My daughter came home last Shabbos with a dvar Torah about the raven sent out by Noach. According to the Midrash, the raven accused Noach of having designs on its mate. Instead of flying off in search of land, the raven hovered around the ark lest Noach try anything. As a result of its refusal to accept the mission of Noach, it was the raven which became destined to be a messenger to Eliyahu in a time of drought.
My wife asked my daughter (who is 13) what she made of this story -- do ravens talk, and can people like Noach really marry birds? My daughter said that in fact someone in her class has asked the teacher these very questions (good for that student!), to which the teacher answered that the animals in those days were different than our animals (bad for that teacher!).
I sympathize with the teacher's motive. How can she preserve the child's emunas chachamim when presenting a story that smacks of the fantastic and unbelievable? It's the approach that is faulty. Instead of trying to convince the child that ravens once did talk (trying to make the fantasy more palatable), the teacher should have used the opportunity to explain that Chazal sometimes teach through allegory and fable (see Rambam in Peirush haMishna beg of Perek Cheilek). Perhaps younger children will accept the image of Noach as Dr. Doolittle (though I can't imagine what they make of the biurd-human relationship part), but at some point children mature enough to realize this is not how the world works. Trying to preserve this image will not just cause a loss of credibility in the teacher, but c"v a loss of credibility in Torah as a sophisticated set of beliefs.
So what are Chazal trying to teach us here? I pulled out a Gur Arye and this is the lesson I drew:
The marriage relationship is sacrosanct. Even in the animal kingdom, there are species that stay with one spouse for an entire lifetime (and, no, I did not check if that applies to ravens). Part of that relationship undoubtedly involves the desire to protect one's partner and not to abandon the nest (in the figurative sense). So we should laud the raven! Instead of flying off into the sunset and abandoning the coup for greener pastures, it hung beside the ark, protective of its spouse.
But we don't laud the raven. There are times when even spouses must go in separate directions. Modern TV brings to our living room the image of soliders leaving home to serve their country in battle, of firemen who rush into burning buildings at great risk to their lives despite having a family at home, etc. We don't view these as breaches of familial duty, but as acts of couage and bravery to serve a greater good. When the services of the raven are needed to benefit the entire ark, hovering close by to look after one's own nest places personal good above the needs to society and is wrong.
Perhaps one can go even a step further. The purpose of marriage ultimately is for the sake of yishuv ha'olam. It is the institution of marriage and family that causes the world to grow in population, causing new regions to be explored, settled, and developed. For an entire year Noach's world consisted of the narrow dimensions of the ark. The key to unlocking that prison was finding land, and the raven was charged with the task. What greater yishuv ha'olam could there be than this mission!? By clinging to its nest the raven revealed that its motivation in staying by its spouse was not for this greater good of yishuv ha'olam, but instead, for its own personal selfish satisfaction. Not only does this trait of selfishness undermine the greater purpose of marriage in society, but it also undermines the very marriage bond itself. If one's concerns cannot rise above the selfish self-serving needs of one's own nest, one cannot begin to properly appreciate and care for the needs of another, even if that other is one's own spouse.
Chazal tell us (Sanhedrin 108) that the raven was one of only three creatures that broke the ban against having marital relations in the ark. The raven indulged in selfish pleasure while ignoring the fact that those around him were suffering and the world itself was being destroyed. In the ultimate ironic twist, who does the raven accuse of selfish motivations, of sending it away only to take its spouse? Noach -- the same Noach who for an entire years gave his every waking moment to selfless dedication to feeding and caring for the entire menagerie on the ark.
The raven's refusal to accept Noach's mission was not a sign of protective love of its mate -- it was a sign of selfishness and self-indulgance when needed by others. The Midrashic story is a lesson in placing the greater good above one's own needs, of selfish love and selfless sacrifice.