Parshat Noah — Nevermore

Raven. (CC BY-SA, Stephencdickson/ Wikimedia Commons)
Raven. (CC BY-SA, Stephencdickson/ Wikimedia Commons)

The raven tap tap taps along the railing outside my window. Or is it a crow? Pacing back and forth like a barrister making her closing arguments in the Old Bailey.

I’m reminded of other famous ravens (or are they crows) in history. Everyone knows Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, which begins with the same tapping I hear outside:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’

Poe was inspired by Charles Dickens, who included a talking raven named Grip in his fifth novel Barnaby Rudge:

‘Halloa!’ cried a hoarse voice in his ear. ‘Halloa, halloa, halloa! Bow wow wow. What’s the matter here! Hal-loa!’

The speaker—who made the locksmith start as if he had been some supernatural agent—was a large raven, who had perched upon the top of the easy-chair, unseen by him and Edward, and listened with a polite attention and a most extraordinary appearance of comprehending every word, to all they had said up to this point; turning his head from one to the other, as if his office were to judge between them, and it were of the very last importance that he should not lose a word.
‘Look at him!’ said Varden, divided between admiration of the bird and a kind of fear of him. ‘Was there ever such a knowing imp as that! Oh he’s a dreadful fellow!’

The raven, with his head very much on one side, and his bright eye shining like a diamond, preserved a thoughtful silence for a few seconds, and then replied in a voice so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth.

‘Halloa, halloa, halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil. Hurrah!’—And then, as if exulting in his infernal character, he began to whistle.

Poe received a review copy of the first few chapters of Barnaby Rudge, and successfully predicted how the novel would end.

Poe wrote that “[the raven’s] croaking might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.”

The Grip of Barnaby Rudge was based on Dickens’s own pet raven, also named Grip (and then a second one with the same name). The author writes in the introduction to his novel:

The raven in this story is a compound of two great originals, of whom I was, at different times, the proud possessor. The first was in the bloom of his youth, when he was discovered in a modest retirement in London, by a friend of mine, and given to me. He had from the first, as Sir Hugh Evans says of Anne Page, ‘good gifts’, which he improved by study and attention in a most exemplary manner. He slept in a stable—generally on horseback—and so terrified a Newfoundland dog by his preternatural sagacity, that he has been known, by the mere superiority of his genius, to walk off unmolested with the dog’s dinner, from before his face. He was rapidly rising in acquirements and virtues, when, in an evil hour, his stable was newly painted. He observed the workmen closely, saw that they were careful of the paint, and immediately burned to possess it. On their going to dinner, he ate up all they had left behind, consisting of a pound or two of white lead; and this youthful indiscretion terminated in death.

Charles Dickens. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

I wrote once about how Dickens himself was almost killed by paint.

And speaking of dangerous wallcoverings, I recently learned (from Aaron Mahnke’s Cabinet of Curiosity) about perhaps the most deadly book in history. Dr. Robert M. Kedzie published Shadows from the Walls of Death in 1874 to warn people of the dangers lurking within their own homes. It was a collection of 86 wallpaper samples that all contained potentially lethal doses of arsenic.

But back to the ravens. Dickens had a total of three ravens, all named Grip. After its death, he had the first Grip stuffed and it remains on display (or its remains are on display) in the rare book section of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

To be honest, I had no idea that ravens (or crows) could talk. But it turns out the raven pacing up and down my railings is just lazy. Perhaps I should spend more time encouraging it to speak.

Actually, I spent way too many hours this week watching videos of talking ravens. It is so cute yet somehow, so unexpected.

Another famous raven was called Jimmy. Jimmy the Raven, or sometimes Jimmy the Crow. He starred in over 1.000 Hollywood movies from 1938 to 1954, including You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life (although of the 1,000, IMDB only credits the bird with 28 films). Jimmy Stewart, his co-star in Wonderful Life, praised the bird, saying “When they call Jimmy, we both answer… it is the smartest actor on the set.”

Screenshot from It’s a Wonderful Life showing Jimmy the raven in the Building & Loan office. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Jimmy (the Raven, not the Stewart) was insured for $10,000 and his clawprints are immortalized in concrete, alongside Lassie’s pawprints in a pet store in Los Angeles.

Ravens are members of the corvid family and are very intelligent animals – perhaps up there with chimps and dolphins.

One of the most important ravens, and the one that most directly connects to this week’s Torah reading, was used by the Viking explorer Flóki Vilgerðarson in 868. He set out to explore an island which had been discovered a few years earlier by Garðar Svavarsson.

Gustaf Skarsgård playing Floki Vilgerðarson. (CC BY-SA, NickStriker/ Wikimedia Commons)

His journey is described in the Landnámabók, a medieval history book describing how the Norse settled in Iceland (as that northern island came to be known).

