As I read the Torah text, I’d ask you to pay attention to verses 8:5 to 8:15 [click here], which bring the birds that Noach sends out, just before coming out of the ark. What do you make of which birds are sent, and how the text describes them? If they are symbols, what do they symbolize?
How do you understand the end of Noach?
So let’s just pay attention to the fact that the distinction between the dove and the raven could not be greater. The raven is always black – with the exception of albinism – and the dove is multicolor, in most people’s minds it is white. What the Western tradition does with the image of the dove coming back with a leaf branch is amazing – it becomes almost a universal symbol of peace. In the text it is not so clear that that is the case. The raven, thanks to Edgar Alan Poe, becomes a symbol for all that is mysterious and spooky. In the text this is also not clear.
What is pretty clear is that the raven merits just one verse:
וַיְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב Noach sends the raven and it goes back and forth until the waters dry up.
Now if you read the Hebrew carefully, regarding the dove there is an added word: וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ
He sent the dove from himself, me-ito. And there is more, there is a mission given to the dove: to see whether the water had decreased from the earth. And then we have a much longer description of a relationship, really: the dove goes back and forth, since it can’t find a resting place. So Noach waits another 7 days, and sends the dove again. And the dove brings the famous olive branch. And the text is very clear, repeating on both occasions a word that does not get translated: elav, the dove returns to him. And Noach waits yet another seven days, sends the dove again, and when the dove does not come back, and Noach knows it is time for himself to look – and the ground is drying. But he waits another month and 27 days inside, until God tells Noach to get out.
I find quite interesting that Noach is so scared that he does not really want to look. Then I think we can understand a bit this sending of the raven and then the dove. The raven, apparently, is going back and forth on its own, while the dove needs to be sent out every time.
Jewish tradition does not take kindly to the raven. The raven is not a kosher species, and so the rabbis in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 108b will judge it in relation to the dove: kosher birds want to stay with the tzadikim, the righteous, and that is why the dove needs to be sent every time. The raven, on the other hand, is the one species that does not accept the ban on reproduction in the ark, according to that same piece in the Talmud. And how do we know there was a ban? Because when they get in Noach family is separated by gender, and when they get out they are not.
The raven is the only one that reproduces in the ark, according to the rabbis. If you are going to count every instance of how long the ordeal of the flood took, you might be surprised: the total time Noach spends in there sums 444 days. And this is without Netflix, internet and cellphones. So the raven opposes the reproduction ban, and again according to the rabbis in Sanhedrin accuses Noach of wanting Mrs. Raven for himself.
Many species of doves are monogamous. But all species of ravens and corvids are monogamous as well [click here to know more], and will defend their mate no matter the cost. In that sense we can understand the worry – and even jealousy – of the raven.
So let’s go back to the question of symbols: the dove represents repentance, teshuvah, hope, goodness, calm love and peace. It is the symbol of repentance due to the Book of Yonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, and also because of its flight, that goes up and down. No wonder Noach want it back to him every time.
Imagine that the raven is up for grabs, despite Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, which clouds a lot of American sensitivities towards this very intelligent animal [click here to see what ravens are capable of! And here too].
The Chasidic master Itzchak Leyner of Itzbicza, or Mei HaShiloach, affirms that the raven is the symbol of anger. He understands that Noach sends out the raven as a symbol of sending out the anger from the remaining existence. The idea is that the world had gone through a purification process, and that Noach understood that anger and violence were the causes of the destruction. The raven, as a symbol of anger, is sent out. But it does not disappear, it comes back and forth.
The Mei HaShiloach believes that this is because anger is still needed in the world. When an individual feels the desire to do something wrong, he says, that person can get angry at herself or himself, and then put the desire away, conquering that impulse. Anger, the Mei haShiloach says, can be very useful.
It is in that usefulness that the raven shows up in another story. The main character that is going to be helped by a raven is the prophet Elijah, beloved of the seder table and the brit milah. You might not know this, but Queen Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah the prophet, and so he hides in a cave. Ravens bring bread to him. And that is the other symbol of the raven – the raven, according to a midrash, knew that God needed it for this much more important errand, and so wanted to be ready. So ravens can be the symbol of readiness, preparedness, the desire of being consequential in the world.
Anger, in that sense, is a hint to our base desires – just like the raven. Because of our desire to be consequential, to live meaningful lives, is also important. Anger can get out of control, and Noach himself experiences that at the end of his story.
The end of Noach is painful to watch. He drinks himself to stupor. If you understand Noach as a survivor of trauma, it is not so surprising that he drinks to forget. He and his family have been inside the ark for so long that Noach has to send the birds first – he cannot bear to look for himself at the destruction, which he probably imagines is great. And he refuses to get out of the ark. God has to call him out. And even when he is out, just imagine what he saw. Sure, most flesh was decomposed after 444 days in water, but the bones are certainly still there. Just imagine the vision.
It is with no surprise that he becomes drunk. Survivors of trauma that did not do the work to transcend and conquer the scars of trauma are in a very likely to become drug and alcohol abusers. And I want to say that his son, that does something to his father of obviously sexual nature, is also reacting as survivors of trauma might – not using alcohol or drugs to dull the pain, but using sex instead. And the end, in which Noach curses his own grandchild, not even the son who did the thing to him, but his own grandson, shows to us how destructive anger can become and spill out through generations, perpetuating the cycle of trauma.
So part of the sending of the raven, which is Noach’s desire for a world without anger, according to the Mei Hashiloach, is beautiful – but Noach did not send anger away from himself. He did not work on his own trauma, and so becomes a victim of it.
And so here is the lesson I see in this story this week: it is not enough to want to make the world a better place. We have to make ourselves better people too. It is not enough to want to send anger away from the world, we have to work on our anger as well. Then maybe we will be able to both become better people and make this world a better place, and not become victims of it.