By Rabbi Dan Lewin
The stories in the beginning of the first book of Bereisheet (Genesis) are among the most famous and fascinating. And sometimes, because they have become so familiar, we may glance over some vital details smuggled into the verses.
Last week’s portion related the unfolding of creation, culminating in the human being — a unique creature of body and spirit — who is granted the power of free will. This week, we read about the moral descent of the following generations that brought the great flood, whose purpose was to cleanse the world of all corruption.
A righteous man in his generation, Noah, was told to build an ark; he prepared well for the raging waters and was saved, along with his family and the animals he had brought inside. When Noah wanted to determine whether “the waters had abated from upon the earth,” which would allow him and the other inhabitants to leave, he sent a raven and later a dove. Each returned empty-handed, revealing that it was still not the right time to exit.
Finally, after he sends out a second dove, the verse relates: “And the dove returned to him at evening and behold, it had a plucked-off olive leaf in its mouth; thus, Noah knew that the water had abated from upon the earth” (Genesis 8:11). This sight convinces Noah that the ground was dry enough for him to leave and a new era is underway.
An overlooked image
The image of a dove gliding back to the ship with an olive leaf in its beak, signaling tranquility after devastation, is so powerful that we often absorb it and move on without pausing to consider some seemingly missing pieces in the story. The Torah does not say where the dove found the leaf, nor does it elaborate on how this convinced Noah that the waters had subsided. As such, a simple question arises, a mysterious feature, that even an alert child might inquire about:
Didn’t we read earlier in the story (Genesis 7:17-23) that the waters became exceedingly powerful, continued to rise and “blotted out all beings that were upon the face of the earth…and only Noah and those with him in the ark survived”? If so, from where did the dove pull a leaf?
The classical commentaries offer two possible answers that stimulate the imagination yet invite more queries: (1) The leaf was taken from the Land of Israel, which, according to one view, was unaffected by the flood — that part of the world did not need purging. As the verse in Ezekiel says: “You are a land that is not cleansed; it was not rained upon on the day of fury.” (2) The gates of the Garden of Eden were miraculously opened, a place beyond the flood’s reach, and the dove derived the leaf from there.
But these explanations, while intriguing, are problematic according to the literal narrative. If the dove somehow found the olive leaf from a serene area that the flood never touched, how would Noah be able to draw any conclusion about the conditions of the ground around him? Dry land miles away — between Mount Ararat and Israel — wouldn’t tell him anything about whether it was safe to step out of the Ark.
So back to our question: From where did the dove get the leaf and how does seeing it tell Noah that it’s time to leave? After all, maybe the dove retrieved a leaf from a tall tree on the top of a mountain. Or perhaps it was carrying some drenched foliage that had been floating on the water. Neither of these would provide sufficient proof that the water had subsided on the “face of the earth.”
Plucking insights from the verse
To find an answer to these major questions, we need look no further than the succinct and subtle wording of the original verse. The Torah could have simply said “the dove returned with a leaf in its beak.” Of what significance is it that it came from an olive tree or that it was “plucked off?” Yet these details provide a window into the full story:
As far as surviving the flood that had seemingly destroyed everything, the Talmud and other sources describe, in general, how olive trees are particularly strong and resilient. And since there is no explicit mention that all plant life was destroyed, it is reasonable that a few olive trees could have survived the flood. Regarding how the leaf provided Noah proof of dry land, the word “plucked” suggests that although the tree remained intact, the foliage was freshly grown (not washed-up debris).
(When reading and teaching this story to children, it is largely assumed that the leaf in this image is one that survived the flood; once the water levels decreased, it became accessible to the dove that was hovering over the residing waters. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe proposes a different insight: The dove discovered and brought back a new leaf, one that had grown after the flood had already finished.)
Seeing such a leaf — Noah could easily recognize the difference between a leaf recently “plucked” from a branch and one floating in water for weeks — indicated that the waters had totally subsided. As the branches of olive trees are low, and it would have taken time for a new leaf to grow, Noah was satisfied.
On a deeper level, each of these elements — the flood, the main character (Noah), the image of the dove with an olive leaf — contains important symbols and messages.
The commentaries explain that the Hebrew word “Noah” itself connotes a spirit of tranquility — the calmness after the storm. The prophets (Isaiah 54:9) refer to the great flood as the “waters of Noah,” though the story paradoxically relates his salvation from those violent waves. This phrase sends the message that the flood had a more profound purpose than to destroy. Like a person emerging from the purifying waters of the mikvah, the world had a fresh status after the flood and was ready to ascend to a higher moral plane than otherwise possible.
In a broader context, the raging waters represent our fierce inner struggles, particularly with material burdens that distract us from study, spiritual pursuits and true peace of mind. The olive leaf has a bitter taste yet represents the preferred “nutrition that comes directly from G-d over the sweet food of flesh and blood.”
In short, if we can hold strong — become resilient like an olive tree — to endure the most threatening and adverse conditions that seem to destroy our vision of a happy life and all we are trying to build (while internalizing that such trials are sent to bring out our deepest resources), then we will soon arrive at a higher level of tranquility. As the dove swoops in to signal that a new stage of production is underway, we can finally breathe freely.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.