Parshat Noach: Partial Praise

“These are the chronicles of Noach. Noach was a righteous man. He was faultless in his generation. Noach walked with Hashem.” (Beresheit 6:9) The Torah describes the righteousness of Noach. The pasuk uses three terms to describe Noach. He was righteous. He was faultless in his behavior. He followed the Almighty completely. Noach is selected by Hashem to survive the Deluge and reestablish humanity. Hashem addresses Noach and explains the reasons he has been selected. He tells Noach he will be saved because of his righteousness. In speaking to Noach, Hashem mentions only one of the terms previously used to describe Noach’s spiritual perfection. Our Sages attach an important lesson from the Almighty’s brevity in speaking to Noach. When praising a person in the recipient’s presence, we should be mentioning only a portion of the person’s virtues. In contrast, outside of the recipient’s presence, we should freely identify all of the person’s strengths.

This is a difficult lesson to understand. We praise a person in order to communicate our appreciation of the individual’s positive qualities. We are required to restrict the breadth of this commendation in the presence of the recipient. It seems that this restriction prevents us from fully expressing our appreciation. It would seem that our debt of appreciation would require the most full expression when the recipient is present! Furthermore, the Torah places great emphasis on honesty. When we limit our praise, we are less than fully truthful. These questions indicate that some overriding consideration is present. What is this consideration?

Torah Temimah suggests an answer to these questions. In order to fully appreciate his answer, we must begin by drawing from personal experience. Try to recall the last time you were present at a testimonial dinner. Often, the various speakers describe the honoree with countless superlatives. What goes through your mind? You may wonder whether the honoree ­ a mere mortal ­ can really embody these many forms of perfection. You may conclude that the speakers are engaged in an elaborate process of flattery. The various accolades are not derived from an honest appraisal of the recipient. Instead, they are shamelessly designed to impress the honoree. An irony emerges. The overblown praises have had the opposite of the desired effect upon the audience. The audience begins to wonder where the border lies between reality and exaggeration. The speakers have compromised their credibility. Even the truthful elements of the praise are suspect. In a private conversation outside of the presence of the recipient, we would not be inclined to be as suspicious. The subject of the wonderful appraisal is not present. We conclude that this assessment cannot be designed to flatter. The recipient is not aware of the praise received. In this case, the person addressing us has more credibility. We are more inclined to judge the praise as sincere. Now, let us return to the testimonial.

How could the speakers preserve their integrity? After all, they are charged with the responsibility of complimenting the virtues of the honoree! How can they discharge this duty without being accused of flattery? This is the issue our Sages are addressing. The speakers must carefully remain within the boundaries of credibility. This requires avoiding exaggeration. This may even demand that the speakers show some reserve. Through limiting their praise, the speakers win the trust of the audience. Limited accolades make a greater impression than overblown praise. This is because the impression of flattery is avoided. In short, credibility dictates that the speakers resist identifying every positive quality of the honoree. This, then, is the lesson of our Sages. In the presence of the recipient, limited praise is more effective. Outside of the presence of the recipient, we are less suspect of flattery. We may be more liberal in our appraisal.

There is another possible explanation of our Sages’ message. This explanation requires that we consider interpersonal relations. We know that some individuals feel appreciated. Others feel grossly unappreciated. What is the reason for these different perceptions? There are many possible explanations. Let us consider one of these. We all want to be appreciated. How do we determine if we are fully appreciated? This requires an act of personal appraisal. We compare our self-perception to the way in which others see us. If we conclude that others perceive all of our fine qualities, we are pleased. We are satisfied with our friends. They recognize our positive aspects. However, what occurs if there is a divergence between the self-appraisal and the assessment of others? Assume this self-perception includes numerous positive aspects. Others fail to recognize these virtues. How will this individual react? It is likely that this divergence in perceptions will result in frustration and anger. The individual will feel that he or she is not appreciated. This person will ask why others do not see all his or her virtues. It is also likely this person will eventually become angry. It follows that the happier of these two individuals is the one whose self-appraisal is more modest. This person will also be more capable of living in peace with others. How can we encourage this type of relationship? In short, can we help assure that the individual’s self-perception will not be inflated in relation to others’ perception of the individual?

Perhaps, our Sages are addressing this issue. They are attempting to establish healthy interpersonal relations. Through praising an individual more fully in the person’s absence, an important result occurs. Those hearing the full account of the person’s virtues will be impressed. Hopefully, their estimation of the recipient of the praise will be greater than the recipient’s own estimation of self-worth. The recipient has never heard the full measure of this praise. Others see in the individual greater virtue than the person perceives in him/her self. The individual will feel appreciated and valued by others. Positive interpersonal relations are fostered.