience, encourages the rich person to feel superior, thereby further reinforcing his misconception.
The poor person, seeing the rich person’s self-confidence and crude manner, is driven to become even more obsequious. And so he diminishes himself further by the way he begs for help. That approach cannot work in bringing together two complex human beings, especially in the light of the fact every human being is in the process of continuous change and development throughout his life.
תַּחֲנוּנִים יְדַבֶּר רָשׁ, וְעָשִׁיר יַעֲנֶה עַזּוֹת
The poor man speaks with entreaties,
and the rich man answers with harshness.
The proverb analyzes the dialog between a particular poor man (רָשׁ) and a particular rich man (עָשִׁיר). The manner that each one uses affects the other. The poor man begins with the assumption that the rich man is important because of his wealth. He therefore speaks humbly expressing himself with abject entreaties (תַּחֲנוּנִים). In this way he presents himself as less of a person even though he may be more intelligent and learned. Without even realizing it, the rich man takes the hint and responds (יַעֲנֶה) with insolence and harshness (עַזּוֹת) using a tone of voice that shows annoyance at being bothered by a lesser person. By his language the poor man has demonstrated a low opinion of himself and the rich man has accepted that at face value. He has also accepted the implied assumption that because of his wealth his arrogance is justified.
The message of this proverb is that the poor man should always act with dignity, for despite his poverty he has a right to be treated with the respect and courtesy due to every man created in the image of the same Creator. The rich man should resist the temptation to let his wealth give him a feeling of superior status.
With entreaties — תַּחֲנוּנִים
the poor man speaks — יְדַבֶּר רָשׁ
and the rich man — וְעָשִׁיר
answers with harshness — יַעֲנֶה עַזּוֹת.
(1) It may be concluded that the extremes of both poverty and wealth are undesirable for they both tend to corrupt the person. Poverty drives him to belittle his own value as a human being and wealth drives him to arrogance and pride. (רבינו יונה)
(2) Furthermore, the entreaties of the poor man and the insolence of the rich man feed on each other in a vicious circle so that their effect is multiplied. (רשר”ה)
(3) Depending on circumstances, there may be times when the vicious circle is broken. When properly presented, the entreaties of the poor man can touch the heart of the rich man and induce him to have pity on the poor man’s plight. (מלבים)
(4) The tendency of the poor man to abase himself in supplication and that of the rich man to speak harshly may also be understood as characteristic of human nature. (רש”י)
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