Monday, October 07, 2013


By Rabbi David Silverberg

Several intriguing contrasting parallels exist between the story of the flood, as told in Parashat Noach, and a calamity that befall the Land of Israel millennia later – the drought declared by the prophet Eliyahu.  In Noach’s time, God punished the earth by unleashing an overabundance of rainfall; in Eliyahu’s time, the Kingdom of Israel was punished by a three-year drought during which no rain fell.  The generation of the flood was guilty of “chamas” – criminal behavior – and the Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a) asserts that the decree against the earth was sealed on account of theft.  By contrast, the Israelite Kingdom in Eliyahu’s time, which was under the rule of Achav, distinguished itself through its civility and social cohesiveness, and was punished because of rampant idolatry and rejection of monotheism (Vayikra Rabba 26:2). God brought about the flood and instructed the prophet – Noach – to care for his survival, whereas in Eliyahu’s case, he initiated the drought and it was God who sustained him by sending birds to bring him food. God brought the flood to an end out of consideration of Noach (8:1), but in Eliyahu’s time just the opposite occurred – God instructed Eliyahu to bring an end to the drought, in consideration of the people (Melakhim I 18:1).

            This contrasting parallel was noted by Chazal in the particular context of the raven, and the opposite roles it plays in these two stories.  The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 33:5) relates that when Noach sent the raven out of the ark, it protested, and Noach then replied, “What does the world need you for?”  It seems (and this is how the Maharzu explains the Midrash) that Noach did not send the raven simply to check whether the floodwaters had subsided – the purpose for which he would later send the dove – but rather intended to expose the raven to the dangers of the flooded earth, hoping that the species would become extinct.  But God criticized Noach for his decision, noting that the time would come when the world would need ravens – during the drought in Eliyahu’s time, when ravens were commissioned by the Almighty to bring the prophet food to sustain him through the deadly famine.

The Midrash’s comments should likely be read in light of the portrait of the raven depicted by the Gemara (Eruvin 21b), where it is described as an especially cruel and heartless creature, which does not even bother to care for its own young.  Noach, upon witnessing firsthand the devastation wrought by God’s justice, wanted to banish the raven; he wanted to drive all cruelty and heartlessness from the earth, having seen the destruction that harsh judgment can cause.  In Eliyahu’s time, the situation was reversed – Eliyahu lobbied for a harsh, unforgiving response to the people’s iniquity, and it was specifically the ravens who were sent as symbols of compassion and sensitivity, providing sustenance when no other sources were available.

            It thus emerges that in the story of the flood, the prophet tried banishing the raven, the symbol of cruelty, and God disapproved; in the story of the drought, the prophet embraced a heartless approach, and God sent the ravens to express His disapproval.

            This complex portrait of the raven depicted by the Midrash is perhaps the key to unlocking the mystery of this parallel.  God responded to Noach that the middat ha-din – the quality of strict justice – should not be driven from the earth, because it is not absolute.  Even God’s justice is laced with grace and kindness; the “raven,” the symbol of cruelty, can also at times be a source of vital sustenance.  And to Eliyahu, who championed the application of strict middat ha-din, God responded that the middat ha-din must be tempered with a degree of sensitivity and compassion, that even the “raven” must have the ability to dispense kindness.  The lesson of the flood is neither that strict justice must be altogether eliminated from the earth, as Noach wished, nor that it is a model that must be followed to the extreme, as Eliyahu thought.  Rather, the world must be governed by a system of justice, but by justice that is softened by an element of compassion so the world can be sustained even in times when it is deserving of destruction.


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