Parshat Noach: Recite Only a Portion of a Person’s Praise in His Presence

Recite Only a Portion of a Person’s Praise in His Presence.

These are the chronicles of Noach. Noach was a righteous man. He was faultless in his generation. Noach walked with Hashem. (Beresheit 6:9)

Parshat Noach opens with a description of 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.

Next, the Torah relates that 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.[1]

Our Sages derive an important lesson from Hashem’s brevity in speaking to Noach. When praising a person in the recipient’s presence, we should mention only a portion of the person’s virtues. In contrast, outside of the recipient’s presence we should we should freely identify all of the person’s strengths.[2]

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 thorough 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 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 bestowed upon him. 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 extolling 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.[3]

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 our self-appraisal and the assessment of others? If our self-perception includes numerous positive aspects that others fail to recognize these virtues, how will we react? It is likely that this divergence in perceptions will result in frustration and anger. We will feel that we are not appreciated. We will ask why others do not see all of our virtues. It is also likely we will eventually become angry.

It follows that person will be happier if he is modest in his self-appraisal. 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 then 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 then the person perceives in himself. The individual will feel appreciated and valued by others. Positive interpersonal relations are fostered.
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Hashem’s Selection of Noach

These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous and perfected man among the people of his generations. Noach went with Hashem. (Beresheit 6:9)

The pasuk specifies that Noach was righteous “among the people of his generations.” The Sages agree upon the general intention of this phrase. It implies that Noach’s righteousness must be evaluated relative to his times.

However, the Sages dispute the specific message intended by the phrase. Rebbe Shimon ben Lakish interprets the phrase as amplifying Noach’s greatness. Noach achieved spiritual excellence despite living during the period during which human conduct reached its lowest point. Had he lived during a more favorable era, he would have attained even greater perfection. Rebbe Yochanan understands the phrase as qualifying Noach’s accomplishment. Noach should be viewed as righteous and perfected only in comparison to his society. Were he compared to Avraham, these accolades would be less appropriate.[4]

This dispute is difficult to understand. It would seem that there is no actual difference of opinion. The two evaluations represent complementary perspectives. Noach was certainly a very great person. He rose above the corruption of his generation. If he had lived in a more civilized world, there is no doubt he would have attained even greater heights. It is also true that he did not achieve the perfection of Avraham. These two assessments are not mutually exclusive. What is the dispute between the Sages?

It seems that the dispute does not concern Noach’s character. Instead the dispute focuses on the intent and message of the pasuk. The passage must be understood in its context. The Chumash has just related Hashem’s decision to destroy humanity. Noach and his family are to be saved from this decree. In our pasuk the Chumash explains the reason for Noach’s salvation.

Our Sages are proposing two alternatives for explaining the rescue of Noach. Rebbe Shimon ben Lakish maintains that the pasuk is praising Noach. It stresses his resistance to the corrupt influence of his society. This interpretation assumes that that Noach was saved as a consequence of his own merit. Rebbe Yochanan understands Noach’s salvation differently. Hashem had decreed that the Deluge that would destroy humanity. Afterwards humanity would be reestablished. The reestablishment of humanity required that some people be spared. Hashem chose those who were the best people of the time. Noach and his family were chosen for this role. The pasuk explains that they were saved because they were the best of the generation. They would be the new progenitors of the human race. It was relative righteousness which saved Noach and his family.
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The Seven Commandments Are a Revealed Law for All Humanity

But flesh, when its soul, its blood, is still within it, you shall not eat. (Beresheit 9:4)

This passage prohibits all descendents of Noach from eating the flesh of an animal that is still alive. This is one of the seven commandments that G-d gave Noach’s descendants. These commandments were binding on all humankind until the Revelation at Sinai.

At the Revelation, G-d gave the Jewish people 613 commandments. However, the seven commandments that G-d gave to Noach still apply to all those who are not members of the Jewish nation. Maimonides explains that the reward of eternal existence is not limited to the Jewish people. Non-Jews who adhere to the seven commandments G-d gave to Noach also merit eternity.

