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The Hidden Message of the Olive Branch

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Nov 1, 2019

The international symbol for peace is the olive branch. A dove too is identified with amity and congruence.

Where does this idea find its source?

This bird and olive branch are first referenced in Parshas Noach:

"וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ לִרְאוֹת֙ הֲקַ֣לּוּ הַמַּ֔יִם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ וְלֹֽא־מָצְאָה֩ הַיּוֹנָ֨ה מָנ֜וֹחַ לְכַף־רַגְלָ֗הּ וַתָּ֤שָׁב אֵלָיו֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה כִּי־מַ֖יִם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָדוֹ֙ וַיִּקָּחֶ֔הָ וַיָּבֵ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ אֵלָ֖יו אֶל־הַתֵּבָֽה׃ וַיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וַיֹּ֛סֶף שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה׃ וַתָּבֹ֨א אֵלָ֤יו הַיּוֹנָה֙ לְעֵ֣ת עֶ֔רֶב וְהִנֵּ֥ה עֲלֵה־זַ֖יִת טָרָ֣ף בְּפִ֑יהָ וַיֵּ֣דַע נֹ֔חַ כִּי־קַ֥לּוּ הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֥ל הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וַיִּיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וַיְשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יָסְפָ֥ה שׁוּב־אֵלָ֖יו עֽוֹד׃ וַֽ֠יְהִי בְּאַחַ֨ת וְשֵׁשׁ־מֵא֜וֹת שָׁנָ֗ה בָּֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֔דֶשׁ חָֽרְב֥וּ הַמַּ֖יִם מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיָּ֤סַר נֹ֙חַ֙ אֶת־מִכְסֵ֣ה הַתֵּבָ֔ה וַיַּ֕רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה חָֽרְב֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃" (בראשית ח:ז-י"ג)

Then he sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased from the surface of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he took it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. 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. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him anymore. In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to dry from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was drying’ (Bereshis 8:7-13).

In this entire narrative, every word is critical to our understanding, but a phrase stuck out to me as wholly extraneous. When the dove returned with the olive branch, which let Noach know that the waters were subsiding, the Torah tells us when the dove returned: “toward evening.” Why do we need to know that? Does it really matter? The Torah itself alludes to the fact that the distinctions between day and night got blurred during the deluge (see Rashi to Bereshis 8:22, based upon the Midash Bereshis Rabbah34:11). So what do we learn from these seemingly extraneous words?

The K’li Yakar asks this question and answers citing an opinion of the Chizkuni regarding the “tzohar” that provided light to the ark (see Bereshis 6:16). Rashi offers two opinions what this mysterious “tzohar” was. Some believe it was a window and others believe it was a precious gem that emitted light. Chizkuni combines the two views. He claims that indeed the “tzohar” was a window, the same window through which Noach dispatched the raven and the dove (see Bereshis 8:6). During the day, suggests Chizkuni, when the window was closed, a gem was placed before it. However, Chizkuni believes the pshat (most simple) explanation of the verse is that the tzohar, which produced light for the ark, was neither a window nor a gem. He believed it was olive oil, yitzhar in Hebrew, which shares a common root with the word tzoharChizkuni concludes that since the heavenly bodies (mazalos) did not function during the period of the flood, artificial light, i.e. kindling with oil, would have been necessary. Kli Yakar finds Midrashic support forChizkuni’s commentary. Kli Yakar’s comments parallel those views (i.e. Drash v’Iyun) that Noah’s ark was a mini Tabernacle. Clearly the kindling of a lamp would foreshadow the lighting of the Menorah, which can also serve as a prequel for Chanukah.

According to this opinion, the message of the olive branch is quite different. The dove brought to Noach an item that was needed. The olive branch showed Noach that he could exit the cocoon of the ark and provide light and warmth for his family.  

Perhaps the Kli Yakar’s mention of the Menorah in the Tabernacle and the Hasmonean victory over the Selucid Greeks -the miracle of Chanukah - teaches us an additional lesson. Both the Temple which housed the beautiful Menorah, and the Hasmonean dynasty, did not last forever. Their downfalls are recounted in our history; their destinies were lost due to sin.

Noach had to start over. Unfortunately, the only post-diluvian narrative the Torah provides about Noach is quite negative. Adam and Chava already sinned in the Garden of Eden, a mere hours after they were created (based on the Midrash). God destroyed the world due to sin in the days of Noach. The end of the parshah describes man’s attempt to rebel against God and build a tower to attack Him in heaven, rachmana litzlan (see Rashi to Bereshis 10:1). The world descended into idolatry, with Avraham and his family of protagonists the exception.

Maybe the message of the olive branch viewed from the view of Chizkuni and Kli Yakar is that humankind is mortal and flawed, but that nonetheless does not exempt anyone from trying and living a life of temimus , a life of perfect congress with the Almighty. This view may even sync with Rashi’s interpretation of the meaning of the olive branch: that it is a bitter pill to swallow.

I can’t believe that we are approaching the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Those were dark days. About two years prior, he stood on the lawn of the White House and President Bill Clinton prodded him to shake hands with the embodiment of evil, Yasser Arafat. The  look on Rabin’s face when he shook Arafat’s hand will never leave me. It looked like a man swallowing the bitterest of pills but he knew he had to do it (I’m not weighing in on the value or not of the Oslo Accords). That was the peace of the olive branch. That is Rashi’s view.

Chizkuni/Kli Yakar’s interpretation, allow us to see the olive branch either as an unflawed ideal (providing fuel for light and heat) or a temporary solution that does not last. Good things cannot last on their own. Humans need to make them work by toiling to maintain them. No peace lasts without maintenance and work on both sides; no marriage or any type of partnership can soar without both sides working to preserve the ideal level. Professionals need to constantly continue learning and reviewing even the most rudimentary of skills and exercises.

The olive oil associated with the Bais Hamikdash (Holy Temple) and that of the Maccabees could have lasted if people would have kept in mind and preserved the basic values associated with their greatness.

Let’s approach life, and the normal-ness and basic-ness of the month of Cheshvan with this attitude. We have the tools and knowledge we need to succeed, but one of those tools is the drive to maintain those tools and that knowledge. Without that, the tools become rusty and unusable.



When the dove returns to the ark, why does the Torah stress that the bird returned towards evening? What does that teach us about the light source of the ark?

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