This is the weekly Dvar Torah thread, feel free to share your divrei Torah here.
This week’s official Dvar Torah is:
Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9 – 11:32) is one of the most widely-known stories from the Torah: the people were bad, so God decided to have a do-over by way of a great flood to drown the world, save for a righteous man named Noah, his family, and the epitome of a zoological cacophony: two of each creature on the planet, male and female.
Some of the lesser-known facts of the story are that it wasn’t just two of each animal: seven pairs were called for from each of the kosher animals – an indication that Noah knew Torah and what would eventually be permitted to be eaten per kashrut (Rashi, et al, incl. Bereshit Rabah 34, 40), and that the dove was not the first creature let loose from the ark at the conclusion of the flood: that would be the raven (8:7):
וַיְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב וַיֵּצֵ֤א יָצוֹא֙ וָשׁ֔וֹב עַד־יְבֹ֥שֶׁת הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃
and sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.
There are, per our tradition, a pretty decent number of comments on why a raven was sent first. At the forefront of the arguments is that there were only two ravens aboard the ark: why would Noah risk losing one, knowing that ravens are gendered and require two to procreate (indeed, ravens even coparent the eggs in a nest). Noah had no idea what was out there, or if God was still with him (8:1), or if the bird would ever come back, leaving its partner a bachelorette (it is indicated that the raven sent out was male, although the text is not explicit to the gender of the birds) on a boat with nary a compatible creature in sight.
Conversely, doves (pretty pigeons, or “fancy flying rats,” as my NYC friends would deem them) are ostensibly ‘clean’ birds: kosher inasmuch as they were permissible for sacrifice. There would have been seven pairs of doves on the ark, allowing many more opportunities to send out a sentinel were the first (or second, or third, or fourth, or fifth, or . . .) to not return.
Noah is described as not only a man adept in carpentry, but also an oenologist (Rashi on 9:20), a man of the earth who knew both skill and science (so to speak). What would be a logical man’s reasoning, if not God’s own reasoning, for sending the raven?
Upon reading the summaries of Or HaChaim, Radak, and the various midrashim on this point, there are three primary literary veins:
- the (male) raven had copulated with “his wife” within the ark, an act not copied by other creatures, and therefore Noah saw no harm in potentially losing this male bird, as there would be other baby ravens in a few weeks anyway (he was clearly not an ornithologist, or else he would have known about the coparenting habits of ravens);
- the raven and Noah had gotten into a bit of a tiff about the bird’s status as a treif creature and the raven accused Noah of being an unsavory character himself (including going so far as to accuse Noah of wanting to sleep with the raven’s wife . . . a bird) and not moral enough to be in the position of power he was in. However, Noah followed the principle of כל הפוסל במומו פוסל, that “when someone accuses others of moral shortcomings, he usually accuses the outsider of a moral defect that he himself is guilty of” (Kidushin 70), and effectively banished the raven from the ark for being unsavory himself; and
- the raven is a carrion bird, and Noah logically thought that if the waters had subsided, there would be enough dead flesh about the planet that the raven would find it and either not return, or return with a bit of flesh (à la the dove returning with an olive branch to prove the ground was exposed).
All three are fairly logical, in both folkloric and “scientific” regard. However, the raven never went far enough to report anything of value – he just went out and back and out and back, over and over again until Noah got fed up and sent a dove instead. The black bird circled the ark repeatedly, flying just far enough to away to show some intent for its mission, and then back again, to either (depending on which midrash you choose) argue more with Noah, check up on his “pregnant wife”, or simply because he was hungry and didn’t see any food in the relatively immediate vicinity.
Ultimately, though, it does not seem like we truly know the answer for why the raven was sent first – especially because we do know that the dove was sent (and then sent again, and then again) with successive successes.
The raven plays key roles in many creation myths all over the world, primarily in very similar roles to the part he plays here: not so much a trickster, but a . . . gonif. A mamzer. An asshole who keeps us on our toes and always thinking about what he will do next.
The dove in this instance acted as the failsafe for the raven, proving not only its purpose as a useful creature (e.g. homing pigeons) but also as a kosher (that is, sacrificial) creature. Noah might have known this before loading the flying rats onto the ark, if only because he was endowed with such foresight, but this story helps translate what Noah knew to us, to the peoples who became us and who ended up using such birds on the alter, leaving the black ravens to fly elsewhere.