The phrase “damning with faint praise” comes from a poem by Alexander Pope. Here’s the relevant passage:
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
So when we “damn someone with faint praise,” we want to wound that person but we are afraid to do so explicitly. To damn with faint praise is to point out that something or someone is mediocre or worse by praising in ways that make the weaknesses clear. Imagine that we are asked for a recommendation for someone who has worked for us. We might say, “well, he was very punctual.” That makes clear that punctuality is the person’s best quality; it also makes clear that perhaps you don’t want to hire that person.
How does this relate to this week’s parsha, Noach?
Here’s what we are told:
This is the line of Noah. –Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons. . .
Is the Torah damning Noah with faint praise? In other words, what’s being said here? Are we being told that Noah was truly righteous? In other words, are we being told here that, in any age, he would have been a righteous person? Or, is the message that Noah was righteous only relative to others in his age? And we know that those others were terrible sinners because God sent the flood to destroy them.
It might seem that the statement that “Noah walked with God” means that Noach, like Abraham and other forefathers, was TRULY righteous, not relatively righteous. But Rashi considers another possibility: perhaps Noach needed God to keep him on a path of righteousness, whereas Abraham found that path himself and maintained it without God having to tag along.
Like Rashi, scholars have for centuries strived to find fault with Noach. Some say that he was selfish—that he worked hard only to save his own family. Others, in a similar vein, say that he should have—like Abraham after him—negotiated with God to save the lives of others. One scholar argued that Noach was great at a specific, concrete task—namely, building the ark—but not at simply being a man of faith.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of " small faith" who had doubts whether the flood would actually happen. In fact, according to the great commentator's understanding, he didn't enter the Ark until the rains actually started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why many people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical superheroes, people of the stature of Abraham or Moses. So is he a hero, truly blameless, or does he only appear to be good because of how terrible everyone else was?
These questions are, of course, unresolvable. And I can’t help but wonder if we are guilty of loshan hara if we seek to find fault with Noach rather than seeing the beauty of what he did and what he accomplished. Remember too that God promised after the flood that he would never again seek to destroy the world through water. Perhaps Noach’s conduct had something to do with God’s resolution. And perhaps, if Noach could be a tzadek in the worst of times, it’s possible that he would be even more righteous in the best of times.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman describes Noach as a “real live hero” but also as a “regular guy.” No matter what, he gets the job done, no small matter in a world shattered by evil and flood.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
“Hashem gave Cain a sign.” According to one view of the Midrash, Hashem gave Cain a dog to accompany him. What was the significance of giving Cain specifically a dog? The Chafetz Chaim explained that the Midrash says that Abel was stronger than Cain and in the original altercation Abel was in the position to kill his brother. Cain pleaded with him to have mercy and spare his life. After he was released, Cain attacked Abel when he was unprepared and was thus able to kill him. According to this, Cain came to kill his brother because of his lack of Hakarat HaTov, an ability to show gratitude to someone who had performed a kindness to him. It was for this reason that Hashem gave him a dog to accompany him, since a dog is known for its Hakarat HaTov and total devotion to its master who feeds it. Our Sages say (Horayot 13a): The dog recognizes its master. Its appreciation is so great that it will sacrifice its own life to protect its master. By giving him a dog as a companion, Hashem afforded him the constant reminder of the importance of demonstrating Hakarat HaTov, and hoped in this manner he would correct this most serious deficiency in his character.
If the character trait so prized in this narrative is thankfulness, we should try, with the Torah’s help, to recognize the good things and the good people in our lives and be grateful for them. There is also a Divine element to this recognition. By being grateful, we acknowledge a power beyond our own hands and personalities, a force to thank for the good that comes our way. We could attribute good fortune to serendipity, but to give thanks to God for the gifts that are ours is to adopt a central tenet of Judaism. We are called Jews after our ancestor Judah, whose name in Hebrew means “Thank You”, so to have thanks on our lips and in our hearts is to be Jew in the greatest sense.
A Good Shabbas! Please attend or Zoom into our service this Friday evening at 7:00 PM.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman