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An olive branch?

Thursday, 22 October, 2020 - 6:04 pm

 An olive branch – the universal symbol of peace.  Or is it?  I think the world took this approach to the meaning of the olive branch from the story of Noah and the flood, that we read in this week’s Parsha.  The world had been covered in water, Noah and his family along with each species of living beings were in the Ark, and the waters were receding.  Then the Ark landed on a  mountain. Noach wanted to see if the land was dry and if it was time to disembark.  He sent a raven out, but the raven refused to leave the area of the Ark.  He then sent a dove, who came back with an “olive leaf” - the Torah says leaf, not branch  – that it had plucked in its beak.  The world interprets this as the dove coming to offer peace with an olive branch.

It’s interesting that none of the classical Jewish sources interpret it that way.  If you think about it, you can;t really make peace when there is nobody left with whom to make peace.   Some say that the significance of the leaf, and specifically that it was plucked – a detail that would seem redundant – was that new foliage had grown on the trees, showing that the world had had some time to dry out.  But that does not explain the fact that the Torah specifies that it was an olive leaf.

Rashi comments on the olive leaf, and teaches us a very powerful lesson that applies to each of us in our lives.  Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b): The dove is saying: “Let my food be as bitter as an olive in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He, and not as sweet as honey in the hands of flesh and blood.”  In our daily lives, we all depend on others on some level for the fulfillment of our needs.  The message of the olive leaf is that we should not put our faith in others, rather we should trust in Hashem who is the source of all the help.  It is a foundation of Jewish faith that Hashem’s Divine Providence is constant in every aspect of the world.  The fact that someone helped me get something I need is because Hashem willed that he or she should be there for me at that time.  The person who has helped me deserves gratitude and credit, because he or she made a choice for goodness, but had he or she not made that choice, there would have been another.  

The olive leaf is also telling us that the easiest way out is not necessarily the best.  Having faith in Hashem and working on our connection with Him is often more difficult than just going with the flow of the world and relying on the “natural” way of things.  Why should I be honest in business if “everyone cheats?”  Why should I refuse to work on Shabbat when it might cost me income.  Why should I not take the rosy job that requires me to work on Friday when Shabbat begins at 4:30?  How will I survive?  The message of the olive leaf is that yes, sometimes it seems a  little bitter initially to rely on Hashem, but in the long run, this is what leads to us truly flourishing in the world.

After the flood, Noach and his family went out into the world and created a whole new life.  In contrast to the utter depravity of the previous generations who became so corrupt that they were not redeemable, the next generations built a world that ultimately produced our forefather Avraham and foremother Sarah and the Jewish nation.  While there were certainly some pretty negative things going on, it was mitigated by the fact that the world had been purified by the flood.  And perhaps part of the reason was that as an introduction to re-inhabiting the world was this message, that putting our faith in Hashem, while not always sweet in the beginning, leads to a productive life, materially and spiritually.

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