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Making the Most of Selfishness

Before and After the Flood

 

We know the things that make G-d angry. The Torah tells us of men who simply “take” the women they want, of men “of renown” who selfishly put themselves ahead of all others, and of widespread theft and violence. It all amounts to a simple enough lesson, or so it seems: G-d does not want mankind to act in pursuit of selfish, greedy, short-term goals. Instead, we are supposed to treat others with respect, not as mere instruments for one’s own desires. And when we do not understand this, there is no longer any reason for the world to exist.

That was all before the Flood. In a time when G-d thought that making man mortal was enough to make us value our wives – Adam names Eve as soon as he learns she is the key to his immortality, through children (Gen. 3:2). But it was not enough. Men still treated women like chattel, taking whomever they desired (Gen. 6:2). G-d immediately responds by shortening mankind’s lifespan, clearly hoping that strengthening our awareness of our mortality would strengthen the bond between man and woman. This, too, fails. As http://www.interpreterspeaks.com shows us, we continue to descend. Men seek only selfish fame, seeing no higher calling. (Gen. 6:4). The Torah observes that this “Might Makes Right” mindset and behavior is of people who “seek evil continuously.” (Gen. 6:5). G-d decides to destroy the world by drowning it and starting all over again.

There is a word that recurs many times in the Torah, and despite a range of meanings, it is turned on its head by the Flood. The word in Hebrew is spelled “ayin, reish, beis,” and its transliterated English letters would be “[vowel]RV”. In the Torah, the most common use is “erev,” meaning “evening,” as in: “and it was evening and it was morning.” In the Creation, this word means “closure”, a finite ending to events, separating discrete occurrences. So “erev” before the Flood is a simple word that divides and disconnects.

But after the Flood, the word is used in a huge number of ways, all of which have a common thread. Here they are:

  • Angels came to Sodom in the evening to see Lot (19:1): Meeting, and redemption.
  • Abraham’s servant courts Rebekkah in the evening (24:11): Romance.
  • Isaac meets his wife for the first time (24:63): New love.
  • Jacob marries Leah, whom he does not “take” (29:23): Shared intimacy.
  • Leah buys her sister’s marital rights to gain more intimacy from their husband (30:16)
  • Tamar asks for a pledge (the word “erev” is also the root for a surety) from Yehudah, a way to extend a merely physical exchange into a commercial relationship than lasts for longer (Gen 38:17,18,20). He desired a short, physical relationship. She turned that into a commitment, extending and binding their relationship into other facets.
  • Judah guarantees that he will bring Benjamin back to his father. (43:9), and later tells the disguised Joseph (44:32) that he has done so. Commitment.
  • In Jacob’s blessing, Benjamin “is a wolf that devoureth the prey, and at the evening (erev) he divides the spoil.” (49:27.) Sharing with others.
  • One of the plagues on Egypt, one that filled every space and void, to ensure the Egyptians knew that G-d could connect with every bit of physical space. (Ex. 8:17-27)
  • The “mixed multitude” of Egyptians that left Egypt with the Children of Israel (12:38). Seeking connection.
  • And many, many examples follow, having to do with ritual events, opportunities to connect with G-d that are often reset or triggered in the evening. “Evening” becomes a bridge that connects days together, in direct contradistinction to the Creation, wherein it was used to divide them.
  • The word is used for the last time to describe the plains (ervei) of Moab where the people wept at the passing of Moses (Deut. 34:8). A final loving and spiritual connection with the man who connected all the people with G-d.

What changed? How did a limited word like “evening” become a word that symbolizes love and relationships and a desire for connections? How did every attribute that doomed mankind before the Flood get connected to this single, three-letter word that is connected with such holiness after the Flood?

The “orev” is a raven. Spelled in Hebrew the same way as “erev,” the raven is the bird that Noach sends out of the Ark, in a most peculiar verse: “And [Noach] sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from the earth.” (Gen. 8:7). It is an odd verse. What was Noach trying to achieve? The raven was seemingly given no purpose at all – by contrast the dove, which was sent out afterward, was sent “to see if the waters were abated.” What was the raven supposed to do, and why did Noach expel it from the Ark, from which it repeatedly flew back and forth?

I think the raven is a symbol. Our sages tell us that ravens are singularly selfish birds. They often will not feed their young until the young develop black feathers. And even then, “After the offspring leaves their nets, they get independent immediately. … Their parents won’t like to share foods with the offspring thus forcing them to feed on their own.” Ravens do not form large communities, and they embody some of the worst attributes such as an attraction to shiny, vain things. Ancient perceptions of the raven were not very nice. The raven symbolizes intelligent selfishness. In the Torah, the birds seem to be a proxy for the behavior of mankind before the flood.

The time on the Ark gave Noach time to think, to realize that a change in behavior could change mankind’s future. When Noach expelled the bird, he was sending a signal, something along the lines of: “I understand that the behavior of this bird is the reason for the Flood, and I choose to expel it from the place of the living.” Which means that the raven had a task after all: Noach was sending it out to show G-d that mankind had learned its lesson, that the waters could be withdrawn to allow mankind to try again.

More than this: the bird did not go out to die; it kept coming back, and Noach did not choose to kill it. Noach sends the raven out “until” the waters have dried up. It is like a sentence, or even a curse. The first time the same word “until” is found in the Torah is when G-d tells Adam that he will die: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return unto the ground.” (Gen. 3:19). As a consequence for his actions, Adam is cursed to work until he dies. Similarly, as a consequence for the causes of the Flood, Noach sentences the raven to fly to and fro until the waters have receded. (Gen. 8:9)

While the bird may be selfish and deceitful and vain, the Torah is telling us there are no attributes that are good or evil in themselves. The question is merely what we do with them, how we choose to focus our energies. The raven is what it is (since leopards cannot change their spots) but mankind is capable of change, of taking any gift or desire we have, and using it for good or evil. Before the flood, man was like the raven: vain, selfish, and cruel. After the flood, the same word erev is used for times of love, a desire for connection, an opportunity to come together.

Notes:

– Noah’s improvement in understanding was not instantaneous. Noach was a product of his generation, a generation in which men did not properly cleave to their wives. When he entered the Ark, the men were separate from their wives: “And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark.” (Gen. 7:7) And “In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark;” (Gen. 7:13). The men, and then the women.

G-d tries to steer Noah straight, telling him that marriage trumps family, that each man belongs with his wife: “Then God spoke to Noah, saying, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” (Gen. 8:15,16) But Noah does not hear the instruction: “So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him” (Gen. 8:17). Raven or no raven, he missed this point.

– David is often compared to a raven. There are similarities between Noach sending away the raven (with overtones of wanting its mate for himself), and David sending away Uriah to gain Batsheva. The same desire that made David crave Batsheva led him to write the psalms and build such an incredible relationship with G-d. Any human desire can be used for good or ill.

– Eliyahu becomes very angry with Ahab, and the prophet bans the rain and runs away and hides in a cave. G-d supplies him with food – using ravens. Perhaps the birds were a message to Eliyahu that his actions, while driven by love, were counterproductive, like the natural tendencies of a bird who will not feed its own children. We are supposed to master even our righteous indignation.

– The twilight of our lives is a time when we connect with our own mortality, and with regrets for lost opportunities. If we are aware of this earlier, we can love more while there is still time. Our mortality is what makes us love, and seek to achieve the same immortality-through-children that led Adam to appreciate, and then name, Eve. We learn to respect others because we come to understand that we are, in fact, limited in ourselves – but that with the love and encouragement of others, we can achieve great things in our lives.

Comments are welcome!