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October 20, 2023

A Dove Among Hawks

Ari S. Lorge

A Dove Among Hawks
Rabbi Ari Lorge


After 40 days and 40 nights of storm, after days more of anxiety and fear, Noah steps forth and sends out a dove to see if a new world has emerged from the chaos. Why choose a dove?

What we aren’t taught as children is that, since ancient days, the dove symbolized the Jewish people.

Once we know that, it all makes sense. After all, what is the task of the dove in Noah’s story? To take in a landscape of destruction and devastation, and somehow find the courage to search for a sign of a hopeful future. Who is more adept at mustering hope than the Jewish people? And so Noah sends a dove, the symbol of the Household of Israel. 

But why was the dove selected to symbolize our people? The Talmud explains the connection in two places. The passages are almost identical but for a vital difference.

In the first text, the Talmud says Israel is like a dove because just as a dove is only protected by its wings (unlike birds of prey who have talons or sharp beaks), so too Israel is only protected by mitzvot.1 Here, the Talmud claims that Jews only need our tradition, our commandments, and our faith to protect us.

But in a second passage, the Talmud says something different: Israel is like a dove because just as a dove is only saved by its wings, so too Israel is only saved by mitzvot.2 So here our Jewish tradition doesn’t protect us, rather it saves us.

Which is true? Are we protected or saved by Jewish living?

Had the Talmud intended the same message it would have used the same word. 

For thousands of years, our people lived believing in the first statement. Just as a dove only has its wings to protect itself, so too Israel only has its mitzvot, its commandments, to protect itself. This was the view of the ancient rabbinic sages. After fighting an impossible battle against Rome, we lost our homeland, self-determination, and sovereignty. In reaction, the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud taught and created a Judaism devoted to peace and pacifism. Like a dove has only its wings to protect itself, we had our tradition and faith, and we prayed it would be enough to protect us. 

But it never was. Like a dove among hawks, we found nowhere to rest. In every corner of Christendom and in every cleft of the caliphates our people were abused and slaughtered. For nearly 2,000 years Jewish life was cheap. The world saw that they could assail us without consequences. In the late 1800s, some Jews began to understand that the Talmudic claim must be wrong. Our mitzvot were a poor defense. They did not offer us protection. Perhaps Jews could no longer afford to be doves when the world proved, time and again, its appetite for killing our people— its sickening love of plucking doves from the sky. 

We Zionists grew weary of being butchered. We spent decades rebuilding a Jewish homeland in Israel. We paved roads, built cities, planted forests, created a healthcare system, and yes, formed an army. And as soon as we established a nation with the hope of sitting in peace beside our neighbors we were attacked from every side. The world forced us to beat our plowshares into swords, and our pruning hooks into spears, forced the people of Israel to become doves who adopt the skills and ways of hawks. 

Last week, Hamas terrorists may have demonstrated that you can still slaughter Jews in our homes, but today you cannot do so with impunity. Since the founding of the State of Israel, Jews are able to defend ourselves when we are attacked. Thousands of years of living in exile has taught us that we need to be armed with more than our faith to protect ourselves. And thanks to Israel, we are. 

Because the first Talmudic passage has been proven wrong by history, the second passage has become imperative. Just as a dove is only saved by its wings, Israel is saved by its mitzvot. In this broken world where Jews are forced to take up arms to protect ourselves, adhering to our mitzvot—to what our tradition teaches—is what has allowed us to maintain our moral stance in a world of moral confusion. We may have to adopt some of the hardest tactics of just warfare, but holding tight to our mitzvot is what saves us from losing all sense of who we are. It saves us in two ways.

First, our tradition will guide Israel in the way it always has. We care how we conduct ourselves in a battle to defend our lives. We will fight this war that has been forced upon us, because it is unacceptable that any nation be invaded and its citizens abducted and butchered. No country can sit idly by while an apocalyptic, totalitarian, genocidal terrorist regime works each day for the destruction of its civilians. But our mitzvot have a lot to say about how we retain our humanity while forced to fight a war not of our making.  

The IDF has historically worked to do what Judaism and rules of war demands. Our tradition makes clear that, even as we root out Hamas, we never emulate them. We don’t exact suffering for suffering's sake. We do not seek out or celebrate the loss of civilian life. We limit civilian deaths. That is our history and that will be our commitment still. We know that despite our best efforts—warning Gazan families, begging them to flee south while Hamas does all in its power to prevent it so that they continue to have human shields, despite these efforts there are Palestinians who have and will continue to die. And Judaism demands that each Palestinian civilian death break our hearts, even as it cannot break our resolve to protect ourselves and secure the return of our hostages. 

We know that Israel will strive to make moral choices under duress while facing Hamas terrorists who have no such restraint. Reflecting on how Jews use force, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Only those who are capable of feeling both [the physical fear of defeat and the moral distress of victory], can defend their bodies without endangering their souls.”3 This will be our moral stance. It is how our mitzvot will save the Jewish soul in the challenging days ahead. 

The book of Kohelet reminds us “There is a time for everything, a time for war and a time for peace.” This is not the moment for peace. But the second way our mitzvot, our tradition, saves us in the long term is to continue Israel’s posture of being ever-ready to pursue peacemaking when the time for it reemerges. Our people want nothing more than to live in a world where we can all sit under a vine and fig tree unafraid. We would love for the bomb shelters, the safe rooms, and the iron domes under which Israelis must currently sit—in order to feel an iota of safety—to become relics of our past. And so Israel pursues peace whenever we are able. Our tradition is designed to build that peaceful world mitzvah by mitzvah, as we sing each time we put the Torah away, “Kol n’tivotehem shalom,” all the ways of Torah lead us toward shalom

Time and time again Israel has demonstrated this resolve. We forged peace with Egypt, with Jordan, in recent years with the UAE and Bahrain. So many times we sought it with the Palestinians only to have it rejected. And what makes this war even more devastating is that we were on the verge of a new peace with Saudi Arabia—an accord that would have reshaped the region. But Hamas terrorists incited this war, in part, to prevent it from materializing. Because genocidal terrorists know that the only people who lose out when peace is made are those who benefit from war. While they may have succeeded at delaying that peace, they will not succeed in thwarting it. 

After we win this war that Hamas has forced upon us, we will be ready to once again be like that lone dove Noah sent out to find dry land, searching for olive branches among the raging waters like our lives depend on it. Because, they absolutely do.


1Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 49a.
2Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 53b.
3Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversations: Genesis, Vayishlah.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.