Parshas Noach


Rabbi Michael Bernstein


Why Are We Here?

Why did Noah find favor in God’s eyes so that he and his family were saved from the Great Flood? The Torah informs us (6:9) that “he was a completely righteous man in his generation.” The Torah does not simply pronounce him completely righteous; it adds the qualification “in his generation.”

 The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) records an argument between Rav and Shmuel regarding these words. One view infers that by the standards of Abraham’s generation Noah would not have appeared as righteous. The other view is that the shortcomings of Noah generation adversely affected him; he would have been even greater had he lived in Abraham’s generation.

Both of these views seem to agree that Noah was in some way lacking. Their point of disagreement is with regard to his potential. Did he have the potential for greater righteousness under more favorable circumstances?

This question has significant implications for us today.

According to the view that Noah’s merit was only relative to his generation, it would appear that the world was saved only because it was God’s will that His creation not be totally destroyed. Noah’s righteousness itself would not have been enough to merit his salvation and that of his family. God saved him, because He wanted mankind to continue. He selected Noah as the best of an inferior lot. If so, society today only exists because of the Midas Harachamim, the Attribute of Mercy.

According to the other view, mankind survived, because Noah was genuinely righteous and deserved to be saved. If not for his merit, the world would have been destroyed; the great human experiment would have ceased. If so, society today has a right to exist even by the standards of the Midas Hadin, the Attribute of Strict Justice. Noah earned it for us.



Noah’s State of Mind

Noah spent a full year in the relatively pristine, hermetically sealed world of the ark. He adjusted to it and fulfilled his duties as God had instructed him. But then the year came to an end, and it was time to return to the outside world. What went through Noah’s mind during those final days? Did he feel a sense of excitement at the prospect of rebuilding the flood-wrecked earth or did he feel daunted by the enormity of what lay ahead? And when he finally did emerge from the ark, why did he plant a vineyard (9:20) when he should have planted staple crops?

A close reading of the verses that describe Noah’s sending of the birds from the ark give us some clues regarding his state of mind.

The Torah records four instances of Noah sending birds from the ark. The first time it was a raven, the next three a dove. The four verses are as follows:

¾And [Noah] sent out the raven, and it went to and fro until the waters dried upon the land. (8:7)

¾And he sent out the dove from alongside him to see if the waters had receded from the face of the earth. (8:8)

¾And another seven days passed, and again he sent out the dove from the ark. (8:10)

¾Another seven days passed, and he sent out the dove, and it no longer returned to him. (8:11)

As we analyze these verses, we find subtle indications of Noah’s progressive detachment from the animals around which his world had revolved for an entire year.

The Torah tells us why Noah sent out the dove, but it gives us no reason for his sending out the raven even earlier. It has been suggested that he sent out the raven because it is a scavenger that feeds on human carrion. Perhaps Noah wanted to ascertain what had become of the people who had remained outside the ark. He was making his first tentative steps toward his new life.

This would be in keeping with Noah’s apparent strong emotional involvement with his antediluvian society. Incredulous at what is about to happen, he is reluctant to separate from his compatriots and enter the ark until the rising waters forced him to (7:7). After the Flood, even when he sees the land is dry, he remains inside the ark, unwilling to witness the devastation, until God commands him to leave (8:16). The sending of the raven may have reflected Noah’s continued morbid interest in those he hesitantly left behind.

Noah then sends out the dove to determine if the “the waters had receded from the face of the earth.” The first time the dove is sent out “from alongside him,” the second time “from the ark.” The third time, we are told only “the dove was sent.” The dispatch of the dove is becoming more and more impersonal. Noah is detaching himself from his wards.

We see this same progressive detachment in the description of the dove’s return. The first time (8:9), Noah “reached out his arm to take it and bring it to himself to the ark.” The second time (8:10), however, we are told rather impersonally that “the dove returned to him.” His level of attachment is progressively diminishing.

When Noah finally leaves the ark and gives thanks to God for his salvation, he is disoriented. He has fulfilled his obligations to the animals, but his emotional attachment to them has not endured. He is still distraught over the demise of the society he once knew. Clearly not invigorated by the prospect of building a new world, he plants what he hopes will be a remedial vineyard before he does anything else. Unable to redirect his focus from his sense of loss, he turns to wine as a type of balm to soothe his hurt and his loneliness. Mankind would have to wait for Abraham to appear and restart the process of vigorously restoring the world.


To Drive Away the Raven

For what purpose did Noah send the raven out of the ark? The Torah only informs us (8:7) that Noah “sent out the raven, and it went to and fro until the waters dried upon the land.” Later on, the dove is sent out to determine if the waters had receded, but the Torah never tells us why the raven was sent out.

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b), the raven hovered over the ark and hurled two accusations at Noah. It alleged that Noah had sent him away in order to seduce the female raven. It also accused Noah of attempting to destroy his species. Otherwise, the raven contended, why hadn’t Noah chosen one of the kosher birds, of which there were seven pairs in the ark? Why risk the raven of which there was only one pair?

According to the Talmud, Noah proved he had no designs on the raven’s mate by saying, “If I am forbidden to have relations with my own wife as long the world is beset by the Flood, certainly I can have none with your mate.”

This argument effectively refuted the raven’s first charge. But what about the second charge? There is no mention in the Talmud of any refutation, which suggests that it was valid. Apparently, the raven was right. Noah had indeed sent it out in order to prevent the propagation of its species. But why? What reason might Noah have had for wanting to rid the world of ravens?

In order to discover Noah’s motivation, let us examine the raven. God forbade intimate relations during the year that all living creatures were confined to the ark .[1] Only three creatures violated this command, the dog, the raven and Ham, Noah’s third son.

