When the Rain Stopped

When the Rain Stopped [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Artist: Issa Ibrahim

Ah, today the rain stopped! In Los Angeles, where it rarely rains, it has been pouring vast quantities of liquid from the grey sky all week. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.” That’s what I sang as a child while I jumped rope. As an adult, I know how important rain is to our survival. We need it for our crops, our food supply, our water, our sustenance. For centuries, during the religious service, Jews – and adherents to other religions — have prayed for rain. Now, with the California sun barely peeping out from the clouds, birds are already chirping in the early morning. It’s time to get up and face the world, time to leave my warm and cozy nest, my new bed with the head and foot rests that can rise at the touch of a button.  As I emerge, I feel a bit like the biblical Noah. Is it really dry out there?

Like the birds that inhabit the skies, most people are nesters. For most of us, there is no place like home. The sentimental slogan “Home Sweet Home” has long adorned wall plaques in America. In another era, children were taught to embroider these words as samplers. Still, other people have other ideas; they don’t want to be tied to place: nomads, gypsies, hippies in the 60s and 70s, young people with wanderlust today. Millennials unsure of where their next job might be. Their instincts impel them toward the freedom to move. For them, “home is where you hang your hat.”

So too, with ravens, who are among the cleverest of birds. For them, home is where you find a food supply. They are scavengers who will eat anything, even carrion. Doves, on the other hand, have the nesting urge. No matter how far away they are from home, they will find their way back. They have long been used by the military to deliver messages and bring back a response. Remarkable birds.

But these two birds, the raven and the dove, were not counted among the pairs that peopled the biblical Noah’s Ark . Rather, Noah kept them as domestic pets. This is not so unusual in the Middle East, where even today well-to-do Arabs — in Saudi Arabia, for example — keep falcons as pets. Historically, ravens and doves have been domesticated pets for centuries.

These two birds are important characters in the biblical Noah story. And the dove, which has come to symbolize peace, is the connector to the Jonah story [2]. The Hebrew name, yonah, means dove. Creatures who inhabit the waters, in the form of two whales, male and female, are also central to the Jonah story.

Let’s take a look at Noah first. Noah did not want to leave his home. He built the Ark that was to house his family and samples of every existing creature, kosher and unkosher, only at the command of God. This unlikely human and animal cargo all floated atop the waters in that Ark until it appeared that the flood God had sent to wipe out a sinful mankind might be receding. Perhaps Noah would soon find land. But what Noah dreaded, according to Sheila Tuller Keiter, who wrote an article called “The Integral Connection between Noah and Jonah,” was that he might find corpses — not floating in the sea, but piled up on the land.

That is why he first sent out his pet raven to check whether land could be sighted. Noah knew that dry land was close by. The Torah tells us so. He sent out the raven to check for piled up death. If the scavenging raven sighted a new food source — corpses or carrion, — he would undoubtedly take off from the Ark to feast. But the raven did not see dead things, nothing to scavenge, nothing to eat. So he merely circled the Ark a few times and returned home, to the Ark. He knew that Noah would feed him. Then, after an interval, Noah sent out his pet dove, who, sure enough, returned after a time with an olive branch in its beak, perfect to start a nest in the Ark. But Noah realized that a green olive branch signified that dry land was close by, and he was able to land the Ark on Mount Ararat, where some biblical scholars believe it can still be found. In subsequent years, holding out an olive branch also came to signify peace.

In the living room of our home, a beautiful, abstract etching by the famous Italian artist, Emilio Greco, looks back at us. Created for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, it symbolizes universal peace. In our particular home, our little nest, it is the symbol for shalom bayit, a peaceful home.

As for the prophet Jonah, he was a nester too, and  like the dove, a Home Sweet Home man. When God told him to go to a foreign city, Ninevah, he fled the command to what he thought would be safety aboard a ship. Even though the ship was caught in a horrific storm, he fell asleep in its belly. He nested. When he is thrown overboard, at his suggestion, by the superstitious sailors, he finds a new home in the belly of a big fish who swallows him. But poor Jonah goes from belly to belly.

According to a midrash Tuller Keiter cites, God considers Jonah to be too comfortable in the spacious male fish’s belly. So Jonah is ejected and immediately swallowed by a female fish, where he is crowded by embryos. Now he definitely feels so much pressure and discomfort that he finally prays to God. In a way, his experience in the belly of the fish is a kind of re-birthing. Finally, he finds his courage to leave home. He delivers the message of destruction to Ninevah, leaves the city for what we would call the suburbs today, and immediately builds himself a nest there, in the form of a sukkah. The story of Jonah, with its dramatic details, is often read on Yom Kippur afternoon. The idea is that when we have the courage to leave our areas of comfort, we are forced to grow and to develop empathy for others. Fortunately, the citizens of Ninevah listen to Jonah’s warnings and repent. God does not destroy them. And Jonah is safe too. Peace prevails in his snug new home.

Facing the brave new world is not for everyone. As we have seen, Noah was also afraid to embark in a new land. He left the Ark only when God commanded him. However, his first act, after making offerings to God, was to plant a vineyard so that he could eventually make wine and mask his insecurity with drink. Racked with survivor guilt, and regretting his previous lack of empathy for others, he lives out the rest of his life stoned (on alcohol, not marijuana).

As for the dove and the raven, they each found what they needed, a secure shelter and sufficient food. I would like to believe that they lived happily ever after – and that they provided some familiar consolation for Noah.

[1] Originally I wrote this essay as a sermon based on an article by Sheila Tuller Keiter, “Noah and the Dove: The Integral Connection Between Noah and Jonah,” The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 40:4, 2012.

[2] Ibid.