A Life with Purpose

Dena Weiss

Parashat Noah

When we think about Parashat Noah, we tend to think about the title character. We are interested in understanding why Noah was chosen, we want to know more about his experience building the ark, living in the ark, and emerging from it. However, part of the beauty of Noah’s story is that it is not only about him, it is also about all of the animals he brought with him onto the ark, two by two, seven and seven, the impure and the pure, who were saved and tended to by him during the flood. One animal in particular, the raven, is highlighted by Rabbinic literature as having a unique experience in the ark and having a different kind of interaction with Noah. Focusing on the raven’s story highlights a different dimension of what life was like during the flood and draws our attention to the tension between being sensitive to loss and the responsibility to move on from it.

In the Talmud, Reish Lakish imagines the raven’s reaction to being sent out from the ark and places a surprising claim in its mouth:

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין קח:
וישלח את העורב (בראשית ח:ז) - אמר ריש לקיש: תשובה ניצחת השיבו עורב לנח, אמר לו: רַבְּךָ שונאני ואתה שנאתני. רבך שונאני - מן הטהורין שבעה, מן הטמאים שנים. ואתה שנאתני - שאתה מניח ממין שבעה ושולח ממין שנים, אם פוגע בי שר חמה או שר צינה לא נמצא עולם חסר בריה אחת? או שמא לאשתי אתה צריך? 
אמר לו: רשע: במותר לי נאסר לי - בנאסר לי לא כל שכן.
ומנלן דנאסרו? - דכתיב: ובאת אל התיבה אתה ובניך ואשתך ונשי בניך אתך (בראשית ו:יח), וכתיב: צא מן התבה אתה ואשתך ובניך ונשי בניך אתך (בראשית ח:טז). ואמר רבי יוחנן: מיכן אמרו שנאסרו בתשמיש המטה. 
תנו רבנן: שלשה שמשו בתיבה, וכולם לקו: כלב, ועורב, וחם…


Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108b
He sent the raven (Bereishit 8:7). Reish Lakish said: The raven provided a winning argument to Noah. He said to him—Your master (i.e. God) discriminated against me and you have discriminated against me. Your master discriminated against1 me [by commanding to take] seven of the pure [animals] and two of the impure.2 You have discriminated against me in that you are choosing a species of “two” over a species of “seven.” If the power of heat or the power of cold encounters me, won’t the world be missing one creature?! Perhaps it is [access to] my wife you need?
[Noah] replied—Evil one! I have been forbidden that which is permitted to me (i.e. my wife), wouldn’t I be even more forbidden from that which is prohibited to me (i.e. your wife)?!
From where do we know that they were forbidden [from sexual intimacy in the ark]?
As it is written, You will enter into the ark. You and your children, your wife and the wives of your children with you, and it is also written, Depart from the ark. You and your wife, your children, and the wives of your children with you. And R. Yohanan said: From [the fact that the verse initially lists men separately from their wives and then lists them with their wives after the flood], they said that they were forbidden from “using the bed” (i.e. sexual intimacy) [during the flood].3
Our rabbis taught: Three did “use” (i.e. be sexually intimate) while in the ark and were punished accordingly: the dog, the raven, and Ham [Noah’s son]...


Reish Lakish has a very vivid and quite surprising picture of the attitude of the raven in the ark. The raven does not want to leave the ark and accuses Noah of evicting him for Noah’s own untoward purposes. Where does this story come from? And what does it teach us? Reish Lakish’s reading of the raven’s disposition is based on a close reading of the verses in which Noah sends out the raven and then, following him, the dove.

בראשית ח:ו-ט
וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וַיִּפְתַּח נֹחַ אֶת חַלּוֹן הַתֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה: וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעֹרֵב וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב עַד יְבשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ: וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מֵאִתּוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה: וְלֹא מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלָהּ וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה כִּי מַיִם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה:


Bereishit 8:6-9
At the close of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made. He sent out the raven, and the raven departed going out and in, until the drying of the water from upon the land. And [Noah] sent the dove from himself to see if the waters had receded from upon the face of the earth. And the dove did not find rest for the soles of her feet, and she returned to him, into the ark, for the water was upon the entire land. And [Noah] sent out his hand, and he took her, and he brought her to him into the ark.


On a first reading of Noah’s sending these two birds, the instances seem so similar that they almost seem redundant: Noah sends a bird out from the ark, but the bird does not find rest because the waters of the flood have not sufficiently receded. However, the manner in which these two birds are sent could not be any more different. Noah’s sending of the dove is marked by a type of tenderness: he sends the bird מֵאִתּוֹ, from himself, and when she does not find the rest that she seeks, he welcomes her back in, and [Noah] sent out his hand and he took her and he brought her to him into the ark. The purpose of the sending of the dove is also clearly narrated by the text, to see if the waters had receded. However, when Noah sends the raven, it is not made clear that he is sending it in order to test the firmness of the earth, and, in fact, it is not clear that the raven is being sent for diagnostic purposes at all. The raven goes back and forth, and Noah never reaches out his hand to welcome the sad and soggy bird back into the ark.

