When the time came for Noach to enter the ark with his family, God instructed him to board the ark “ki otekha ra’iti tzadik lefanai ba-dor ha-zeh” – “because I have seen you as a righteous man in this generation” (7:1). Rashi, citing the Gemara (Eiruvin 18b), famously notes that God’s praise for Noach on this occasion is less effusive than the praise expressed in the opening verse of Parashat Noach, where the Torah describes Noach as “a righteous person, blameless [‘tamim’] in his generations.” Whereas the Torah there describes Noach with two compliments – “tzadik” and “tamim” – God here tells Noach only that he was a “tzadik.” On this basis, the Gemara establishes the famous principle of “miktzat shevacho shel adam be-fanav” – that we should express greater praise for people when we are not in their presence then we should in their presence.
Interestingly, Chazal elsewhere derive this principle from a different Biblical account. In Sefer Bamidbar, we read of God’s harsh response to Miriam and Aharon’s criticism of Moshe. He appeared to them and to Moshe in the Tent of Meeting, and then summoned Aharon and Miriam outside the tent (Bamidbar 12:5), where he impressed upon them Moshe’s unique stature which they had failed to recognize. Rashi there cites the Sifrei as commenting that God summoned Aharon and Miriam outside the tent so that He would not indulge in praise of Moshe in Moshe’s presence.
The inference of this concept from two different sources might suggest that these two passages introduce two subtly distinct rabbinic teachings. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the comment in the Sifrei is cited in the name of a Tanna – Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya – whereas the remark in the Gemara was stated by an Amora – Rav Yirmiya ben Elazar, who lived much later than Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. We might reasonably assume that if Rav Yirmiya was repeating a law introduced many years earlier, and providing a different Scriptural source for it, his intent was to reveal a new dimension of this law that was not explicated by Rav Elazar ben Azarya’s teaching.
Accordingly, the Tolna Rebbe (in Heima Yenachamuni) explained that these two passages refer to two separate concepts. In response to Miriam and Aharon’s murmurings about their brother, God found it necessary to impress upon them Moshe’s unique stature of greatness. Chazal infer from this episode that when circumstances require lavishing praise, it should be done in the person’s absence. From the verse in Parashat Noach, however, Chazal derive a different principle. In this context, there does not appear to be any reason for why God noted Noach’s righteousness. Noach had already been told that he was being spared from the flood, and so it should, seemingly, have sufficed for God to inform Noach that the time had arrived to enter the ark. The fact that God made a point of saying, “for I have seen you as a righteous man” indicates that giving compliments is something important and worthwhile. The point made by Rav Yirmiya is that although lavish praise should be spoken only in the person’s absence, moderate praise is valuable in a person’s presence. In other words, from the verse in Sefer Bamidbar Chazal inferred that lavish praise should not be spoken in a person’s presence, while from the verse here in Parashat Noach they inferred that moderate praise should be spoken in a person’s presence. From Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s statement one may have concluded that it is preferable not to compliment people in their presence at all, just as God specifically brought Miriam and Aharon outside, away from their brother, before praising Moshe. Rav Yirmiya therefore clarified that, as we see in God’s remarks to Noach before the flood, it is appropriate, and important, to give people compliments and praise in their presence, even if lavish praise should be spoken only in their absence.
(See also Rav Yissachar Frand’s “Compliments — In The Presence And Outside The Presence Of A Person.”)