Posted on October 8, 2021
October 8th 5782
Of the Olive Branch
The flood was over but they were all still living on the ark. Noah sent out a dove to seek dry land. The first time she came back with nothing. Then, the second time Noah sent the dove, she returned with an olive branch in her bill.
וַתָּבֹ֨א אֵלָ֤יו הַיּוֹנָה֙ לְעֵ֣ת עֶ֔רֶב וְהִנֵּ֥ה עֲלֵה־זַ֖יִת טָרָ֣ף בְּפִ֑יהָ וַיֵּ֣דַע נֹ֔חַ כִּי־קַ֥לּוּ הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃
The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. Genesis 8:11
Have you ever tasted an olive straight off the tree? It is horrible, bitter, and inedible. Of all the branches the Torah could have told us that the dove brought back, why was it a bitter olive branch? Wouldn’t she have been better off with a branch from an orange tree or an etrog tree, or, I don’t know, a kiwi tree?
My friend Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe explains that we learn from the dove carrying the olive branch that it is better to have a life of freedom, even if that life is full of challenges and bitterness than a comfortable life that is not free. (Many folks throughout history would agree with her; do you?)
Rashi brings a midrash that says it a little differently. The dove said: “Rather that my food be bitter as an olive but from the hand of God, than as sweet as honey and from the hand of mortal men.”
Rabbanit Jaffe emphasizes the value of being able to make our own choices, control our own time, to determine our own priorities. She remembers The Last Emperor — how it seemed that he had everything, but he really had no power of choice at all. The midrash focuses on the value of being able to rely on God, rather than on the good of humans. It comes in the context of a discussion about receiving tzedakah.
We might combine the two approaches. There are different kinds of freedom. It is not only the lack of political freedom that curtails one’s choices. Poverty, for example, reduces choice considerably. Receiving human help (accepting tzedakah when needed) can actually increase one’s freedom to make choices! Only with some financial security can one choose, for example, which kinds of food can be purchased or not to work on Shabbat or if there is time and energy to become involved in the Temple. Let us use the image of the dove and the olive branch to increase choice — ours and others– by giving and accepting tzedakah when needed. Let us further use the image of the dove and the olive branch to think about different freedoms of choice and how we can exercise those freedoms and ensure that those freedoms include all of us.
יונה מצאה בו מנוח
The dove found rest. Shabbat Shalom.
Sneak preview, the Tower of Babel.