When the waters of the Great Flood finally subsided, Noah sought a way to determine whether “the waters had abated from upon the earth,”1 which would allow him and the other inhabitants of the Ark to leave. He sent a raven and later a dove, and each returned empty-handed, leaving Noah with the impression that it was still inopportune for him to exit the Ark.

Finally, he sent out a second dove, which famously returned with the “plucked leaf of an olive tree in its mouth,”2 convincing Noah that the ground was dry enough for him to leave. But the story does not say where the dove found the leaf, nor how this convinced Noah that it was safe to unseal the door of the vessel that had kept him and his family safe for an entire year.

The story relates in detail how there was an intense downpour for 40 days and nights, and that the water overwhelmed the land for 150 days, destroying everything in its wake. Such was the power of the floodwaters that everything was “wiped out,”3 dissolved, and erased.4 How, then, was there a tree mature enough to sprout leaves?

Most astonishing is that the great commentator Rashi does not even address this question.

The Midrash,5 on the other hand, offers two explanations: 1) That it was found in the Garden of Eden, beyond the flood’s reach, or 2) It was found in the Land of Israel which was unaffected by the flood.

It is completely understandable that Rashi does not offer those explanations, because he would regard them as inconsistent with the simple reading of the Biblical text.

Firstly, if parts of the region remained unflooded, why would Noah’s ark end up on the top of Mount Ararat and not have landed in those places where there was little or no water? Secondly, there isn’t any indication in the Torah’s text that the Land of Israel or any other area was spared the ravages of the deluge.

But there is a far more fundamental problem with the Midrashic explanations: If indeed the dove was able to get the olive leaf from a distant area that hadn’t been flooded, how would Noah be able to draw any useful conclusion from that as to the conditions where he was situated? After all, how is dry land one thousand miles away – the approximate distance between Mount Ararat and Israel – going to help Noah as he contemplates stepping out of his Ark?

So we are back to our question: Where did the dove get the leaf from?

And how did Noah decide based upon the leaf that it was suitable to leave the ark and return to dry land? Is it not possible that the dove retrieved the leaf from a tall tree on the top of a mountain? How would the possession of a leaf have demonstrated that the ground below was now dry? Perhaps, even, the dove found the leaf floating on the water?

Due to these highly challenging questions, the Rebbe draws a conclusion that completely transforms our understanding of the episode. It is generally assumed that this leaf had survived the flood, and that since the water level had lowered, it was now accessible to the dove.

The Rebbe proposes a totally different understanding: The leaf found by the dove was a brand-new leaf that had grown after the flood. The finding of such a leaf would indeed suggest that the water had totally subsided, as it would have taken a good while for a new leaf to grow.

Noah would surely have had no difficulty recognizing that this was a new leaf, and not one that had miraculously survived the flood, as an old leaf that had been floating in water for so many months would look very different to one that had just been plucked.

If it was a new leaf, that would easily explain how the dove found a leaf even if everything had been destroyed. It would also comfortably explain how the leaf would satisfy Noah that it was okay to make his way out of the Ark.

But we may still ask: How do we know that it was a newly grown leaf? And – if this is indeed the explanation – why did Rashi not tell us this?

The answer to both questions is the same: The text of the Torah strongly hints at this explanation.

How so?

The Torah tells us that the dove had a “plucked leaf of an olive tree in its mouth.” But this short phrase has two strange things about it.

Firstly, the dove had a leaf in its mouth; what is this thing about being “plucked”? One would normally say that the bird had a leaf in its mouth, and it would be fully understood what the meaning was. There seems to be no need or point in saying it was “plucked”; why does that matter?

Secondly, why are we told that the leaf was from an olive tree? Olive trees were, and still are, very common in that part of the world. In what way is it relevant to know the species of tree?

Unless, of course, those details are central to the story. The Torah is stating quite clearly that Noah knew that the leaf had been “plucked.” In other words, Noah realized that it was a freshly grown leaf that the dove had recently removed from the tree.

But how did the tree survive the flood? Had not everything been destroyed? That is why the Torah highlights that it was an olive tree, which are known to be uniquely hardy and resilient.6 It is therefore not unreasonable that at least a few olive trees would have survived.

So, Rashi felt that by saying that the leaf had been a) plucked, and b) from an olive tree, the text makes it clear that this was a new leaf from a tree that had survived, and he did not feel it necessary to comment.

Think about it: Here we are worrying so much about how the dove got the leaf and how Noah knew from the leaf that it was safe to leave, and it turns out that the answer was there all along if only we knew how to look! This is true about so many of the Torah’s teachings: the answers are ready waiting for us—we just need to pay a little attention and we will discover that our questions entirely disappear.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 10, Parshat Noach III.