The raven was guilty of the sin of illicit relations in the ark, a grave infraction indicative of a fundamental indifference to God’s will. Moreover, his irrepressible sexual drive was reminiscent of the world’s first sin, which according to the Midrash included illicit relations between Eve and the serpent. The Midrash here anticipates modern psychology in identifying the sexual drive as among the most powerful, if not the most powerful, force of the animalistic side of human nature, which accounts for the capacity for sin and the consequent ability to exercise free will.[2]

What are the singular or distinguishing features of the raven? It is a scavenger that feeds on the carcasses of dead animals. This again connects the raven to the original sin of Adam, whose byproduct was human mortality. It also connects the raven to the greatest source of impurity (tumah), which is death.

The Talmud (Shabbos 155b) finds a second aspect of the raven’s nature in the verse (Psalms 147:9) “[God] feeds the young ravens when they call out.” The raven, explains the Talmud, has no compassion for its offspring and neglects to feed them. Mercifully, God sets the laws of nature so that worms are attracted to the raven’s droppings and its young feed on them.

The raven emerges before us as a prototypal instinctual creature driven by lust, without mercy for its young, feasting on the spoils of death, unpredictable and unreliable.[3] The dove, on the other hand, is the opposite of the raven. It is so inordinately attached to its nest that it cannot survive the death of its mate. As such, in contrast to the instinctually driven raven, the dove could be trusted to fulfill its mission on the outside and then return to the ark to its mate.

Noah understood that in the aftermath of the Flood he would be called upon to rebuild civilization. He would become the second Adam, the father of humankind. With this mission in mind, he saw in the raven an evil vestige of the corruption and the disregard of God’s will that characterized the defunct world obliterated by the Flood. In order to ensure the purity of his brave new world, Noah believed he had to eliminate the raven.[4]

There is actually an allusion to the negative characteristics of the raven in its Hebrew name, orev, which is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for mixing, arev. According to the Sages, the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge resulted in the displacement of truth and clarity by doubt and confusion; truth and falsehood became intermixed. The Talmud (Gittin 54a) reinforces this association by telling us that the raven, the orev, is an inveterate liar.[5] The raven is driven by his instinctual desires and will do anything necessary to satisfy them.

We find support for the characterization of the raven as a malignant presence in the world in the Talmud (Moed Katan 9a) in the context of a discussion of the importance of celebrating mitzvos one at a time. The Gemara points out that King Solomon celebrated the First Temple’s inauguration a week before Sukkos, even though it would have been more convenient to delay the finishing touch of the construction until just before the festival so that the two celebrations could be combined. The Gemara concludes, mitzvos must be celebrated one at a time.

What was this “finishing touch of the Temple construction”?

The Gemara identifies it as the installation of the ama kalia orev, the arm-like spikes which “destroyed the ravens.” These sharpened spikes were placed on the Temple roof to keep away ravens that might otherwise have been attracted by the smell of the roasting flesh of the sacrifices.

The role of these spikes as the finishing touch of the construction of the Temple, the final blow of the hammer (makeh bepatish) so to speak, suggests an importance of function. It would seem, however, that the spikes were essentially superfluous, for even without them, no raven would have perched on the Temple, just as miraculously no flies were attracted to the sacrificial meat in the Temple; the spikes were placed there only because “we do not rely on miracles.” Since miracles were commonplace in the First Temple, the spikes were placed on the roof only for form’s sake and served no practical function. This reinforces the thought that the spikes as the “finishing touch” implied a more profound symbolism in their presence.

In the light of Noah’s rejection of the raven, we begin to discern this symbolism. The Torah states that the purpose of the Temple was to affect a relationship between God and the Jewish people and thereby create a dwelling place for God among them. The Temple is a vehicle designed to elevate the Jewish people, and by extension all of mankind, to a plane of existence that replicates the sinless state of mankind clinging to God in the Garden of Eden. The instinctual raven, the paradigm of primitive urges and disregard of God’s will, is the antithesis of this exalted state, and therefore, the ama kalia orev, “the spikes that destroy the ravens,” are a fitting capstone to the Temple. Symbolically, the Temple is meant to drive away the corrupt forces associated with ravens.

This theme is echoed in the following parashah, Lech Lecha. God informs Abraham that he and his descendants will inherit the land of Israel, and Abraham asks (15:8), “Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?” God instructs Abraham to take eleven animals, nine of which he severs in half, thereby sealing the Covenant of the Parts (bris bein habesarim). The Midrash comments that the animal parts were the symbolic answer to Abraham’s question. He would merit the land by virtue of the future sacrificial service in the Temple. In the midst of Abraham’s prophetic (15:11), “birds of prey descended upon the carcasses and Abraham drove them away.” Abraham’s act of chasing away generic birds of prey from the sacrifices foreshadowed the symbolic ama kalia orev, the crown of the Temple structure that “drove away the ravens.”

[1] Bereishis Rabbah 31:12, 34:8. The Midrash finds an allusion to this oral tradition in that God commanded the men and women of Noah’s family to enter the ark separately. Furthermore, He only commanded them and the rest of the creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” after they left the ark. By inference, relations were forbidden as long as the world was being destroyed.

[2] Following the destruction of the First Temple, the Sages prayed for the destruction of the yetzer hara of idolatry to which they attributed the great national calamity. At the same time, they also attempted to destroy the yetzer hara of illicit relations, but they had to withdraw their request when all procreation came to a halt.

[3] It is interesting to note that the black raven in literature and other art forms throughout history conjures up images of dark, even demonic forces.

[4] Like Adam, Noah was prohibited from killing creatures, thus he had to wait to release the orev until a time when it could survive outside of the Ark, long before the rest of the creatures’ departure so that it would not find its mate.

[5] Interestingly, in the story, the dove (yonah) is present and tells the truth.