Is It Craven?

In contrast to Edgar Allen Poe, who suggested that though its crest is shorn and shaven the raven isn’t craven, the Talmudic sages were not so kindly disposed.

The raven, said they, is terribly cruel toward its young. In the book of Psalms, King David describes the beneficence of G‑d, who feeds the offspring of the raven. The raven’s offspring need nurture from G‑d, explained the sages, because their mother abandons them at birth.1

It has been suggested that the raven fails to recognize its young because their plumage is not as glossy and fiercely black as its own. The raven, a selfish creature, thus abandons its offspring because it does not care for what is not its own.2

In the Ark

The entire world population, including animal, plant and bird life, was decimated in the biblical deluge. To facilitate the repopulation of these species after the flood, G‑d commanded Noah to take seven pairs of every kosher animal and one pair of each non-kosher species into his ark. There were ravens in Noah’s ark, but as non-kosher birds, there were only two of them, a male and a female.3

Though the inhabitants of the ark were spared from the flood for the express purpose of repopulating the world, the Talmud explains that they were forbidden to mate in the ark. This was for two reasons. First, it would be improper—in fact, the height of narcissism and indecency—to engage in pleasurable activity as the rest of the world suffers. The second was the scarcity of resources in the ark. It was difficult enough to store food and feed all the creatures in the ark. Adding to the ark’s population would place an unbearable strain on the ark’s provisions.4

Both reasons are driven by sensitivity to the plight of others. Only the selfish could engage in intimate relations while surrounded by agony and death, and only the selfish would consider consuming more than their fair share of provisions when a meager amount must suffice for all.

Yet this is precisely what the raven did. It ignored the ban on intercourse, and consorted with its mate in the ark. Now the raven is an intensely loyal bird: once it nests with a mate, it distances itself from all other nestmates. Our sages, however, saw this in a negative light. The raven is antisocial because it cares only for itself. Even in the ark, it failed to see the needs of the ark’s other inhabitants and the suffering of the wider world. It had eyes only for its mate, and thought only of itself.5


After the rain stopped and the waters had receded for several months, Noah opened the window of the ark and sent out the raven. According to at least one commentator, Noah drove the raven from the ark because it had violated the ban, and thus had no right to remain in the ark.6 As soon as the waters receded a bit, leaving the raven enough space to fly about, Noah banished it from the ark.7

Unlike the dove, who was subsequently sent to test the waters, and who returned to the ark with an olive branch to demonstrate that the waters had indeed receded, the raven simply flew back and forth until the waters dried out.

The Talmud tells us that the raven didn’t fly away to perch on a treetop out of concern for its mate. You see, the raven assumed that others are as depraved and as selfish as itself. When Noah drove the raven from the ark, it assumed that he had seen it mating and drove it from the ark out of lust for its mate.8

Here the Talmud provides a startling insight into the mind of the selfish. Selfish people are not cruel; they simply assume that everyone else is just like them. If they don’t take something for themselves, someone else will surely take it, so they might as well take it first. They don’t think about the fallout of their actions on decent unselfish people, because they assume that the whole of the world is selfish.

[Let’s use the example of those who steal towels from hotels. They are convinced that everyone steals towels, and that the hotel builds the cost of the towel into the price of the room. Should you scold them for stealing, they would suspect that you simply want the towels for yourself.]

The raven mated in the ark because it assumed that everyone was doing it; and when driven from the ark, it assumed it was cast out because Noah wanted to do precisely as it did.

This mindset results from shifting blame from ourselves onto others. It is very difficult to accept our own faults, but it is easy to project them unto others. We must guard against this mindset by remembering what our sages said, “Those who condemn others are in fact condemning themselves.”9

Rising Above It

While the raven did not fly away from the ark, it also did not fly around the ark in circles. The Torah specifies that the raven flew back and forth, to and away from the ark. What are we meant to make of this curious flying vector? Allow me to suggest that the following Talmudic excerpt might prove insightful.

As the raven was driven from the ark, it complained bitterly. “G‑d despises me,” cried the raven, “and Noah despises me even more. G‑d permitted only two of us to survive, thereby reducing the odds of our species’ survival, and now Noah will completely destroy our species by driving me from my mate.”10

When he heard this, the Talmud tells us, Noah had pity on the raven, allowing it to return to the ark intermittently to rest when it became tired. Noah drove the raven from the ark because there is no room for selfishness in a selfless environment;11 on the other hand, although the raven had ignored the needs of others, Noah could not ignore the raven’s needs.

We cannot respond to selfishness in kind. That attitude will only reinforce the mindset of the selfish. Rather, we must rise above this selfish inclination and respond with fairness. Just like Noah did, we must protect our homes from the negative influence of selfishness, but treat the person behind that influence fairly.