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He (Noah) sent out the raven (from the Ark), and it kept going and returning until the waters dried from upon the earth… Then he sent out the dove from him to see whether the waters had subsided from the face of the ground… (8:7,8)
This events surrounding the above invite the following questions:
In answering these questions, consider an opening comment brought by Rashi on the character of Noah:
Noah was a perfect man in his generation… Some of our Rabbis explain the words ‘in his generation’ to his discredit – he was a righteous man in his own generation, but had he been living in the generation of Abraham, he would have not been reckoned as anyone special (Rashi to 6:9, Tanhuma 5).
The contrast between Noah and Abraham may be highlighted in the following way. Both of them were involved, directly or indirectly, with evil people: Abraham with Sodom and Noah with Mankind at large. In both cases G-d told them that He was about to bring destruction on vast numbers of people. But where Noah built the Ark as G-d told him, saving himself and his family only, Abraham went much further. Unlike Noah, he pleaded the case of condemned, with the words, “Shall You kill the righteous with the wicked?… Far be it from You, O Judge of all the Earth, not to do justice!” (18:23,25). Noah merely accepted the death sentence G-d passed on Mankind and the animal kingdom without protest.
These points give us an insight into one of the shortcomings of Noah – lack of mercy and real concern about those left to their fate – however well deserved.
With this idea, consider the following comment made about the raven – in a different context. When the Prophet Elijah fled from King Ahab, he took refuge in the Valley of Kerith, which eventually dried up, and, as the text (Kings I 17:6-7) relates, G-d sent the ravens to bring him food. The Metzudath David (ad loc.) explains that G-d’s employment of ravens here as a means of letting Elijah know that it was not right for him to he too harsh with Israel - however much they deserved retribution. For even the ravens, though cruel by nature, had taken pity on him and fed him, so how could he fail to feel for his own people in their hunger?
The ideas above suggest why Noah send out the raven. The raven was cruel by nature. Noah in fact expelled the raven, without any giving him task at all. He just wanted to get rid of him. He had saved the bird from certain destruction by taking him into the Ark in the first place. But now that the water had begun to go down he was not going to allow that cruel creature one more unit of comfort – he could survive on his own for that short period of time until vegetation was visible once more above the waters.
However, the raven came back and forth to the Ark – until the Flood completely dried up. It was, in effect, repeatedly teaching Noah this lesson: how could Noah accuse the raven of being cruel when it at least showed compassion to own kind? Noah, by not praying to G-d as Abraham did, showed that he did not heed the needs of his ‘kind’ sufficiently. As the Talmud puts in a different context, “Put yourself right first, and only afterwards put others right” (Bava Bathra 60b).
The dove similarly re-enforced this lesson. The dove is a symbol of peace – it indeed became the bird selected by the Torah for the offerings made by the Israelites to bring peace between ‘sinners’ and G-d. Noah, it may be suggested, sent out the dove as a privilege – to go on a mission – to find out to what degree the water had subsided. However according to the Talmud, the dove understood that he had not been sustained by Noah’s generosity – like all the other animals, he knew that he had only been taken into the Ark because G-d gave Noah no choice in the matter. He was saying to Noah that he preferred to be fed on poor food by the love of G-d than good food from the duty of Noah.
These rebukes explain why G-d appreciated Noah’s sacrifice. Building an altar to G-d and making offerings were the first incidents recorded in the text where Noah made special efforts because that was the right thing to do, rather than that was what he had been told to do. In doing so, he was morally tuning into the situation – he realized that humble thanks were required because he and his family had been saved and he acted accordingly. By showing gratitude and appreciation to G-d in such a way he had taken the first step to teshuva – repentance… From there, he could go on to showing more sensitivity, seeking the good in others…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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