The Torah relates in Parashat Noach that after the flood, Noach sent a dove from the ark to determine whether the floodwaters had subsided to the point where there was dry, inhabitable land on earth. The dove could not find anywhere to land, and so it returned to the ark. A week later, Noach again sent the dove, and this time, it returned with the leaf of an olive branch, indicating to Noach that vegetation was again accessible (8:11).
Rashi cites the Gemara (Eiruvin 18b) as finding it significant that the dove brought specifically an olive, and explaining that the dove was saying to Noach, “Let my food be bitter like an olive through the Almighty’s hand, rather than sweet as honey through the hand of a human being.” The bitter olive brought from outside the ark sent the message to Noach that receiving “bitter” food from the hand of the Almighty is preferable to receiving “sweet” food from Noach, inside the ark.
The plain meaning of the Gemara’s statement, seemingly, is that one should prefer working to obtain his livelihood, relying on God’s help, rather than effortlessly living off the largesse of other people. The animals inside the ark represented those who are handed their livelihood without having to invest work or face the risks and pressures of finding sustenance outside the security of the “ark,” where they are cared for. The Gemara teaches that it is preferable to leave the “ark,” to face the challenges of earning a living on one’s own with faith in God’s ability and willingness to provide, even if the result is “bitter” as compared to the “sweetness” of free gifts.
Rav Yisrael of Modzhitz, however, in Divrei Yisrael, offers a different explanation. He suggests interpreting the term “be-yado shel Ha-kadosh Barukh” (“through the Almighty’s hand”) in the Gemara’s comment as referring to compliance with the Torah, which was given to us by God. And the term “bi-ydei basar va-dam” (“through the hands of a human being”), Rav Yisrael of Modzhitz writes, refers to exclusive focus on mundane endeavors. The Rebbe of Modzhitz explains that oftentimes, living and working in compliance with the Torah’s obligations and restrictions can result in a degree of “bitterness” – of compromise in one’s material standards. Leading a Torah life entails more than a few sacrifices of time and money. The Gemara here seeks to impress upon us that this “bitterness,” the sacrifices we are called upon to make for the sake of obeying the Torah’s laws, are far preferable to the “sweetness” – the comforts and vain pleasures that we could otherwise enjoy if we directed our lives exclusively to material gain and worldly pleasures. We should not hesitate to make the sacrifices necessitated by Torah observance, and should instead embrace and celebrate the privilege we have to live meaningful lives in the devoted service of our Creator, which is absolutely worth the sacrifices this demands.