Rabbi Jonathan Perlman

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman

Parshat Noach 5778: Compliment as Mitzvah

Mark Twain once wrote: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Compliments have their own therepeutic power. As a health care chaplain, I discovered the power of the compliment in treating distressed patients in the hospital. After listening to the person’s problems and searching for solutions, I always start with a compliment using the Solution Focussed Therapy I learned in my training. Not only does a compliment show that you are listening, it affirms the person’s successes and the strengths these successes suggest. Instead of focussing on past choices and feeling discouraged, a person will receive the compliment as an expression of hope and that therapeutic goals are based on past strength exceptions. When you give a compliment, you not only make a someone feel good, you empower the person to make behavioral changes.

God is a supportive and healing agent for change in many Torah stories. Readers learn spiritual practices when God visits Abraham when he is sick or when he clothes Adam and Eve teaching the deed of “clothing the naked.” These are behaviors of the Almighty that are worth emulating. Twice in the Torah, the medieval commentator Rashi shows us the holy deed of giving a compliment.

Our first example comes from Numbers 12 when Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for his marriage to a Cushite woman, identified as his wife Zipporah. In this episode, God tells Mirian and Aaron to step outside of Moses’ presence. God describes Moses with “all his praises” to Miriam and Aaron so as to emphasize the etiquette of praising another when he is not present. Rashi cites Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, a first century rabbi, with the proverb that one only compliments a person fully when he is not in his presence.

Rashi uses the same language using another example concerning Noah: God says, “Come into the ark with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation” (Genesis 7:1). Rashi comments: “From here we learn one says only part of the praise of a person in his presence and all of his praise when the person is not present.” Did God give Noah partial praise, according to Rashi, and why? We look to the previous chapter, Genesis 6, and read that “Noah was COMPLETELY righteous in his generation” (6:9). When God spoke to Noah personally, He called him righteous in his generation. Yet, he isn’t completely righteous. Why should this be so?

I believe that God was conveying to Noah through the subtlety of his words in Chapter 7 a teacheable moment.

In the instance of Miriam and Aaron, Rashi shows us an example of “giving full praise when the person is not present” (not as example of partial praise) and with Noah, God gives him partial praise but not because the rest of the world knows Noah to be “completely righteous.” God could have merely told him “Come inside the ark.” The verse could have ended there. Instead, He adds praise. God adds the compliment “You alone have I found righteous” not as something nice or superfluous. He adds the compliment as an encouragement to Noah for a task he needs to perform.

Imagine Noah. Imagine how frightened he must feels to take the weight of the world on his shoulders, all of the animals, his entire family, in a creaky, wooden ark with one small window! The world is about to be destroyed and he thinks to himself “Am I worth saving?” In the Midrash Rabbah to Psalm 5:7-8, Noah says to himself: “As they (the generation of the flood) did, so did I.” In other words, “I was as bad as they were.” The Talmud in Sanhedrin teaches that Noah himself should also have died in the flood but according to the Midrash, God did him a favor. “Because,” Noah says, “You told me that ‘You alone have I found righteous in this generation,’ I was motivated to be righteous.” Noah changes because God gives him encouragement. He does not fear.

I am reminded of a man ill with cancer who was not on speaking terms with his brother who was two years younger than him. He was seriously ill and near death. He believed that it was up to his brother to reach out to him and he also regretted that an argument about something small had caused a silence in their relationship. He could always share intimacies when they were younger. I complimented and said, “I see that you care very much for your brother despite what has happened and your loving nature is drawing you back to him.” A week later he reconciled with his brother.

Because of the impact of compliments, we need to be more concious in conversation especially with those most familiar to us. Words like “What a beautiful dress! I liked what you said in class today. So-and-so really appreciated what you did for them” make a huge difference. You can change a person’s attitude with just one compliment. In psychological studies by Steve de Shazer, giving compliments improved the likelihood of a client taking on an assignment to change his behavior.

We dismiss compliments as being part of good social norm that can be rattled off in an unthinking way. But compliments have a more spiritual power that is translated as encouragement if they are heartfelt. This is how God helps Noah with his task. He gives Noah partial praise before he embarks in Chapter 7 for Noah has not yet won the full praise that is mentioned in Chapter 6 – “Noah was a COMPLETELY righteous person.” That is his solution focussed goal. God then leads him with a partial compliment. Noah captains the “womb of all life” across the crashing, breaking seas. He finds success and ultimately earns the title of “completely righteous” by ushering renewal into the world, his world,with the assistance of the Master of all life. May our compliments renew the life of another with holy speech.

(Part of this essay is based on the transcription of Rabbi Eliot Pearlson’s of Rabbi Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s commuter tapes)

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