A dvar torah, given at Or Chadash, Parashat Shemot, 17/01/09.
There is plenty to talk about in this week’s parasha, but with less than a month now to the oft-neglected Tu Bishvat, I thought we could discuss agriculture. Well, not really. This week’s parasha contains the first promise of a “land flowing / gushing / oozing with milk and honey”.
However you choose to translate it, the phrase automatically conjures a delightful image in anyone’s mind (if they’re not dieting or lactose intolerant).
The cream of milk and the sweet of honey are tied in blissful sensation to our childhood. With milk comes the comfort of a mother’s breast (but we’ll leave Freud out of this). And honey is the sweetness of being a child. It has been used in many ceremonies to mark the beginning of a child’s schooling by tuning them to the taste of torah. We know of a German tradition since the 12th century where children were first taught the Hebrew alphabet on Shavuot, and would lick honey off the letters. Some communities maintain similar customs today. In a similar vein, Moroccan-Israeli singer Shlomo Bar sings of five-year olds in the Atlas Mountains acting out a marriage to the torah, licking the aleph-bet off a piece of tree-bark. These traditions may both be influenced by Ezekiel’s prophecy (chapter 3) where God feeds him a megillah which he finds to be sweet like honey. But the traditional association with childhood is pertinent. And apparently, some web site claims that Jews consume 20% of the world’s honey! (But we know that 68 percent of all statistics are made up.)
This is beside the point, as honey (דבש, devash) mentioned in the bible usually (with a few notable exceptions) refers to that squeezed from dates or figs, not bees, just like the cognate Arabic word dibs.
So a land flowing with milk and honey is really one with agricultural abundance, one with healthy pastures and sumptuous fruits. Towards the end of the Gemara in Ketubot, our sages describe the abundance of the Land of Israel anecdotally: Rami bar Yechezkiel relates seeing goats eating from fig trees in Bnei Brak; the figs dripped their honey, which mixed with milk dripping from the goats, and thus he declared: “a land flowing milk and honey!” Yakov ben Dostai walked ankle-deep in date honey for three mil from Lud to Ono. And so on, each tale more extravagant than the last…
Quite apart from this sensationalism, commentators on our parasha emphasise that a land flowing with milk is one good for livestock. Ramban suggests that good milk requires good air, good water, good pasture; and these don’t necessarily coincide with good land for fruit, so we are also promised devash, fruit with its nectar gushing forth. Seforno emphasises the sense of copious livestock and nourishment, pleasant and fulfilling; Ibn Ezra looks at the verse in context, contrasting the promised land of goodness and breadth with the suffering in Egypt.
But we find this rich and sweet description of Israel too good to be true. While in our passage, the promise of bounty is clear, Devarim occasionally depicts a more temperamental land that responds to the worthiness of its inhabitants. Indeed, the first biblical descriptions of Eretz Yisrael tell of famine in three successive generations, and as we know, the tales of our forefathers are a sign of things to come (מעשי אבות סימן לבנים).
In Parashat Korach, Datan and Aviram throw the expression back at Moses, blaming him for bringing the people from a land flowing with milk and honey to instead kill them in the wilderness. Isaiah (7:21-22) also uses the image ironically, suggesting that the land and its people will be in such a poor state of desolation, that they will be sustained on only cream and honey.
Over the centuries, olim from the Jewish diaspora, such as Ovadia of Bartenora and the Ramban have sent back dark reports of desolation upon arriving in Israel, rather than the wondered suggested by the biblical promise. Things have improved a lot in the last century, but the land’s agriculture is increasingly limited by a shortage of water, and the newspaper reminds us constantly that not everything is peachy.
It is often debated within our community, in schools and in youth movements, whether to use utopian images of Israel when teaching children or talking to the wider world. Judaism reminds us often that it is important to have images of perfection and idealism at the back of our mind,
but it more importantly stresses looking at and acting within a harsher physical reality. For example, though the performance of mitzvot may bring us to a world to come as is often attributed in the mishnah, we focus on the mundane acts themselves, and their inherent deed, rather than their reward.
Returning to the pedagogic debate, we should be willing as a community to discuss both the importance and the problems inherent in Israeli society and its actions, not to mention the many challenges of modern halakhic Judaism. In order to help us understand an eventually ideal world, the bible first inverts the image, with slavery in Egypt and with desert wanderings. It emphasises that to get to that destination, there is an arduous journey, an exodus.
I hope that we can all travel together – in open discussion of morality and necessity, debating tradition and modernity, and in positive action – towards that ever-present but elusive honey-flowing promised land.