Some years ago my brother-in-law was telling a story to my children about an experience he had while flying a small private plane around Manhattan at night. It was a great story, masterfully told, and there were moments when it looked quite bad – like mid-air collision bad – for Our Hero.
My kids were riveted. My brother-in-law, relaying the moment when he realized that the two lights moving apart from each other did not represent two planes flying away from each other, but rather a single airplane flying directly at him, was hit with a surprise question from my young daughter. She simply could not wait to find out: She blurted out, “Did you make it? Did you survive?”
He looked at her solemnly, and gently pronounced, “You’ll just have to listen to the rest of the story to find out.”
That’s the thing about stories. They are best enjoyed and understood when we live them as they happen, instead of overlaying the conclusion on the story itself. And a lot changes when we learn to read stories from the perspective of the characters in their own time and place, instead of merely glibly explaining that because the story ends with a specific resolution, that meant that the characters knew that it would. It all becomes obvious in hindsight. Knowing how a story ends deprives us of insight and connection. It also means that the journey itself suffers.
We make the same mistakes when we read biblical stories, and we often do an even worse job because we think we know the glib moral lessons we think the text is teaching us. This is a lost opportunity, however, because if we try to get inside the head of Jacob when he is fleeing into the unknown to avoid being murdered by his brother, then the bargain he makes with G-d makes far more sense. The same is true across the text. At the moment Moses is called by G-d at the Burning Bush to free the people, he is truly at a loss. His first question is, “Who am I?” Who, indeed? We can each ask ourselves the same question: “Am I supposed to do something great or momentous or stunningly unique and beautiful with my life? Why me?” And if we can identify with Moses in that scene, then perhaps we might be able to see our own callings, to recognize that we can be more, do more, grow more.
We all know the story of The Flood and Noah in his ark. We all know that it rained for forty days and nights, and Noah had no way to see outside – except possibly a skylight looking up. But what people often don’t notice is that this was not the end of the Flood. Instead, the Flood continued for another 150 days before the ark came to rest on the Mount Ararat. But even then, the experience was not over!
For another 3 months, the Ark just sits there, water all around it. And we should try to understand what Noah is going through, seeing things through his eyes. The world had just undergone an apocalypse. G-d, who told Noah to build the ark in the first place, is not in communication with him. Noah must have been going nuts. Here he is, cooped up in a stinking boat surrounded by animals and people who are relying on his guidance while they slowly and steadily run out of food.
So he decides to send out birds to try to figure out what is going on outside… one went out and came back. No dice. He waits another seven days and sends another bird… and something that must have been almost miraculous occurs. The bird comes back with an olive leaf in her beak.
Think of what this one bit of olive tree must mean to Noah. The better part of a year he had been inside the ark, with no information. He was not merely “trusting” in G-d – for all Noah knows, G-d was not even paying attention. Noah, in the days leading up to the olive leaf, must have been in a terrible place. Are they all going to die in that horrible boat? Did it all really have a purpose? Were they really the only living souls still in the world? If so, for how much longer?
But then the bird brings back the olive leaf. And in that moment, even though the ark is still surrounded by water, the boat still surely is a horrible place to be… indeed, the physical hardships are entirely unchanged from what they had been before – in that moment, everything changed.
Hope enters the story. The realization that things are getting better, an explanation for why G-d has not been in communication (because it was all going to be “OK”). A tiny bit of knowledge changes everything for the better.
And there are repercussions in the Torah, meaningful ones. The menorah, books later, was commanded to be fueled specifically with olive oil, the product of the plant that first brought hope to mankind that the apocalypse was over, that there was going to be a future after all. Like that first olive leaf, the light from the menorah does not change anything physical. But the light from that oil changes everything about how we humans see the world: light erases darkness, new hope where hope had been fading. Knowledge, however tenuous and feeble, expunges ignorance.
Which is why even though Noah and his family and the animals stayed aboard the ark for more than an entire year, he no longer needed to send out birds or try to acquire more data. The olive leaf told him what he knew, and he was content to wait for G-d’s specific instruction to leave the ark.
Which helps explain, in turn, the specific biblical commandment, the symbolic value of olives and olive oil in the Torah. It all connects back to the Flood.
When we can read stories as they happen, and seek to understand the mindset of the characters at those critical moments, then there is much we can learn that we otherwise will miss!