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THE RAVEN

by Daniel Lasar    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth.

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"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Genesis 8:6-8).

Did you ever read this passage and wonder, "Why did Noah send the raven?" Seemingly, it didnít accomplish anything. The narrative wouldíve flowed just fine without its mention. However, as will be developed further, the episode of the raven has much to teach us.

Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that initially, Noah was intent on sending the raven to search for dry land. However, the raven was hovering around the ark instead. Why did it refuse to go on the expedition? According to the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 108b), the raven refused to go because it was concerned for the preservation of its species. It challenged Noah along these lines: "I am hated because seven of the clean species were taken in the ark, while only two of the unclean (of which the raven is considered; see Leviticus 11:15.) were granted refuge. Yet you choose to send me out!" It reasoned that were harm to come to it during a reconnaissance flight, there would only be the female left of its kind. (According to the Maharal of Prague, one of the seminal figures of Jewish thought of the last five centuries, Noah did not actually speak with the raven, rather he intuited from the ravenís refusal to leave that it was instinctively concerned for the preservation of its kind.)

The Talmud states that the raven gave a second reason for refusing to go: "Or perhaps you need my wife!" To which Noah replied, "Wicked one! Relations with my wife are forbidden in the ark, all the moreso with a female of a prohibited species!" Pretty deep stuff here.

The Ohr Hachaim, the classic 18th century Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar, explains that those who accuse someone of a blemish, possess that blemish themselves. Thus, Noah inferred from the ravenís accusation that it had had relations with its mate while on the ark, something that all creatures were forbidden to engage in during the flood (see Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 108b). Because of this indiscretion, Noah wasnít sending the raven on any mission, rather he was kicking it off the boat! This explanation comports with the Torahís reference to the doveís actually searching for dry land, while no such reason is proffered for the ravenís departure. The Torah further relates that Noah took the dove back in, but no similar action is stated concerning the raven. Apparently, it was evicted from the ark for bad behavior!

According to a fascinating midrash, Noah answers the ravenís concern for self-preservation by castigating it, saying that it serves no purpose, and is therefore expendable. However, G-d interjects and remonstrates Noah that indeed, the raven does have a purpose--it was prepared for another mission, during the days of Elijah the prophet. To reproach the people and their wicked King Ahab, Elijah decreed a drought upon the land, whereupon no rain fell. G-d instructs Elijah to journey to the desert: "It shall be that you will drink from the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to supply you with food there." Thereafter, ravens brought Elijah nourishment. (I Kings 17:4-6).

This, then, is the meaning of the Torahís statement that Noahís raven "kept going and returning until the drying of the waters." The ravenís calling was ultimately fulfilled when the rains "dried up" during Elijahís era.

But why was it crucial that ravens were sent to assist Elijah? Our tradition informs us that the raven is an intrinsically unkind creature. According to the Beíer HaTorah, a classic commentary, it would not have been in consonance with its nature for the raven to announce good tidings to the arkís inhabitants that the flood waters had receded. However, it would be entirely appropriate for the raven to facilitate Elijahís bringing a famine to the people by sustaining him. Thus, cruel creatures assisted in Elijahís "cruelty".

The Yalkut Lekach Tov, a contemporary digest of insights on the weekly Torah portion, offers a different explanation as to why ravens were Elijahís sustainers. There are two possible reactions toward one who sins: (1) destroy him (this was Noahís approach in kicking out the raven) or (2) win him over. The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a) describes how Rabbi Zeira went out of his way to champion the cause of a group of ruffians, befriending them in order to get them to change their ways. These lowlifes were basically dismissed by the community, but the rabbi was their advocate, praying for mercy on their behalf. When he died, they mourned him exceedingly and repented.

Elijah didnít utilize this approach. Instead, he exhibited a more stringent posture toward the people. Hashem arranged it so that the "cruel" ravens would come to Elijahís rescue. Elijah would be able to take note that even "wicked" creatures can do good, reasoning that if ravens could provide help to another, surely there is good within the sinners of the Jewish people. If the raven could be compassionate, all the moreso should he be compassionate. Only the raven could powerfully demonstrate to Elijah the importance of being merciful towards the wicked. Hence, the raven is Hashemís tool for rebuking the prophet and hinting to him to "lighten up" on the people.

Many times, we begrudgingly view those who are less this-and-that as possessing less value. Not true. Just because someone is less religious, less intelligent, or less successful does not make him more expendable. There is no concept of triage in interpersonal relationships. We all need to feel loved. We all need to be smiled at. We all need a hug.

The raven felt that because it was in the "unclean" group it had been wrongly singled out for its insignificance. For its moral shortcomings Noah was willing to expel it from the ark. Whether in dealings with family, friends, teachers, students, and even strangers, we need to recognize that everybody has a purpose. We are not to summarily dismiss those who donít meet our expectations. We donít kick them out of the boat. The raven teaches us to be merciful, patient, and forgiving toward others. Even if they do wrong, we must love them, reach out to them, and be compassionate to them. Everybody is important. The raven reminds us of the famous saying of our sages (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:3): "Do not be scornful of any person, and do not be disdainful of any thing, for you have no person without his hour and you have no thing without its place."

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Daniel Lasar, an alumnus of Emory Law School in Atlanta, writes from New Jersey.

You are invited to read more Parshat Noach articles.

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