Parashat Tetzaveh begins with God’s command to Benei Yisrael that they supply pure olive oil for the kindling of the menorah in the Mishkan. The Midrash Tanchuma (5) draws a connection between this command and the first instance when the olive is mentioned in the Torah, commenting: “The Almighty said: Just as the dove brought light to the world, you, too, who are compared to a dove, bring olive oil and light the candle before Me.” After the flood, Noach waited for the floodwaters to subside, and eventually sent the dove to determine whether the world was again inhabitable. The dove found no dry land on which to stand, and so it returned to the ark. A week later, Noach again sent the dove, and this time, the dove returned with an olive branch, indicating that the earth had dried (8:11). God thus commanded Benei Yisrael – who are likened to a dove (“Yonati be-chagvei ha-sela” – Shir Hashirim 2:14) – to “bring light to the world” through the kindling of olive oil just as the dove “brought light to the world” by bringing Noach an olive branch after the flood.
How did the dove “bring light to the world” by returning to the ark with an olive branch? And how does this relate to the kindling of the menorah in the Beit Ha-mikdash?
A number of writers suggested explaining the Midrash’s remark based on the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Eiruvin (18b) regarding the significance of the dove’s specific choice of an olive branch. The Gemara tells that the dove said to God, “Let my food be bitter like an olive, but entrusted into Your hands, and not be sweet like honey but dependent upon human beings.” The dove brought the branch of a tree which produces bitter fruit, the Gemara says, to indicate that it is preferable to eat “bitter” food given from God, rather than enjoy “sweet” food obtained through the largesse of other people. Rav Baruch Yitzchak Yissachar Leventhal, in his Birkat Yitzchak (Parashat Tetzaveh), explains the Gemara’s remark as teaching us the proper approach to faith in regard to our sustenance. The Gemara here instructs that it is preferable to live with faith even when our sustenance is less than ideal, than to live without faith when our sustenance is as “sweet” as we want it to be. The dove had been fed and cared for on the ark by Noach, and once it was freed, all it could find to eat was a “bitter” olive. The Gemara teaches that the dove’s condition after being freed was preferable to its condition on the ark – because we are always better off acknowledging God as the source of our livelihood than placing our trust in human beings, regardless of our condition.
Rav Leventhal explains on this basis the Midrash’s comment that Benei Yisrael were commanded to “bring light to the world” like the dove. The light of the menorah that illuminated the Beit Ha-mikdash symbolizes the light of faith in God that we are to shine upon the world through our religious devotion. This light is thus associated with the dove’s olive branch – which announced that it is preferable to live with faith in God’s beneficence, even when life seems “bitter,” than to place our trust in other people.
Rav Yitzchak Stollman, in his Minchat Yitzchak (Parashat Noach), explains differently. He writes that the dove’s announcement refers to the promise of change in the aftermath of the flood. God flooded the earth because of widespread greed and theft, as people felt entitled to take what belonged to others. The Gemara depicts the dove announcing after the flood that it wants only that which God gives it, without expecting to receive anything from others – expressing the new ethical mindset with which the world would be rebuilt. The message of the flood was that we need to feel content with what we rightfully earn, without feeling entitled to, or demanding, what others have. This message was the “light” brought by the dove in the aftermath of the flood, and this is the “light” that Am Yisrael is to bring to the world, symbolized by the light of the menorah. We are to illuminate the earth by maintaining a strict ethical code, by firmly believing that it is preferable to experience “bitterness” through moral conduct than to enjoy “sweetness” by taking for ourselves that which belongs to others. We are to serve as the models of this message represented by the dove, the message of compromising and sacrificing for the sake of fairness and integrity, rather than allowing the world to be overrun by greed, theft and corruption.