Thanks to a universal culture of paganism and violence, G-d has destroyed the world in an apocalyptic flood. A single boat, crammed with survivors, bobs along on top of the waves.

This is no pleasure cruise. There are no promenades or portholes. Indeed, there is but one window, and it only looks upward. Nobody knows what is going on. In that boat, layered within the smells of animals, their food and their waste, the air is thick with fear and doubt.

Desperate for some clarity amidst all the unknowns in the world, Noah sends out birds to try to gather some information. And one of them, a dove, comes back, holding an olive leaf.

This dove, amidst all the imagery and drama of a sinful world washed away, is a harbinger of new life, of a green and promising future. Of something worth living for. Of continuation of one life – and all lives.

Which might help explain something much further in the text: After a woman gives birth,

… for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring … a young dove, or a turtledove, for a sin offering.

The Torah is telling us that every birth can be compared to that first dove, the dove that connected the future to the past, the olive leaf to those cooped up in Noah’s ark. The world had been sinful, but the flood washed it all away – not that differently from how a birth offers a new beginning amidst the birthing waters.

The dove in the ark story tells us about the basic desire to live, to procreate and exist. But it does not tell us about the purpose of our existence. To do that, we have to look at the other bird that can be offered – the tor, or turtledove.

Where is the tor first mentioned? It is during the Covenant Between the Parts, the horrifying vision Avraham endures in which G-d tells him:

Know surely that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterwards shall they come out with great substance. … In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Avram, saying, To thy seed have I given this land.

The animals used to prepare for this event include the tor, the turtledove.

And so the turtledove is about the Big Picture. About more than just life, but about aspirations and purpose.

Both birds symbolize moving forward from the past, from whatever sins that have been committed. And in bringing the offering, we put the past behind us, and invest in the future, in life and in life’s purpose. Including all the uncertainty that comes with it.

A new mother can bring either of these birds as her sin offering. She can thus choose to connect with the symbolic imagery of the dove in the Flood, or with the turtledove, the idea that every child should be raised with expectations of being about more than just his or her self.

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