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Home » Noach

Noach: Selfish as a Raven

Submitted by on October 26, 2011 – 8:10 pmNo Comment | 1,504 views

Is it Craven?

In contrast to Edgar Allen Poe, who suggested in his famous poem, The Raven, that though its crest is shorn and shaven, the raven isn’t craven, the Talmudic sages were not so kindly disposed.

The raven, said they, is terribly cruel toward their young. In the book of Psalms, King David describes the beneficence of G-d, who feeds the offspring of the raven. The raven’s offspring need nurture from G-d, explained the sages, because their mother abandons them at birth.  (1)

It has been suggested that the raven fails to recognize it’s young because the plumage of its newborn is not as glossy and fiercely black as its own. The raven, an intensely selfish creature, thus abandons its offspring because it cannot care for what is not its own. (2)

In the Ark

 The entire world population, including animal, plant and bird life, was decimated in the Biblical deluge. To facilitate the repopulation of these species after the flood, G-d commanded Noah to permit seven sets of kosher species and one set of non kosher species into his ark. There were ravens in Noah’s ark, but as non kosher birds, there were only two of them, a male and a female.  (3)

Though the inhabitants of the ark were spared from the flood for the express purpose of repopulating the world, physical consorting was forbidden in the ark proper. This was for two reasons. Firstly it is improper, in fact the height of narcissism and indecency, to engage in pleasurable activity as the rest of the world suffers. The second was the scarcity of food in the ark. It was difficult enough to store food and feed all the creatures in the ark. Adding to the ark’s population during this time would place an unbearable strain on the ark’s provisions. (4)

Both reasons are driven by sensitivity to the plight of others. Only the intensely selfish could engage in intimate relations while surrounded by agony and death and only the selfish would consider consuming more than their fair share of provisions when a meager amount must suffice for all.

Yet this is precisely what the raven did. It ignored the ban on intercourse and consorted with its mate in the ark.  The raven is an intensely loyal bird, once it nests with a mate it distances itself from all selfish as a raven - innerstreamother nest mates. Our sages, however, saw this in a negative light. The raven is anti social because it cares only for itself. Even in the ark, it failed to see the greater need of the ark’s population and the suffering of the wider world. It had eyes only for its mate and thought only of itself. (5)

Ejected

After the rain stopped and the waters had receded for several months Noah opened the window of the ark and sent out the raven.  According to at least one commentator, Noah drove the raven from the ark because it violated the ban and thus had no right to remain in the ark. (6) (7) As soon as he waters receded a bit leaving the raven enough space to fly about, Noah banished it from the ark. (8)

Unlike the dove, who was subsequently sent to test the water and who in fact returned to the ark with an olive branch to demonstrate that the waters had receded, the raven simply flew back and forth until the waters dried out.

The Talmud tells us that the raven didn’t fly away to perch on a treetop out of concern for its mate. You see, the raven is driven by an assumption that others are as depraved and as selfish as itself. When Noah drove the raven from the ark, it assumed that Noah had seen it mating and that he drove it from the ark out of lust for its mate. (9)

Here the Talmud provides a startling insight to the mind of the selfish. Selfish people are not cruel, they simply assume that selfishness is an inherent human trait and that everyone else is just like them. If they don’t take something for themselves someone else will surely take it so they may as well take it first.  They don’t think about the fallout of their actions on decent unselfish people because they assume that the whole of the world is selfish.

Let’s use the example of those who steal towels from hotels. They are convinced that everyone steals towels and that the hotel builds the cost of the towel into the price of the room. In fact if you scold them for stealing they suspect that you simply want the towels for yourself. This is just like the raven, who mated in the ark because it assumed everyone was doing it and, when driven from the ark, assumed it was cast out because Noah wanted to do precisely as it did.

This mindset results from shifting blame from ourselves onto others. It is very difficult to accept our own faults, but it is easy to project them unto others. We must guard against this mindset by remembering what our sages said, “Those who accuse others, in fact accuse themselves. “ (10)

Rising Above It

While the raven did not fly away from the ark it also did not fly around the ark in circles. The Torah specifies that the raven flew back and forth, to and away from the ark. What are we meant to make of this curious flying vector? Allow me to suggest that the following Talmudic tract might prove insightful.

As the raven was driven from the ark it complained bitterly. G-d despises me, cried the raven, and Noah despise me even more.  G-d only permitted two of us to survive, thereby reducing the odds of our species’ survival and now Noah will completely destroy our species by driving me from my mate. (11)

The Talmud characterized this argument as a resounding defense to which Noah found no response.  Indeed, Noah realized that the raven must be driven from the ark because there is no room for selfishness in a selfless environment. (12) But on the other hand Noah relented and allowed the raven to return to the ark for brief respites so that it would survive.

This teaches us not to respond to selfishness in kind. We ought not grab for ourselves on the assumption that if we won’t, the selfish will grab for themselves. This attitude will only reinforce the mindset of the selfish. Rather we must rise above this selfish inclination and respond with fairness. Just like Noah did, we must protect our homes from the negative influence of selfishness, but treat the person behind that influence fairly.

Footnotes

  1. Psalms 147: 9. See commentary of Rashi and Ibn Izra
    ibid. See also Job 39:3.  See also Rashi on Baba Basra, 8a.
  2. See Abarbenel on Genesis 7:7, who quotes the Talmudic sages and physicists of his day.
  3. Genesis 7: 2-3.
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b. Rashi on Genesis
    7: 7. Babylonian Talmud, Taanis 11 and Rashi to Genesis 41: 50.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b.
  6. Genesis 8:7. See Or Hachayim ibid. It is important
    to note that this essay follows only the view of Or Hachayim. Most
    Biblical commentators understood that that Noah sent the raven for the
    same reason that he later sent the dove, to test the levels of the
    waters. But the raven refused to test the waters. Instead, it flew back
    and forth until the waters dried from the ground.
  7. This attitude of selfishness characterized the pre
    flood culture. Despite their terrible sins of idolatry and adultery the
    Torah tells us that their punishment ultimately came about on account of
    theft. The Midrash tells us that they weren’t large scale thieves. They
    were casual thieves. A girl might have been walking with a basket of
    grapes and each passerby helped himself to a single grape. However, by
    the time she got home the basket would be empty.
    This points to an attitude of selfishness rather than cruelty and this
    attitude was the ultimate undoing of the generation. A selfish society
    can’t survive, let alone thrive, because selfishness eats away at the
    cohesion of society. It was therefore vital that the society to emerge
    post flood be completely cleansed from this terrible disease.  We now
    understand why Noah responded so swiftly and harshly when he perceived
    the raven’s selfishness.
  8. There were others, who also violated the ban
    against intimacy, but they were humans and animals with no wings and
    Noah couldn’t to drive them out of the ark until the ground dried.
  9. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b. Or Hachayim adds that the raven suspected Noah lusted after its own mate above all others precisely because he glimpsed them consorting.
  10. Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 70a.
  11. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b.
  12. This is especially poignant when we realize that the environment in the ark was intensely selfless, where predators lived side by side with their prey despite their instinct to pounce at first sight. The raven didn’t fit this paradigm and Noah rebuked it soundly, calling it wicked!
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