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When Cynicism Replaced Innocence
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

A Tale of Two Birds

As the flood waters recede, Noah opens the window of the ark and sends out the raven, which "kept going and returning until the waters dried from upon the earth (1)." 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 Noah sends out a dove three times to determine whether the waters had subsided from the face of the ground.

The first time, the dove returns to the ark, as it could not find a place to rest, because the earth is still engulfed in water. The second time the dove returns with a plucked olive leaf, indicating that the water has receded significantly. Seven days later, Noah sends the dove a third time. This time, it does not return any more. At last, the dove encountered a space to dwell. The earth was once again habitable.

Why the need to send two birds, a raven and a dove? And why did he first send out the raven and only afterward the dove?

The raven has a long standing negative reputation. Because of its black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion, the raven has long been considered an unkind bird. Psalm (ch. 147) describes G-d's mercy in feeding all creatures, even "the raven's children who call out." Why are the raven's children singled out? Because ravens do not care for their young as do other birds (2), which is one of the reasons that the raven is singled out as a non kosher bird (3).

Modern Western culture has continued this trend. The famous Edgar Allan Poe poem 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.

The dove, on the other extreme, is a symbol of tenderness, loyalty and kindness. The image of the dove bearing an olive branch – originating in this week's Torah portion (4) - resonates in the communal consciousness, even if the peace that it represents seems to flee ever further. The Song of Songs compares time and time again the beautiful bride to the dove. The rabbis praised the dove for its extraordinary singular loyalty to its mate, unique in the animal kingdom (5). Not only is the dove a kosher bird, but it is the one chosen by the Torah to be offered in the Holy Temple as a sacred, divine offering, testifying to its sublime potential.

In Kabbalistic and Chassidic terminology, the raven represents the attribute of gevurah -- aggression, strength and sternness. The dove, in contrast, represents the quality of chesed – kindness, tenderness and empathy (6).

Based on this contrast between the raven and the dove, we can appreciate the deeper rhythms behind the Noah story.   

Initially, Noah felt that the proper approach in a post-flood universe must be that of the raven. It must be tough, rough and unkindly. After all, humanity deteriorated because it was spoiled rotten and it thus grew arrogant and depraved (7). Humanity received too much love, too much generosity, and this allowed people to lose their priorities and to forfeit their moral compass. Now, Noah assumed, we must start all over again, with the raven showing the way. The "new world order" must be based on sternness, strength and discipline. Aggression and strict judgment must prevail if we want to ensure that civilization does not revert again to chaos.

This approach of Noah holds true in many of our own lives as well. People who have experienced a "flood," in one form or another, people who have felt the turmoil and pain of life, often feel that the only way to build a new life for themselves is by adopting the perspective and the attitude of the raven. They develop a rough shell, a dense crust, an aggressive disposition. They become tough, strong, and stern. Sometimes they become cynical and suspicious and their hearts shut down. They devour, as they are scared to embrace.

Can we blame them? No. They are afraid to be abused again. They can't endure the pain twice.

But soon Noah discovered that with a raven you can’t rebuild a world. The raven is good to remain in the peripheral; the raven "kept going and returning until the waters dried from upon the earth." The raven is important to give borders to love, and created limits for vulnerability. The raven will hover over the new world, protecting it from a kindness and a love that could turn destructive. But who must to lead the way in settling the new world and rebuilding a shattered civilization? Only the dove. The primary driving force in life must be love, loyalty and compassion.

Each of us has disappointments on life. Some of them are caused by other people; others are caused by G-d. Some people feel that they have been let down by those who were supposed to care for them most. We can understand if they have developed a "raven" attitude in order to protect themselves in the future; even Noah himself did just that. Yet the human soul is capable of much more: of not allowing the pain of life to deprive it from its greatest power – its ability to love.  

The Modern Flood

During the past six decades the Jewish people have been attempting to recover from a flood that destroyed a third of our nation. One and a half million children were sent to the gas chambers, but nobody uttered more than a pips.

Understandably, Jewish hearts were swelling with bitterness, mistrust and profound pain. They could have easily turned into "ravens," projecting hatred and cynicism unto their children and grandchildren. But learning from Noah's example, they replaced the raven with the dove. The survivors, for the most part, built families and showered their children with love, confidence, and hope. Sure, many children of survivors suffered (and suffer till today) from the paralyzing silence that pervaded their homes. But we can all testify that most of our parents and grandparents did they best they can to protect and nurture their loved ones and give them an opportunity to celebrate life. Will we, the recipients of that courageous choice, ever be able to thank them adequately?

Only if we, the second, third and fourth generations, continue being guided by the dove, giving love, confidence and hope to the people around us (8).

1) Genesis 8:7.
2) Midrash Tanchuma Eikev 3. 3) Leviticus 11:15. Cf. Talmud Sanhedrin 108b about the conversation between Noah and the raven (see Maharal in Gur Aryeh to Parshas Noach about hoe to understand this "conversation.") 4) Genesis 8:11. 5) Midrash Rabah Shir Hashirim. 6) See Sefer Halikutim – Tzemach Tzedek under the entries of "orev" and "yonah." 7) Midrash Rabah Noach. 8) This article is based on the writings of the Chassidis masters. Cf. "The Raven and the Dove," by my brother, Simon Jacobson.

Posted on October 15, 2007
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