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1 Teves 5761 - December 27, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: The Loyalty of the Dove

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

In Perek Shirah, the ancient Midrash that lists the philosophical and ethical lessons to be learned from the natural world, one of the songs reads: "The dove is saying, `Like a swift or crane, so do I chatter; I moan like a dove; my eyes fail with looking upward; Hashem, I am oppressed, be my security' (Yeshayah 38:14). The dove says before Hakodosh Boruch Hu: 'Master of the World! May my sustenance be as bitter as an olive in Your hand, rather than it being sweet as honey through flesh and blood' (Eruvin 18b, Sanhedrin 108b)."

The dove is not merely a bird from which we can learn a lesson; it is seen as one of the quintessential creatures that clearly embody a concept: " `He teaches us from the animals of the land, and from the birds of the heavens He makes us wise' (Iyov 35:11). Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition of] theft from the ant, [the prohibition of] forbidden relationships from the dove, and derech eretz from fowl" (Eruvin 100b).

The dove is a monogamous bird, demonstrating the quality of fidelity and loyalty. After the eggs have been laid, both parents take on the task of incubation with a fairly regular division of labor: the male sits on the eggs for much of the day and the female sits on them for the rest of the time. When the chicks hatch, both parents share the job of feeding them, taking turns to secrete a nutritious broth from their crop (in their gullet). Most significantly of all, after the brood has been reared the doves do not abandon each other in favor of other mates, but stay with each other to produce further broods over the course of the year.

"Though you lie between the boundaries, you shall shine like the pinions of a dove covered with silver, and her wings with yellowish gold" (Tehillim 68:14). A bird's wings consist of two parts: the main limb, consisting of flesh and bone which provides the flapping action and power of the flight; and the outer flight feathers, called pinions, which assist in the lift and represent the wings as a form of shelter.

We shall discuss the pinions later; for now, let us look at the main wing. It is described in this verse with the term yerakrak, which refers to a yellowish type of gold that comes from the lands of Chavilah and Kush. This gold does not have a greenish or reddish tint as is found in gold of inferior purity.

The thrust of the wing enables the dove to fly up and away from danger. Conceptually, this represents the flight from sin, the avoidance of giving in to lusts of the flesh that the fidelity of the dove teaches us. This is also reflected in the color of the wing. Red is the color of blood and represents earthly (odom, red, relates to adomoh, earth), materialistic, and physical desires. But the gold of the dove's wings is specifically described as yerakrak, the type of gold furthest from a reddish tint. The dove teaches us to avoid giving in to physical lusts and to remain loyal to one's partner.

The fidelity of the dove is meant to teach us more than fidelity to our marital partners on earth. It also represents the loyalty that we display to our partner in Heaven. This is no mere coincidence, as the purpose of earthly relationships is to enable us to better understand and fulfill our relationship with Hashem. The Book of Shir Hashirim, therefore, whose story of love is designed to allude to our relationship with Hashem, uses the dove to teach us this lesson:

" `Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves' (Shir HaShirim 1:15). Just as the dove, from the time it recognizes its mate, does not substitute another for it, so, too, Klal Yisroel; from the time they recognized HaKodosh Boruch Hu, they did not substitute another for Him" (Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2).

This loyalty is reflected in the dove's pinions. Silvery- white in color, they express the purity of our dedication to Hashem. It is the pinions in particular which relate to this point, as the shelter of the feathers expresses the result of our trust in Hashem: our confidence in Him as our protection: "I will abide in your tent forever; I will trust in the shelter of your wings, selah" (Tehillim 61:5).

The loyalty to Hashem that is expressed by the dove is actualized in single-minded devotion to serving Him. The verse speaks of "lying down between the boundaries," a phrase also used in Yaakov's blessing of the Torah scholar Yissochor: "Yissochor is a beast of burden, lying down between the boundaries" (Bereishis 49:14). It suggests that rest is taken only at irregular places and intervals, with comfort sacrificed for the sake of Torah study.

The loyalty of the dove to its mate, with each fully trusting the other, is the loyalty that we are to have to Hashem. It is a relationship of mutual trust, with us dedicating our lives to Hashem and, in return, finding Him to be a source of shelter and trust. In times of hardship we can confidently rely on Him giving us strength. The song of the dove is, "Like a swift or crane, so do I chatter; I moan like a dove; my eyes fail with looking upward; Hashem, I am oppressed, be my security."

The dove also teaches us further insights into the trust in Hashem that we are to develop. Doves are not traditionally kept in coops. They are housed in dovecotes, which means that they largely fend for themselves rather than relying on their human owners.

"The dove came to him in the evening; and, behold, in her mouth was an olive leaf torn off; and Noach knew that the waters had abated from off the earth" (Bereishis 8:11). While Noach was certainly providing food for the dove in the Ark, the dove preferred to fend for herself, even if all she could find was a bitter olive twig. The verse states that it was "torn off"; the gemora notes that the same word occurs elsewhere: " `Give me neither poverty nor wealth; tear off for me the food that is due to me' (Mishlei 30:8). If one relies on another person's table [for sustenance], the world is dark for him" (Beitzah 32b).

From the similar terminology, the gemora notes that the dove teaches us that with the relationship of mutual trust that we are to have with Hashem, we should try to relate to Him directly, without any intermediaries. The gemora cites that which appears as the continuation of the dove's song in Perek Shirah: "The dove says before Hakodosh Boruch Hu: Master of the World! May my sustenance be as bitter as an olive in Your Hand, rather than it being sweet as honey through flesh and blood!"

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin teaches at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. He is currently preparing an English elucidation of Perek Shirah entitled Nature's Song for publication.

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