March 29, 1984, is a date that will forever live in infamy in Baltimore. In middle of the night, fourteen moving trucks pulled into Owings Mills, MD, for a top-secret mission. So secretive that the truck drivers weren’t even told where they were going and what they were doing. By the morning, the Baltimore Colts were no longer in Baltimore.
It was a tough time for Baltimoreans. The city tried to sue to retain rights over the team but were unsuccessful. To add insult to injury, there were Baltimoreans who were happy to see them go. They lived through enough shame, a decade of embarrassingly bad football, and they were happy to just move on.
But to the credit of this very imperfect city, most Baltimoreans did not give up. Twelve years later, a new team arrived. They were enthusiastically welcome and by all accounts, they’re doing pretty well, aren’t they?
As you all know, I am not the biggest football fan in the world, although I have to say that watching highlights of Lamar running circles around the other team’s defense, and dramatic 66-foot kicks, has caused my interest and appreciation to grow steadily. And so today, I’d like to dedicate my drasha to the name of your beloved football team, the Ravens.
The name ‘Ravens’ was chosen in a fan contest that drew almost 34 thousand voters. The inspiration for the name is the famous poet and Baltimore native, Edgar Allan Poe, who penned a poem called, the Raven. Despite our city benches claiming that Baltimore is ‘The City that Reads,’ I cannot think of a greater proof that none of those 34,000 people who voted ever read in their lives. ‘The Raven’ does not exactly put ravens in a positive light; it’s an Edgar Allan Poe poem for G-d’s sake! The raven in his poem is an obstinate, fatalistic, pessimist. ‘Nevermore will you be reunited with your lover! Nevermore will your loneliness be redeemed!’ Great name for a city that was still reeling over loss…
The individual who shared Poe’s negativity towards the raven more than any other is the protagonist of this week’s parsha. After the rain stops and the water subsides, Noach sends two birds out of his teivah; a dove and a raven.
I was always taught that Noach sends these birds out to make sure that it was safe to exit the ark. But a quick glance at the text makes it clear that there is something else entirely going on. Even after the dove famously returns with the olive branch, Noach remains inside. He does not leave until G-d instructs him, tzei min hateivah, leave the ark. And if that’s the case, if Noach did not use the information that the birds brought him for any purpose, why did he send them in the first place? This is a question that has puzzled me for years, and I have no answer that I love. But there is a symbolic read that I’d like to share that is most relevant to you and me, and to your beloved football team, and it goes like this:
Noach lived through the most harrowing period of human history. We have a glimpse of what this looks like through the experiences of Holocaust survivors who lost their homes and family. Noach lost the world and all of humankind. It’s impossible to wrap our heads around that level of loss and presumably, that level of trauma.
What was the cause of the flood? Why did G-d destroy all of humankind? Because they were evil. They stole, they raped, they took advantage of the weak, and ripped apart the social fabric of the world. And now, Noach, knowing all of this, has the awesome task of rebuilding – not just the physical world, but the spiritual world as well, the world of ethics and morality. All of this rested on his shoulders.
In one read, the sending away of the birds was a symbolic act, demonstrating the type of world Noach was attempting to build. Throughout all of Jewish literature, the dove and raven represent good and evil (Gittin 45 and the Ben Yehoyada there, as just one example). And not just in Jewish literature. The dove is the universal sign of peace, and ravens, in so many cultures beyond Judaism, have represented evil spirits (Swedish folklore) and souls condemned to eternal damnation (German mythology). French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, suggested that as a carrion bird, ravens were seen as a mediator between life and death. The word raven in Hebrew is made up of the letters, Reish-Ayin-Bet, which when rearranged spells, B’RA, in evil. The raven is a universal sign of sin, death, and evil.
And so Noach, righteous Noach, recognizing how the world was destroyed through evil, competition, lust, unchecked individualism, he takes the raven and sends him away. If you look closely at the text, you’ll notice that Noach does not send the raven on any mission, vayishalach es ha’arev, he banishes the raven! In the new world I am creating, says Noach, there will be no evil! I want to have nothing to do with it! I will build a utopia; a world of peace and harmony, a world in which the spirit soars unencumbered by the body; a world of the dove. Nevermore, Mr. Raven, nevermore!
But the dove that Noach sends out to sanctify the world with its beauty and spirit, that same dove returns with the leaf of an olive. In Western culture, the olive branch represents peace, but Chazal, our Sages recognize the olive leaf to represent that that is bitter. There is no such thing as a perfect world, as a world of unbridled sweetness. There is no such thing as a world of joy without sadness, of light without darkness. You can’t just send evil away, said the dove, bitter evil is part of the fabric of the world. The raven is here to stay.
