The Scriptural narrative describes Noah as “righteous and wholehearted” (Genesis 6:9). But when God speaks to Noah, informing him that he alone shall be saved from the forthcoming flood, God just calls him righteous (Genesis 7:1). God does not call Noah “wholehearted” to his face. From this notable omission, Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eliezer concludes that in a person’s absence, the whole record of good qualities can be told; but in a person’s presence, only a part may be recounted (Eruvin 18b). Explaining this principle enunciated by Rabbi Jeremiah, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes notes that excessive flattery is not merely embarrassing: it may very well lead the subject of flattery to disbelieve whatever is said to him or her in praise.
Rabbi Abraham Bloch (A Book of Jewish Ethical Concepts, p. 133) puts it this way” “A recipient of undue adulation who is astute enough to see through the flatterer’s guile develops a skepticism which will inevitably color his reactions even to people who deserve his trust.” Applied to Noah, if God recounted to Noah all his virtues that earned him salvation, two bad things could have happened. On the one hand, Noah may have been led to form an inflated opinion of himself making him less likely to be entirely obedient. After all, he might argue, a person as exceptional as himself warrants special latitude. On the other hand, Noah may have come to suspect – not believing himself worthy of such high praise from God – that consequently he would doubt anything that God tells him. In either case, the results would be catastrophic. No wonder, then, the Book of Proverbs (26:28) teaches that “a flattering mouth works ruin.”
Consider the case of the Broadway producer who had the final say on all publicity. Writer after writer drafted copy of ads extolling the honesty and sincerity he wanted to promote in his new show. Finally, one caught his eye. It read: “Here is a play which combines the drama of Shakespeare, the wit of Coward, the strength of Tennessee Williams, the intellect of Marlowe, the plot mystery of Dickens. Greater than Hamlet, more moving than the Bible. This is a play destined to live forever!” That’s it!” shouted the producer, “No exaggeration! Just the simple truth.” Surely few would believe that ad, let alone see the play. Effusive praise yields diminishing returns.
The omission of recounting Noah’s virtues is not an error. Rather, it is an important lesson as valuable today as ever.