The Or HaHayyim4 notes these differences and explains that these two sendings were, in fact, not alike at all:

אור החיים
אכן כוונת הכתוב הוא על פי מאמר רז''ל כי העורב שמש בתיבה, וידע בו נח ולזה כשפתח חלון התיבה גרש העורב מהתיבה תיכף ומיד והוא אומרו וישלח את העורב ולא הזכיר לראות הקלו המים כמו שאמר אחר כך בשליחות היונה, והוא העורב היה יוצא ושוב פירוש נח מגרשו והוא חוזר ונשאר בדרך זה עד יבושת המים. 


Or HaHayyim
Indeed, the intention of the verse accords with the statement of our Rabbis, who said that the raven was sexually intimate (lit. “used”) in the ark, and Noah knew about this. That is why he evicted the raven from the ark immediately upon opening the window. And that is what the verse meant when saying, [Noah] sent out the raven and did not mention, to see if the waters had receded, which it did say afterwards when the dove was sent out. And that is the meaning of, the raven departed going out and in.5 Noah would continuously evict him, and he would keep on coming back, and it stayed that way until the waters dried.


According to the Or HaHayyim, the dove was sent on a mission to observe the condition of the earth and report back to Noah, at which time it would be welcomed back into the ark. The raven, on the other hand, was ejected by Noah, due to his misbehavior in the ark. Noah was incensed that the raven disrespected the law and continued to be intimate with his spouse. He therefore decided that remaining in the ark was not right for the raven and sent him out. The raven was not in agreement and was desperately, repeatedly, trying to return home. The raven felt justified in his choice to remain with his wife and felt that he was being unjustly forced out of the ark. 

The Talmudic passage highlights two very different experiences of those who are living side by side in the ark. Noah and his family (with the exception of Ham6) and most of the animals are living celibately on the ark. The raven, on the other hand, is continuing to be intimate with his partner. The commandment to refrain from sexual intimacy during the flood is an expression of sensitivity to the loss of life that surrounds the survivors. While so many people and animals and ecosystems are being destroyed, it is appropriate for those who are less affected to pause their own lives. It is the bare minimum they can do to acknowledge all of the pain and suffering that they are so narrowly avoiding. So why did the raven make his choice? Why wasn’t he keeping a respectful distance from his mate? 

The raven’s attitude reflects his very different perspective, focused not on the experience of the loss, but on the result of the loss. The raven knows that many of his species will die in the flood. The raven’s retort to Noah about his own vulnerability is not only the practical reason why he thinks that Noah should not cast him out. It is also the reason why he remained intimate with his spouse in the first place. The raven feels responsible to perpetuate his species. He sees that there are only two of his kind left, and he understands that as a call to be fruitful and multiply, to repopulate the earth. Noah’s decision to not procreate in the ark is driven by a concern for being sensitive to the loss of life that surrounds him. But the raven’s approach is to deal with the actual conditions of the world, to be practically oriented. He isn’t concerned about being sensitive; he is concerned about his own purpose and the survival of his species.

The raven’s perspective also gives us some insight into how difficult it must have been to be a survivor of the flood, to be chosen at random to live, while the rest of the world has been sentenced to die. Noah’s way of navigating this difficult dynamic is to respectfully refrain from activities that seem overly life-affirming. The raven’s choice shows that he, instead, wants to perpetuate life. Noah wants to acknowledge and grieve; the raven wants to acknowledge by moving on.

One of the reasons why the raven feels the need to perpetuate his species in the ark is that there is no other work for him to do. Noah was not only a survivor, he was also a caretaker. His life in the ark had meaning, as he worked day and night to accommodate his various passengers and make sure that he succeeded in his mission of saving every extant species.7 The raven, on the other hand, feels useless. We see from his words to Noah that he feels that he has been discriminated against, and even though he himself is being saved, he also feels discarded by God, like his kind is disposable, like it wouldn’t matter if he no longer existed. Of course, he feels the need to assert himself, to create for himself a function and a calling, to remind himself and those around him that he and his life matter.8

In fact, the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah sees Noah explicitly delivering the message to the raven that it has no purpose as an impure animal:

בראשית רבה לג:ה
ויצא יָצֹא ושוֹב (בראשית ח:ז). ר' יודן בשם ר' יודה בן סימון: התחיל משיבו תשובות, אמר לו: מכל בהמה חיה ועוף שיש כאן אין אתה משלח אלא לי? אמר לו: מה צורך לעולם בך? לא לאכילה לא לקרבן!