Tragically, it was a message that Noach couldn’t accept. He froze, he couldn’t leave the ark. He had to be forced out by G-d; “Tzei min hateivah!” G-d commands him. And even then, though he physically leaves, he’s still stuck, as he quickly slips into a dark and intoxicating depression. It’s a hard message to swallow. That after all that he and the world went through, sadness, bitterness, negativity, and evil were here to stay. It was too much for Noach to handle.
We have had our own mabbul of sorts. (No, I am not talking about WhatsApp and Facebook going down for six hours.) Over these past two years we have experienced different levels of lockdown. It began with a literal lockdown where we didn’t see each other for months. But then the doors opened, god himself, Dr. Anthony Faucci, (just kidding) told us we can go outside. But while we were locked up, after the first wave of enthusiasm and hopefulness passed over us, the world we hid away from got pretty scary. The political divide became an unbridgeable abyss, the tech companies that were supposed to be helping us were revealed to be destroying us, antisemitism went through the roof. Looking out the window at this crazy world, quarantining didn’t seem so bad.
Some people, like Noach, refused to leave. When I hear people tell me that they are still not going out much, I can’t help myself but wonder if there is more than the fear of Covid at play. It’s a scary world out there! Some did leave and resumed life as normal, but in some ways are still in quarantine, they’re isolated, having dropped half their friends or family members in the process. And then there are others who haven’t dropped relationships per se but have developed an ‘us against them’ attitude through which they see everyone around them – another form of isolation.
G-d attempts to reacclimate Noach to the world by sharing with him a number of messages. First G-d tells him that mankind is bad, ki yetzer lev ha’adam ra mine’urav. According to some, the reason that Hashem allows us to eat meat after the Great Flood is some form of concession to human frailty. The evil that you tried to banish is here to stay, echoing the message of the dove.
But then G-d introduces one of the most important ideas of the Torah, ki b’tzelem Elokim asah es ha’adam, that humankind is fashioned in the image of Hashem. Yes, it’s true we are far from perfect, we can even use the word evil to describe mankind, but that’s not a reason to give up. Because there is something else, a G-dly spark, a G-dly image that defines us. We are like G-d! And you know how G-d created the world? According to the Zohar, G-d created and destroyed universe after universe until creating the world as we know it. But G-d didn’t just move on; He took the fragments of the broken worlds that preceded this one and used them as the building blocks to create a new and better world. Recreation, G-dly recreation, is not dividing the world between good and evil, it is not ignoring evil, it is not escaping evil, it is taking all that is evil, all that is bad, all that is sadness, and integrating it into something magnificent.
Bereisht bara Elokim. Ki B’tzelem Elokim asah et ha’adam. A spark of that G-dly creative power is found in each and every one of us. Can we open our eyes? Can we see how unmitigated selfishness is also an expression of a growing sense of self-worth? Can we see how growing anti-Semitism is a call and a challenge to better define what it means to be a Jew and what exactly we’re fighting for? Can we see how each person carries a treasure, a perspective, a way of thinking that only they do, and our pushing them away prevents us from infinite wisdom? Can we see how our own tragedies and hardships have shaped us into who we are today?
Today, we are celebrating the upcoming marriage of Jonathan Groner to Rachel Rosenheck. This is not their first marriage. You both, like all human beings, carry years of your own life along with you. There were setbacks, undoubtedly. But you didn’t allow the past to hold you back and at the same time, you didn’t run from the past or hide from it either. You both have beautifully integrated your individual pasts into a hopeful shared future. Like G-d, you have created a new world out of destruction.
A few thousand years after the flood, there was another man who shared Noach’s mindset. Someone who had no patience for evil or weakness. The great prophet Eliyahu also saw the world in a binary of good and evil. Because he was so outspoken, he was forced to hide himself in a cave, far away from civilization – his own form of quarantine. What would Eliyahu eat while he was hiding from this evil world? How would he sustain himself as he tried to banish evil from his life?
וְהָעֹרְבִ֗ים מְבִאִ֨ים ל֜וֹ לֶ֤חֶם וּבָשָׂר֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וְלֶ֥חֶם וּבָשָׂ֖ר בָּעָ֑רֶב
It was the raven that brought him food, it was the raven that brought him sustenance, teaching him the lesson that Noach never learned. That there is no evil, there is only opportunity for redemption. An arev is not b’ra, in evil, that is a distortion of the lettering. A raven is an arev, a mixture; a combination of good and evil, of integrating the lessons learnt from the past into our future, of integrating our weaknesses into our personality in a healthy fashion, of seeing the good and G-dliness in everyone.
So the truth is, calling this Baltimore football team, a team that rebuilt despite heartbreaking setback, a team that reflects undying hope and an ethic of never stopping, calling this team, the Ravens, is actually a perfect name for this team.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—evermore! Evermore!