Floki Vilgerðarson, was the name of a man, a great Viking. He went to search for Gardarsholm… He went first to the to the Shetlands and lay there in Flokavogur; there Geirhild, his daughter, perished in Geirhildarvatn (Geirhild’s Water). With Floki were in the ship a good man named Thorolf, and another called Heijolf. There was also a man named Faxi, from Southern Iceland in the ship.

It was Vilgerðarson who named the country Iceland, after suffering during the freezing cold winter. And it was ravens that gave the Viking his nickname, Hrafna (Norse for Raven).

Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps taking his cue from Noah, Vilgerðarson used the birds for navigation.

Floki took three ravens with him to sea. When he set free the first, it flew aft over the stern; the second flew up into the air and back to the ship again ; but the third flew forth straightway over the stern in the direction in which they found the land.

When he released the first raven, Vilgerðarson was still close to the Shetlands, so the bird made its way straight back to where it had come from. The second bird was released while the boat was surrounded by water, so it circled the ship but, being unable to sight land, it returned to the Viking. The third raven was able to spot the undiscovered land, and flew straight for Iceland, with the Norse ship following behind.

As everyone knows, Noah, the titular character of this week’s Torah portion, was stranded in an ark, surrounded by water, after God sent a flood to the earth. The Torah states that the rain began to fall on the 17th day of the second month (Genesis 7: 11).

It rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and the waters continued to rise for a total of 150 days (Genesis 7:24). Then the water slowly subsided and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat exactly five months after the rain began, on the 17th of the seventh month (Genesis 8:4).

The water continued to slowly drain away and by the 10th day of the tenth month, Noah could make out the tops of the mountains. Forty days later, Noah sent out a raven to show him the way to dry land (Genesis 8:7):

He sent the raven, but it went back and forth, until the water dried up from the land.

For some reason, Noah at this point gave up on the raven’s navigational skills and decides to sent out a dove. The dove also failed to find any dry land and returned to Noah. A week later, Noah tries again with the dove. This time it returned with an olive branch in its mouth. A week later the dove was sent out again, and this time it did not return.

Dove. (CC BY-SA, Susanne Nilsson/ Wikimedia Commons)

So, Noah knew the water had dried up enough for life to return to earth. Yet he remained in the ark and did not leave until the 27th day of the second month (Genesis 8:14), exactly a full solar year after he and the animals were locked up in the boat. Even then, he didn’t leave the safety of his ark until God explicitly told him to leave.

There are so many questions on this narrative that it is difficult to know where to begin. But let’s ask a few of them.

Why did Noah send out the raven? He wasn’t going to leave the ark until God told him to, so why did he bother? Furthermore, how would it have helped him if the raven had shown him that there was land in the distance? Noah and his family certainly couldn’t have left the ark until the land on Mount Ararat had dried up. And why did Noah only give the raven one chance, but then switch to a dove and give that bird three chances to find land?

Maybe one day I’ll write about doves (which are basically pigeons – maybe I’ll write about how the Rothschilds used homing pigeons to beat the stock market).

But right now I want to defend the raven from the bad rap it has received from the time of Noah until Edgar Allan Poe and beyond.

It seems that unlike Vilgerðarson who needed ravens to lead him to Iceland, Noah was merely sating his curiosity. He could not refloat the boat from its perch on Ararat, and had no intention of doing anything without Divine instruction. But he wanted to know how bad things were in the outside world. So he sent the raven, the smartest of the birds.

In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) Reish Lakish speaks up for the raven.

The raven gave Noah a winning argument. It said, ‘Your Master hates me, and you hate me. Your Master hates me, because he instructed you to bring seven of the kosher animals but only two of the unkosher animals. And you hate me, because rather than take one of the species of which you have seven, you send one of the species of which you only have two. If I get struck by the heat or cold, the world will be lacking an entire species.’

It seems that Noah understood the raven’s message, which is why he next sent out the dove. After all, doves were expendable. He had spare doves with him inside the ark.

It is crazy to think that even after almost a year caring for all the animals, it took an intelligent raven to teach Noah that he had to continue caring for them outside the ark too. The extinction of even a single species would have been an irrevocable loss to the world.

Rashi (Genesis 8:7) cites Bereishit Rabb 33:5 to explain why it was so important that the raven survive.

The raven was prepared for another task, during the drought in the time of Elijah, as the verse states, ‘The ravens brought him bread and meat,’ (I Kings 17:6).

Elijah had prayed for drought and famine in his attempt to wean King Ahab and his subjects away from idolatry. But rather than abandon their idols, the people just died. So God sent ravens to feed Elijah. There was a clear message: Just as the raven told Noah that he must care for all the animals in his care, so too Elijah must care for all the people in his jurisdiction. Elijah saw things in black and white, but the black-feathered raven taught him that even the wicked must be cared for.

In Israel we begin praying for rain immediately after Shabbat. May it be a year of plentiful water of blessing. And may it be a year that we see the importance of every creature and every person, whether they are righteous or idolaters.

And as for the destruction of Noah’s flood caused by the wickedness of people, let’s leave the last word to the raven. “Nevermore.”


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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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