“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!” (“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe first appeared on September 25, 1849)
For those who think that Edgar Allan Poe was the first to make the raven famous, they are only off by about 5,000 years. Midrash Rabbah tells us that just a Cain was the first murderer in the history of the world, Hevel was the first person in need of a burial. How were his grieving parents supposed to know what to do with the body. According to Midrash Rabbah, it seems that Adam learned from observing the animal world. (Midrash Rabbah 22:8)
Another collection of Midrash, Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer, fills in more details. The unlikely teacher was the raven:
בא עורב אחד שמת לו אח‘ מחבריו לקח אותו וחפר באר‘ וטמנו לעיניהם אמ‘ אדם כעורב אני עושה
“A raven came along with a dead raven. It dug in the earth and buried its fellow raven before them. Adam said: Like this raven will I act.” (Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer chapter 21)
The raven – an unusual blend of cruelty and loving kindness
Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer provides more information about the complex morals of ravens. It seems that when they have offspring they immediately abandon them. This has given the ravens a reputation for cruelty in Rabbinic literature. However, it’s really a case of mistaken identity. Ravens are black and baby ravens, at first, come out white. The parents assume that they are not their offspring and refuse to feed them. However, because of the kindness showed to Adam, God steps in and feeds the baby ravens until they turn black – and can feed themselves.
Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer continues with another great kindness of ravens:
וְלֹא עוֹד אלא שהן קוראים ליתן מטר על הארץ והקב“ה עונה אותן שנאמר נותן לבהמה לחמה לבני עורב אשר יקראו
“Furthermore, they (the ravens) pray for rain on behalf of the entire world and God answers them, as it is said, ‘He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which call out.” (Tehillim. 147:9)
The ravens are so selfless they look after everyone’s needs. Therefore, it is in the merit of the ravens that God brings down rain for the whole world.
There’s a commentator to both Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer and Midrash Tanchuma called “velo ode ella” וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא. He only comments when the text of the midrash uses that exact phrase ,וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא , which means – “and not only that but also this.” According to this commentator the ravens teach us the great reward for performing acts of Chessed – loving kindness. This is because, as we said, the ravens not only showed a grieving father how to bury his son, they selflessly pray for the sustenance of the whole world.
We know from Tehilim (Psalms) that
ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה “the world is built on Chessed. (Tehilim 89:3)
Ravens make two other cameo appearances in Tanach
When Noach first wanted to find out if the waters receded after the flood he tried to send the Raven. According to Midrash Tanchuma and the Talmud (Sanhedren 108b) the raven refused to undertake this mission. The raven thought it was a suicide mission and, oddly enough, it suspected Noach of wanting to have relations with its mate. Having relations on the ark was not permitted and the raven was actually one of three who violated that prohibition.
Both the Talmud and Midrash Rabbah say that Noach got mad at the raven. Noach said:
מַה צֹּרֶךְ לָעוֹלָם בָּךְ, לֹא לַאֲכִילָה וְלֹא לְקָרְבָּן what use is there for you in the world. “You can’t be eaten and you can’t be used as a sacrifices.” (Midrash Rabbah 23:5) . However, God tells Noach to take the Raven back because there will be another time where the raven plays a key role in Jewish history:
וְהָעֹרְבִ֗ים מְבִאִ֨ים ל֜וֹ לֶ֤חֶם וּבָשָׂר֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וְלֶ֥חֶם וּבָשָׂ֖ר בָּעָ֑רֶב וּמִן־הַנַּ֖חַל יִשְׁתֶּֽה׃ The ravens brought him (Eliyahu) bread and meat every morning and every evening, and he drank from the wadi. (Kings I: 17:6)
The commentator to Midrash Rabba – Maharzu – says that the raven was chosen for the mission to feed Eliyahu when he was running from the king because God was sending a message to Eliyahu. If the ravens, who are known for their cruelty, are engaging in Chessed – loving kindness – then you – Eliyahu – must also display compassion for the Jewish People. It was Eliyahu who decreed the terrible drought and Eliyahu had the power to annul his decree. (Maharzu on Midrash Rabbah Parshat Noach 33:5)
What are the ravens’ complex morality supposed to represent
We mentioned that the world is sustained by the extraordinary loving kindness of the Ravens. Yet we see the raven as argumentative, brazenly rebellious, unable to control its passions, and capable of making bizarre, false accusations against others. What do we do with this bundle of contradictions?
A clue can be found in the writings of the medieval commentary, Rabbi David Kimchi of France (1160–1235), also known as the RaDaK (רד”ק). He sees the relationship between God and the baby ravens as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jewish People:
והנה הוא עוזר החלשים שאין בהם יכולת מעצמם וכן עשה לישראל שהיו נטושים בגלות מאין כח: “And behold He (God) helps those who are weak and not self sufficient (baby ravens) and so He (God) helps the Jewish People who are ensconced in exile and are powerless.” (RaDak on Tehillim. 147:9)
Perhaps we can take the RaDak’s insight one step further.
The Jewish People are, at times, rebellious and suspicious of God’s motives. However we have the saving grace of being a people known for our loving kindness.
The famous Mishna that we say every morning, lists גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים – acts of loving kindness – as something that should be performed without limit. It is also listed a deed whose rewards שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּֽרֶן קַיֶּֽמֶת לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא “will be reaped in this world and whose principal reward will remain intact for them in the world to come.” (Mishnah Peah 1:1)
In fact, the Talmud lists Chessed as one of the moral traits of the Jewish People
אָמַר שְׁלֹשָׁה סִימָנִים יֵשׁ בְּאוּמָּה זוֹ הָרַחְמָנִים וְהַבַּיְישָׁנִין וְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים …
(King David) said: There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, (the Jewish people). They are merciful, they are bashful, and they perform acts of loving kindness.(Talmud Yevamot 69a)
Now you see that the Jewish People have something in common with the raven. Due to the Jewish People’s proclivity to Chessed, (we too pray for the whole world) God is compelled to take care of us even if we don’t always deserve it.