December 9, 2018

Weekly Parsha: Noach

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

“The dove returned to him in the evening, and behold it had plucked an olive leaf in its mouth.” –Genesis 8:11


Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice president of community engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

When the dove returns with the olive leaf, Noah stays in the ark. Seven days later, when the dove flies away forever, Noah still remains in the ark — until God tells him to leave. Then Noah plants a vineyard, drinks the wine and dances naked in his tent. Traumatized by the destruction he witnessed, Noah turns to alcohol for comfort. 

As I write these words, many people whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas are awaiting word whether it is safe for them to return home. The hard work of rebuilding their lives has not yet begun. A year after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, there are still families without homes or a roof over their heads, and the lightless streets are impassable at night. Noah’s story reminds us that the work of reconstruction after a flood or other calamity can extend long after the stories leave the headlines. 

Likewise, healing from other traumas often begins significantly after the event itself — after we feel physically safe enough to grapple with the emotional pain. Grief can strike long after a death, and we may not even recognize initially that the sadness we’re feeling is a response to that loss, rather than to current events in our lives. Community members typically help at the time of a death but may forget that the hardest time for mourners often comes months or years later. 

After the waters recede, the slow, painstaking work of healing begins. 


Marcus Freed
Author of “The Kosher Sutras,” a yoga-based Torah commentary

Light follows darkness. Rebirth follows tragedy. The old makes way for the new. The empires of Egypt, Rome, Persia and Greece fell and the British empire, unfortunately, took a few hits. We live in times of revolution: #metoo, #timesup, American politics, Brexit and rapid technological progress.

When part of our life collapses — losing a job, a relationship or being diagnosed with a debilitating illness — we can discover new possibilities and become stronger.

An olive leaf symbolizes new personal strength, light and better health. Rabbi Nachman taught that the song of birds, chazzan, represents prophecy, chazon.

There is a commandment to “crush olives for the light” (Exodus 27:20) and one idea is that we are like the olive. Sometimes we need to be crushed to unlock our potential. A miracle vial of olive oil created the lights of Hanukkah. Today our menorahs light up winter, the darkest point in our year. Our skin also can become more radiant by eating olive oil.

After mass destruction, the dove plucked and delivered an olive leaf. Perhaps the bird brought a message that your personal pain can lead to a powerful new chapter.


Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

What a relief it must have been to the people on the ark to see this first sign of land after spending 10 months afloat on a complete water world! During that time, they had no assurance that they would ever again see dry land, so the dove holding the olive leaf symbolized the proximity not only of land, but also of food. This clearly meant nothing less than that they would soon be able to resume life on land under conditions that would be safe, familiar and sustaining for them.  

Think about times of great anxiety in your own life or that of your loved ones: if relief came, in what form did it come? What was the harbinger of that relief? A job offer after a long search while unemployed? The doctor telling you that your cancer is in remission? A “Eureka!” experience when you finally figured out the solution to a difficult problem? A shared hug of reconciliation among family members or friends who had seemed forever at odds and angry with each other?  

As Jews, we bless God “for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion” (shehecheyanu vekiymanu, vehigi’anu lazman hazeh) at the beginning of each of the biblical holy days. In happy, dramatic turns in our lives like the ones mentioned above, that blessing also seems appropriate. It did not exist at the time of Noah, but had the people on board Noah’s ark known it, they surely would have uttered it. 


Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Many of my conversations with people in abusive or volatile relationships begin with the following mental negotiation: “Rabbi, I understand that my current situation is unhealthy and unstable, but it is all I know. To leave this life is entering a new world I can’t begin to understand.” The negotiation is often the nurturing of an inner dialogue, a back and forth between an existence that while detrimental, is predictable and another that pulsates with the unknown and endless possibility. Some choose light; but so many return to the dark.

The Radak, the Medieval commentator of the Torah, asks, “Why did the dove choose a leaf from an olive tree?” He explains with an answer found in the Talmud: that even a bitter tasting leaf eaten in freedom was preferable to being cooped up in luxurious surroundings. In other words, the dove put her trust in God, understanding that while new beginnings may be bitter, the hope that freedom brings is worth the initial struggle. 

It is a real gamble: To change direction and embark on uncharted territory. To leave what is comfortable and swim away, praying that you’ll end up on dry land. The dove reminds us that first steps into new worlds are often muddy, dirty and difficult. But first steps lead to trailblazing efforts, and roads that can carry us to lives of purpose and meaning. 

Take a leap of faith. A world of light and wonder awaits.


Daniel Lobell
Comedian, host of “Modern Day Philosophers” podcast

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory), explained that even if something seems bitter like an olive leaf, we need to trust that God is on our side and everything will turn out fine. Ultimately, his covenant with us will prevail, just as it did with Noah after the flood. 

When I think about doves, though, I get a little bitter. I had a great plan to release two doves at my brother’s wedding — the perfect surprise. 

I bought the birds from a live poultry shop on Queens Boulevard en route to the ceremony. We hid one in my wife Kylie’s dress and another up my jacket sleeve. When we were halfway down the aisle, we released the birds, but instead of gracefully soaring away, they awkwardly flapped around, and one landed on some woman’s head. She let out a loud shrill, which luckily was met with laughter from the rest of the crowd. Fortunately, no one ever found out they weren’t even doves. Just white pigeons, a much cheaper option. 

I guess I should have accounted for the fact that birds from live poultry shops never learn to fly because they’re kept in cages their entire lives. My brother was a little upset, but not for long. He loved his wedding gift: wooden kitchen utensils made from, you guessed it, olive wood. I literally extended the olive branch and made things OK. I guess it really is a peacemaker. So the moral is, if you can’t get the bird to do it … you gotta do it yourself. Peace and love.