Bereishit Rabbah 33:5
[The raven] departed going out and in (Bereishit 8:7). R. Yudan said in the name of R. Yudah ben Simon: [The raven] began to respond, “From all of the animals, domesticated and wild, and birds that are here, and you send only me?!” [Noah replied], “What use does the world have for you! [You aren’t kosher] to be eaten or offered as a sacrifice!”


According to R. Yudan, the raven was right when he sensed that he was being given life, but no reason to live it. And it is no wonder that the raven chose to work on perpetuating his species, to feel purposeful while he was in the ark. The euphemistic language used to speak about the raven’s intimacy is to “use.” Though this language is used elsewhere to describe sexual relations, here it takes on a particular urgency. The raven needed to “use his bed” because he needed to be useful. Because he wanted to assert the value of his presence in the world.

Although the raven is cast somewhat villainously in Rabbinic literature, his perspective is championed elsewhere in the Talmud by none other than Reish Lakish himself! Reish Lakish states in the most strident of terms that Shabbat observance is reserved exclusively for the Jewish members of God’s covenant:

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין נח:
ואמר ריש לקיש: נכרי ששבת - חייב מיתה, שנאמר ויום ולילה לא ישבתו (בראשית ח:כב).


Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 58b
Reish Lakish said: A non-Jew who rests (shavat) is liable for death, as it says, they shall not rest (yishbotu) day and night (Bereishit 8:22).


The alarming and upsetting consequences aside, Reish Lakish’s proof for prohibiting non-Jews from keeping Shabbat is a verse from our parashah. In its original context, the verse is a promise to the world that its seasons will continue, that planting and harvesting, warm and cold, night and day will not cease. In Reish Lakish’s reading, however, two interesting shifts happen. First, the word for ceasing yishbotu is read hyper-literally to mean “have a Shabbat,” and second, it is read as a commandment to people not to rest rather than a promise that God will not allow the world to cease. However, when we read the story of the flood through the eyes of the raven, this proof becomes more clear and more meaningful. According to Reish Lakish, God’s promise here is not about promising not to bring a second flood. God’s promise here is about not allowing a second ark, not creating a world which is characterized by idleness and waiting. God instructs people in how to live meaningful lives: do not rest; look for a reason to live and follow that purpose. God promises a world of work, where the raven will not be confused about his role and will be able to feel fulfilled within the framework of what is permitted to him.

One way of reading the behavior of the raven in the ark is that he was being selfish and insensitive. But a closer look at the way the raven thought about himself shows that his purpose in acting in the way that he did was to give his own life purpose. The lesson for us is twofold. The first is for ourselves not to underestimate the importance of creating meaningful structures for our own lives. The value of these frameworks is not determined by how “religious” they are, but by how useful they are. Those who keep Shabbat may seem like they are doing more important spiritual work, but there is something entirely different and valuable in doing actual work. There is a value in being teleologically oriented, in having something constructive to do and committing yourself to it. The second lesson is in how we relate to others. We often think that taking care of other people’s needs, saying, “I’ll take care of it for you,” is the generous way to interact with them. But the frustration and miscommunication between Noah and the raven on the ark shows us how important it is for us to empower others and to share the work that needs to be done. This is why providing someone meaningful employment and self-sufficiency is the highest form of charity, according to the Rambam.9 

When God placed humanity in Eden, it was with the purpose of working and guarding the world, לעבדה ולשמרה,10 because a life without work and the self-actualization it provides would not be Edenic at all.

1 Lit. hated.

2 See Bereishit 7:2.

3 See Bereishit Rabbah 34:7-8 for a clearer exposition of this.

4 R. Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743, Morocco.

5 See Bereishit 8:7-9.

6 The notion that Ham was sexually active in the ark is based on Ham’s behavior during the aftermath of the flood, where he he acts in a sexually inappropriate way with his own father. See Bereishit 8:22.

7 See Bereishit Rabbah 32:11, which describes Noah as coughing up blood from the level of exertion required to take care of all of the animals.

8 As the raven points out, the animals on the ark were classified into two categories: the pure and the impure. The pure were saved in larger numbers, whereas the impure were taken two by two, the minimum number required for the species to survive. On Talmud Bavli Pesahim 3a, R. Yehoshua ben Levi famously notes that the impure “tamei” animals are not called “tamei” here, but rather referred to as the animals which are not pure (Bereishit 7:8). He understands this as teaching something about the delicacy of language, that one should use a more genteel term whenever possible. One could imagine that this might feel very different to the raven. The raven and his kind are being classified only as what they are not. The raven hears that he’s not even worthy of being spoken about, that to describe his kind explicitly is to use overly explicit and disgraceful language.

9 Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7.

10 Bereishit 2:15.