Parashat Noah- The Raven and Paranoia
The Torah in Parashat Noah tells the famous story of the flood that destroyed the earth, and how Noah and his family survived the flood on the ark, together with members of every species of animal. We read that after the flood, Noah sent an Oreb, a raven, from the ark, to determine whether the earth had dried and become habitable once again. Oddly enough, the Torah tells, the raven flew continuously around the ark, and never returned to Noah. Noah then decided to send a dove, which flew from the ark and then returned to Noah, indicating that water still filled the earth. When Noah dispatched the dove the second time, it returned with an olive leaf, indicating that the world was habitable.
Rashi makes an astonishing comment to explain why the raven encircled the ark, rather than fulfilling the mission on which it was sent. He writes that the raven suspected that Noah sent it out of the ark because he desired its mate. The raven was intent on not allowing Noah to carry out this nefarious scheme, and so it flew continuously around the ark, peering in to ensure that Noah made no attempt to take the female raven.
How are we to understand this incident? What would lead the raven to believe that Noah desired its mate? Do humans desire relations with birds? What logic was there in the raven’s suspicion?
Very often, when our Sages depict seemingly bizarre images such as this one, they are making a subtle observation about us, about people. Sometimes the Hachamim teach us directly, by stating explicitly what we need to do and what we need not to do, but in many instances they teach and instruct by way of analogies and parables. When the Sages described the raven in the ark, they were not talking about the raven – they were talking about us, and, specifically, the tendency of many people to be paranoiac, to always think the worst and suspect that others are conspiring against them.
A woman walks into a wedding hall and sees two friends whispering to each other and giggling. When they see her, they stop speaking to each other. Immediately, the woman reaches the conclusion that they were speaking about her. Thoughts begin flying around her head, trying to determine what kind of negative comments were made about her. In an instant, her relationship with those friends is broken.
A twenty-year-old girl wakes up one morning, looks in the mirror and sees a pimple on her forehead. She cancels her plans for the next week, petrified by the thoughts of what people might say about her when seeing her in her appalling state of physical deformity.
Our Sages reveal to us the absurdity of this kind of thinking through the story of the raven’s suspicion of Noah. Noah sent the raven on a simple, straightforward mission – and it immediately begins conjuring up imaginative scenarios and conspiracy theories. The raven’s paranoia is, unfortunately, not all that different from the paranoia that plagues many of us, the tendency to grow unreasonably suspicious of people around us.
In order to overcome this tendency, it is important for us to understand its origins. Paranoia is rooted in arrogance, in our inflated egos. People become paranoiac when they see themselves as occupying the center of the world, the axis around which it turns. From this perspective, everything that goes on around a person, by default, revolves around him. If two people are talking privately, it must involve him. And because everybody’s attention is focused on him, any blemish will immediately be noticed and become the primary topic of conversation at everybody’s dinner table.
The best antidote to paranoia is remembering that we each occupy but a very small place in the universe. We are not at the center of everyone’s attention. People are busy with their own lives, and have many, many other things to worry about besides what we look like, what we say and what we do. By keeping things in perspective, and remembering who we are and who we aren’t, we can overcome this damaging tendency of suspicion. We have no reason to assume that we are the topic of other people’s conversations – no more than the raven had reason to assume that Noah desired its mate!