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