As the waters receded, Noach tried to send out a raven to determine whether the earth was dry but the bird refused to go, and simply flew back and forth in the immediate area of the teivah. The Ribbono shel Olam instructed Noach to accept the raven back into the teivah, for generations later this species would serve a crucial purpose: When Eliyahu Hanavi would hide from King Achav and Queen Izevel, ravens would bring him food from the royal palace.
Why did this bird refuse its first mission, but agree to the latter?
By nature, the raven is cruel. Unlike other types of living creatures, it abandons its young to their fate, and Hashem, in His infinite mercy, sends the young birds food through other means. Seeing the world through the lens of its own strong personality, the raven had respect for Eliyahu, who strongly rebuked his idol-worshipping brethren, executed hundreds of the false prophets of the idol Baal and for three years brought drought upon the land, causing a famine.
Noach, on the other hand, refrained from rebuking or taking any steps against the evildoers of his generation. The raven decided that Noach’s approach was incorrect, and therefore felt emboldened to ignore his request, which it deemed dangerous.
After an acrimonious exchange with the raven, Noach waited seven days and then sent out a dove to ascertain the condition of the earth. The dove found that the earth was still covered with water. Unable to land, he returned to the teivah and was welcomed back in by Noach.
A week later, Noach sent him out again. This time he returned to the teivah with an olive leaf in his mouth.
“Let my food be bitter as an olive and provided by the Hand of Hakadosh Baruch Hu,” the dove declared, “and not as sweet as honey but provided by the hand of flesh and blood.”
At first glance, this comment seems a bit out of place. For a full year, Noach suffered greatly, as he faithfully dedicated himself to the herculean task of feeding the various species of animals and birds, each according to its particular needs. When he emerged, he was groaning and spitting blood from his exertions.
As Shem, the son of Noach, later related to Eliezer, the servant of Avraham Avinu, any creature that was accustomed to eating by day got fed by day. Those who were used to nocturnal meals got their food at night. Each received its own diet, to the point that for a worm-eating small bird named zikisa, Noach kneaded bran in water so that it would become wormy and the zikisa would have what to eat.
The dove and other kosher birds enjoyed a special privilege. Unlike the other birds and animals, they got to live on the upper level of the teivah, together with Noach and his family.
So, after getting the royal treatment from Noach, why did the dove make such a stinging comment about preferring the bitter olive leaf to Noach’s food?
One explanation is that Noach was sending it out on a very dangerous mission, and the dove was putting its life on the line. It was only out of gratitude to Noach, who fed him for a year when it had no access to any other source of food, that the dove agreed to go.
But it couldn’t help pointing out the difference between Noach’s actions and those of the Ribbono shel Olam. The Master of the Universe is the One who grants life and truly feeds and sustains all living things. Yet He does not require — or even allow — a creature to endanger its life in order to fulfill any but three of His commandments. Yet Noach — in exchange for only one year’s worth of food — asked the dove to risk its life. (Adapted from a teaching by the Chasam Sofer.)
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The loftiness of Noach’s intentions and the importance of the dove’s mission are beyond the scope of our comprehension. But on our level, there is much that we can learn from this thought. For one thing, when we do for others, let us not expect — let alone demand — favors in return. Performing acts of chessed is a fundamental part of avodas Hashem, and simply by allowing us to help them, the recipients already have done so much.
Of course, exhibiting and expressing gratitude is a crucial moral obligation. But it is our gratitude towards others that we should focus on, not their gratitude — or lack of it — towards us.
In addition, it is the underlying message of the dove — applicable to all of us in every circumstance — that we must always bear in mind. Only when we recognize that the ultimate Source of our parnassah is Hashem is life a meaningful experience. Even if outwardly the most difficult of circumstances are in place — akin to the bitter leaf of an olive — we will be better off than those who appear to be living a life as sweet as honey.