Doves, Hawks and Ravens

Noah By :  Joshua Heller JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Oct 4, 2000 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

At moments like this in the history of the Jewish people, the image of the dove bearing an olive branch resonates in the communal consciousness, even if the peace that it represents seems to flee ever further. I don’t know if ornithological truth bears out the common conception, but in the rabbinic mind, the dove is stereotypically non-aggressive and defensive. Not surprisingly, the Rabbi often compare the Jewish people to the dove, for instance, “Just as the dove is only saved by its wings, so too Israel is only preserved by the mitzvot” (B.T. Brachot 53b).

In any modern game of “political zoology,” and in the terminology of the Israeli political scene, the dove’s counterpart is the bird of prey, the hawk. The hawk is warlike, relying on its talons to attack its prey. Powerful, world-dominating nations from ancient Rome to our own country have included eagles or hawks as symbols of their military might.

The dichotomy between doves and hawks, flight or fight, is now ingrained in our national vocabulary. This week’s parashah, however, presents a different symbolic pair- the dove and the raven. The raven’s role in the story is brief. As the flood waters receded, Noach opened the window of the ark and sent out the raven, which “came and returned until the water receded from upon the earth” (Genesis 8:7). It would seem as if the raven did its job admirably, and the story should have ended right there. Instead,the text describes a drawn-out process in which Noach sends out the dove, it returns to the ark and then, after a week, is sent out again, and finally returns with the olive branch. Apparently, the raven’s “no news is good news” report was not sufficient.

In their analysis of this particular incident, the sages try to explicate what the Raven’s misdeed or misstep was. Reish Lakish proclaims that the Raven’s “coming and returning” was not an exhaustive physical search, but rather a series of verbal repartées (Sanhedrin 108b). In this midrashic elaboration, the male raven first accuses God of discriminating against him by taking only two of his kind and seven of the kosher birds. He then accuses Noach of compounding that discrimination by choosing him to go out of all the birds. Since he was the only male of his species, his death would mean the destruction of all his kind. If one of the kosher birds perished, there would be others to carry on. Finally, he insinuates that perhaps Noach covets the female raven, and so rather than going out to explore the earth, the raven remains by the ark to see if his false suspicions will be realized.

Ever since, the raven has developed a negative reputation. The sages saw it as cruel bird. Psalm 147 poetically describes God’s mercy in feeding all creatures, even “the raven’s children who call out,” but the midrash (Tanhuma Ekev 3) interprets this to mean that God must feed them because the ravens are too cruel even to care for their own children. Modern Western culture has continued this trend. The famous Edgar Allan Poe poem further portrays the raven as a grim, spectral presence. One particular flock of ravens has attained notoriety by taking up residence at the Tower of London, site of many gruesome beheadings and royal murders. To this day, the Beefeater guards warn visitors from getting too close, lest the ravens supplement their usual diet of carrion with a tourist’s finger or toe.

Recent events have prompted a shift in our political aviary. Doves have become hawks, and there is a strong temptation to portray the other side as the rabbis did the raven. The raven tried to evade responsibility by making false accusations and claims of discrimination. Similarly, Palestinian spokespeople and sympathizers in the media present wildly exaggerated or falsified claims of injustice. The raven is accused of ignoring its children’s pleas for help and profiting from bloodshed. In the beginning days of the conflict, the Palestinian authority offered rewards to the families of each child that might be martyred in the conflict. This type of demonization is tempting, but profoundly dangerous. If indeed the other side is so completely evil, how can there ever be peace? Why should the Israeli government have trusted them in the first place?

For an answer, we must turn back to the story in Genesis. The question that remains unanswered is why the raven would be entrusted with such an important task given its evil inclinations. Why didn’t Noach send the dove immediately? Traditional commentators suggest many answers. Perhaps the most simple one is that even God, who knows with absolute certainty whether someone will succeed or fail, goes through with tests and missions nonetheless. How much more so did Noach owe it to the raven to give it a chance to succeed at the mission. In much the same way, we owed it to the dignity of other human beings to work for peace despite our skepticism.

It is precisely now that our hopes have been undermined and our fears realized that the story of the raven should give us the most hope. The text tells us that the raven was sent forth on its mission and continued “until the water dried from the earth.” Ravens appear again in the story of Elijah (I Kings 17:6). Elijah proclaims that there will be a drought upon the land as punishment for Israel’s idolatry, and goes into hiding in a wadi as the water dries from upon the earth. Twice daily, the ravens go forth and bring him bread and meat. There is a deep connection between this story and the story of Noach. In Genesis, the dove returned with one olive branch, bearing a one-time gift of a few morsels of bitter fruit. The raven did not come back to No·ah, but over time its descendants underwent a real transformation, and in another generation, they were able to complete the task set before them with greater generosity and stalwartness than could ever have been anticipated.

Let us hope that it is not too long before the deep wellsprings of hatred dry up, and Jews and Palestinians can share not only the olive branch of peace, but the bread and meat of Elijah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Joshua Heller

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Joshua Heller’s commentary on Parashat Noach has been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld