The Right Dove: A Study in Empathy

A few weeks ago, at Mincha on the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read the book of Yonah. There we saw a recalcitrant prophet unwilling to carry out God’s bidding. He was directed to speak truth to the power of Nineveh. Yadda yadda yadda…he was being vomited by whale. Finding himself back on dry land he is called a second time to prophesize to the people of Nineveh. This time he carries out the task, walking across the large city proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Yonah 3:4) I was always troubled by what happened next. There we read:

Now Yonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city.

Yonah 4:5

Maybe Yonah wanted to leave the city out of fear of what would happen when it was overthrown. But, then why did stick around to see what would transpire? It just seems cruel or at least insensitive. It is as if he were child watching ants getting burned by the sun being focused by a divine magnifying glass. What is the nature of Yonah’s character?

I was thinking about Yonah this week when reading Noah, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see that the world has been overthrown and Noah is trying to figure out when to leave the ark and return to the world. At first, he sends out a Raven, but it was to no avail. While the rain has finally stopped the water had not receded. And then he sends out a dove. That does not work either. There we read:

He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.

Genesis 8:10-12

So the dove came back and saved Noah, what is the connection with the story of Yonah? Well it turns out that Yonah- the name of the prophet means dove. One dove is sent by God to get them to leave their evil ways out of fear of destruction. After delivering the message he sits out to see if they will pass or fail this test. The other dove is sent by Noah who has seen the world destroyed to help him determine when he can re-enter the world. This dove could have just made it life on dry land, but instead returns to invite Noah and the rest of the Ark to join them.

The difference between these two doves reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from The West Wing. The context hardly matters:


Leo McGarry’s character says:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

West Wing

Like the doctor and the priest, Yonah the prophet is the classic consultant. He told the people of Ninevah what was wrong as if tossing down a script or prayer and then sat on the side to watch. The dove is very different. The dove shows Noah how to get out of the hole. He knows how to get out of the ark and live in the world. As if to say, “Yeah, but I’ve been out here before, and I know the way.”

This makes me pause and reread the story of the dove in a new way. Why did the dove carry the proof of land in its mouth and not in its talon? Just like the friend in Leo McGarry’s story, it is not about what you say that is important, it only matters what you do. Noah needed proof of land to leave the ark. The way out was not through words, but the doves actions of bringing back the olive branch in its bill. The world is sustained by empathy- our capacity to jump into hole.

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