Maimonides specifies that mere observance of these seven commandments is inadequate. The non-Jew must recognize that the commandments are of Divine origin, and revealed by the Hashem. However, if the commandments are observed merely as a social contract, because of their rationality, the observance cannot be characterized as righteous.[5]

Why does Maimonides insist that recognition of the Divine origin of the commandments is critical, and that rational derivation insufficient? It seems that Maimonides maintains that it is not the mere behaviors described by these commandments that define righteousness. Instead, it is the act of intentionally conforming to the will of the Creator. A person who observes the commandments without recognition of their Divine origin does not demonstrate a desire to serve G-d. Only the individual who recognizes the Divine origin of the commandments demonstrates this devotion and commitment to Hashem.
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There Will Never Be another Deluge

And the Lord smelled the sweet savour; and the Lord said in His heart: I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. (Beresheit 8:21)

The above passage is one of the most enigmatic pesukim in the Torah. In order to appreciate the difficulty with this passage, we must understand its context. Adam’s descendants developed into a society of complete depravity and corruption. Hashem decided to bring an end to the evil of humanity. He brought the Deluge upon the world. Noach and his family were spared destruction. Noach was commanded to build an ark. He was to find refuge for himself and his family in this ark. He was also commanded to bring into the ark representatives of each species of animal life. After the Deluge, these representative pairs of each species would repopulate the earth with animal life.

In our passage, Hashem makes a commitment to never again destroy the Earth. The reason that Hashem states for this commitment is that man’s heart is evil from birth. This seems like an odd reason for not again destroying the Earth. Hashem is just and rewards our righteousness and punishes evil. It seems remarkable that our evil nature should serve as the reason for our salvation. Hashem seems to be saying that we will be spared future destruction because we are evil by nature.

Furthermore, if Hashem will now spare humanity from further destruction because of the frailty of human nature, why was the Deluge necessary? The generation destroyed by the Deluge was also evil by nature. If this failing is a basis for sparing humanity, why was the generation of the Deluge destroyed? In explaining the destruction of the generation of the Deluge, the Torah tells us that “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”[6] Hashem will destroy humanity because of its proclivity for evil. It seems that the very reason Hashem provides for destroying the generation of the Deluge emerges in our parasha as the reason for sparing humanity in the future!

The comments of the commentaries on this issue only add to the enigma. Nachmanides comments on our passage that Hashem is offering two reasons for not again destroying humanity. First, we are evil because Hashem created us with an evil inclination. Second, as we mature and gain wisdom, we have the ability to overcome this handicap and achieve righteousness.[7] Apparently, Hashem commits Himself to spare future generations because He accepts responsibility for humanity’s sinfulness. Wickedness is an inevitable outcome of the nature Hashem created in humankind. In addition, even though we have this tendency towards evil, we do have the ability to overcome our nature.

Nachmanides’ comments only reinforce our questions. It seems that at least the first of these reasons for sparing future generations should also have been relevant to the generation destroyed by the Deluge. This generation was also created with a penchant for evil. If we deserve to be spared, why did the generation of the Deluge not deserve similar allowances?

In order to understand Nachmanides’ comments, it is useful to consider two additional problems. First, according to Nachmanides, Hashem’s second reason for not again destroying humanity is that although we are born with an inclination towards evil, as we mature and attain wisdom, we have the ability or potential to overcome our evil tendencies. Observation seems to confirm this contention. We do observe that even children who are notably undisciplined and rowdy mature into responsible individuals. Yet, it seems that in deciding to destroy the generation of the Deluge, Hashem concluded that the established behavioral patterns would not be overcome or outgrown. The generation of the Deluge was judged to be lost beyond redemption. If this was possible – for a generation to become corrupt beyond rescue – why can this same development not occur after the Deluge?

Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat. (Beresheit 9:4)

There is a second problem that should be considered. Immediately, after noting His decision to spare future generations, Hashem addresses Noach. In this prophecy, He reveals to Noach a commandment. Hashem tells Noach that he and his descendants are forbidden from consuming the flesh of an animal that is still alive. The animal must first be put to death. Then, its flesh can be consumed.[8] This commandment is one the seven commandments that are given to all of humanity. According to the Talmud, the first six of these commandments were given to Adam. These six commandments prohibit idolatry, cursing Hashem, murder, sexual immorality, robbery, and require the establishment of courts.[9]

There is a notable difference between the six commandments that were given to Adam and the seventh that was revealed to Noach. The first six commandments provide a basic moral and ethical code of behavior. The rationale for each is self-evident. In contrast, the seventh commandment that was revealed to Noach has a different design. Sefer HaChinuch explains that cruelty is one of the most destructive character traits. The Torah forbids us to eat the flesh from an animal that is still alive because this behavior reflects and cultivates cruelty within the personality.[10] It is notable that Sefer HaChinuch does not suggest that the reason for the commandment is the innate immorality of cruelty towards animals. Instead, he asserts that the activity is prohibited because of the damage it does to the human personality.

This indicates a fundamental difference between the first six commandments given to Adam and this seventh revealed to Noach. The first six are a description of a basic moral and ethical society. This seventh commandment is designed to encourage the development of a refined and balanced personality. This objective represents an advancement beyond the minimal function of the first six commandments.

This raises an interesting question. Why was Adam not given any commandments of the type revealed to Noah? Of course, this specific commandment could not have been given to Adam. He was not permitted to eat the flesh.[11] However, why was not some other commandment of this type given to Adam? Certainly, he too would have benefited from commandments designed to refine the human personality!

These two questions indicate that the commandment that Hashem revealed to Noach represents a new paradigm for the relationship between Hashem and humankind. Hashem revealed to Adam only the most basic commandments required to foster a functional society. The laws revealed to Adam did not provide any means for advancing the society or assuring the wholesomeness of its members. It was left to Adam and his descendants to define their mission and to develop the behaviors necessary to achieve this mission. The concept of commandments designed to refine and perfect the human personality is absent from this paradigm.

Humanity failed to meet this challenge. Left to find meaning and truth on its own, humanity gradually slipped towards perversion and depravity. Hashem destroyed this failed humanity with the Deluge.

The post-Deluge era represents a new paradigm for the relationship between Hashem and humanity. Humanity was no longer left to find its own path. Now, Hashem revealed Himself to humanity as teacher and guide. He provided a new type of commandment to Noach. With this commandment, Hashem communicated the necessity of commandments that go beyond creating structure within society. Humanity needed and received the first commandment designed to refine the personality and insulate it from the perversity of the generation of the Deluge. This new paradigm eventually resulted in the revelation of the Torah to Bnai Yisrael. This revelation would not have been appropriate within the pre-Deluge paradigm. But once Hashem assumed the rule of teacher, this revelation became inevitable.

We can now understand Nachmanides’ comments. Man was created with an evil inclination and the ability – with the development of maturity and wisdom – to overcome this tendency. However, before the Deluge, man was required to achieve this advancement on his own. He was not given Hashem’s guidance. He was charged with full responsibility for finding his path.

Although pre-Deluge humanity had the potential to achieve this advancement, it failed to meet the challenge. Rather than advancing towards meaning and truth, society degenerated. In the pre-Deluge paradigm there was no salvation for humanity. Humanity had demonstrated that despite its great potential it could not advance itself without more extensive guidance. This requisite level of guidance was not part of the pre-Deluge paradigm. The result of these failings of the generation of the Deluge was its destruction.

The post-Deluge era represents the establishment of a new paradigm. In this paradigm, it is assumed that man is dominated in youth by an evil inclination. He can overcome this proclivity. But humanity cannot achieve this end on its own. Humanity is no longer responsible to find its own path without Hashem’s guidance. Humanity will never again be destroyed because in the new paradigm Hashem will become the faithful teacher of humanity. He will provide laws and direction. He will guide humanity down its path.

In other words, its proclivity for evil led the generation of the Deluge to its destruction. This was the only possible resolution within the pre-Deluge paradigm. However, this same tendency dictated the establishment of a new paradigm. This new relationship with Hashem – as humanity’s teacher – is the salvation of humankind.

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[1] Sefer Beresheit 7:1.

[2] Mesechet Eruvin 18b.

[3] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer Beresheit 6:9.

[4] Mesechet Sanhedrin 108a.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 9:11.

[6] Sefer Beresheit 6:5.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 8:21.

[8] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 9:4.

[9] Mesechet Sanhedrin 56b.

[10] Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 452.

[11] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 1:29.