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Chumash

Parasha

Shemot

To a land flowing milk and honey

Yehuda Gold

Writer:

"אל ארץ זבת חלב ודבש אל מקום הכנעני והחתי"

To a land flowing milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites … Exodus 3:8

 

וטעם זבת חלב ודבש - כי שבח תחלה את הארץ שהיא טובה, לומר שהאוויר טוב ויפה לבני אדם וכל טוב ימצא בה, ושהיא רחבה - שיעמדו בה כל ישראל וכו' שפירותיה שמנים ומתוקים עד שתזוב כולה בדבש מהם"

 

“Flowing milk and honey” – the Torah first praises the Land as being good, saying that its atmosphere is good and appropriate for people and all good things are to be found in her, and that she is spacious and can accommodate all of Israel; that her fruits are robust and sweet to the point that the Land entirely flows milk and honey.

[Ramban]

 

In our posuk (verse), which was said to Moshe at the burning bush, God informed him of the Israelites’ inheritance of the Land and described her abundant positive qualities, as Ramban explains.

Analysis of subsequent verses arouses astonishment. Four verses after ours, God informed Moshe of the sign of the veracity of His promise of redemption: "וזה לך האות כי אנכי שלחתיך בהוציאך את העם ממצרים תעבדון את האלוקים על ההר הזה" (“And this is the sign for you that it was I Who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain”). In other words, when the Israelites leave Egypt, they will worship God at Mount Sinai, at the time of the presentation of Torah, and this will be the sign that the redemption is real and will be fulfilled.

 

On the simple level, the posuk apparently states that the point of the revelation at Sinai is to serve as a sign that God will indeed fulfill His promise to Am Israel (the Nation of Israel) to bring them to complete redemption and to bring them into Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Is it possible that this is the entire purpose of the revelation at Sinai? Logic would seem to indicate the opposite – the redemption should serve as the sign that the Israelites were destined to receive Torah at Mount Sinai. How is it possible that the Torah stresses that which is secondary and ignores the essential factor?

 

In addition, our posuk’s description of the qualities of the Land, as elucidated by Ramban, focuses exclusively on her physical traits: wonderful fruit, good atmosphere, expanses; is it possible that such a sublime event as the revelation at Sinai serves as a sign and harbinger of simple physical pleasures?

 

 

 

Physical Presents as a Sign of Spiritual Qualities

 

We shall attempt to reach a deeper understanding of the meaning of Eretz Yisrael being a “Land flowing milk and honey.” Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishna [Introduction to Perek Ḥelek] explains that the purpose of the Torah’s promise of tangible reward in this world for those who fulfill God’s will is a means of allowing the righteous to serve God in tranquility and contentment. In conditions of poverty and distress a person does not have the peace of mind or the practical possibility to serve God completely. Thus, the Torah promises that one who walks in the straight path of Divine service will merit conditions which are conducive to continuing that service in joy and to achieving greater perfection. That is, the tangible reward which the Torah promises is merely a means for achieving a higher level of Divine service.

 

Based upon Rambam’s approach, we can understand the significance of the Land flowing milk and honey: the physical abundance and quality of life within the Land allow its residents to serve God in a complete manner, without worries or distress. In this way, the purpose of giving Torah reaches its practical fulfillment. The physical qualities of the Land facilitate observance of Torah in the proper and most perfect manner.

 

We can now properly understand the order of God’s words to Moshe: in informing Moshe of the outstanding physical qualities of the Land, God in essence informed Moshe that the Israelites will serve Him there and within the Land fulfill His mitzvot. Given that the sole purpose of tangible reward is to facilitate Divine service, it is clear that the place which is blessed with such great physical qualities is the place most suitable for serving God on the highest possible level.

 

Since the Land is truly the ideal place for fulfilling the mitzvot of Torah and living the spiritual life on the highest level, it is appropriate that the revelation at Sinai and presenting the Torah serve as the signs for inheriting the Land. The purpose of giving Torah is to have it realized in practice by the nation which dwells in the Land which indeed flows milk and honey.

 

Flowing Milk and Honey – Turning Evil into Good

 

We shall consider another explanation of the concept “flowing milk and honey.” Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook z”tl presented a novel explanation of the concept. It is known that whatever the Torah forbids being eaten; all its by-products are forbidden as well. Milk and honey are the exceptions to this rule. The Gemara (Talmud) states that "דם נעכר ונעשה חלב" (“The blood is disturbed (decomposed) and turns into milk”) [Gemara Bechorot 6b]. An animal’s blood is processed in its body into milk; though blood is forbidden to be eaten, once it has been turned into milk the prohibition no longer applies and the milk (of a kosher animal) may be drunk. Honey undergoes a similar process; while it is produced by bees which are not kosher, honey may be eaten without restriction.[1]

 

The greatness of Eretz Yisrael, explains Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, is its ability to uplift everything, even the basest and lowest things which are impure and forbidden, and make them holy and pure. The concept of the Land flowing milk and honey conveys a deep meaning. Due to the Land’s great sanctity and the presence within her of the Shechina, she has the ability to rectify even the greatest sins and bring them to sanctity and perfection, as the quality of milk and honey.

 

This quality of turning evil into good is mentioned in Zohar in a different connection, where it states that the Heichalo of Mashiach (palace of Messiah) may be entered only by the righteous who have the power to turn darkness into light and bitter into sweet. This quality which is manifest in great tzadikim is a quality inherent in Eretz Yisrael in its entirety.

 

This quality of the Land is diametrically opposed to Egypt. Netziv explains the posuk "וירעו אותנו המצרים" (“And the Egyptians treated us cruelly”) [Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:6] to mean that the Egyptians turned us into cruel and ungrateful people. The impurity of the Egyptians affected the Hebrews and changed them from their natural state of being kind and doing good deeds into doers of evil. Eretz Yisrael, on the other hand, is the exact opposite; its unique sanctity turns evil into good and brings everyone to fulfillment.

 

Thus, “flowing milk and honey” conveys not only the obvious physical element, but as well the awesome power of the Land’s sanctity which can realize the world’s completion and rectification of the entire cosmos. Such a trait is indeed great and lofty and it is fitting that the revelation at Sinai serves as a sign and a harbinger for it.

 

The Obligation of Reflection

 

As we benefit from the good fruit of the Land or enjoy its vistas, we must be cognizant that it is not merely a sensual benefit with no significance. The beauty and the tangible abundance within the Land flow from the sanctity which is inherent within her. When we are aware of this, and appreciate the spiritual value which rests within the Land’s physical aspects, we have the power to accelerate the influence of the hidden sanctity of the Land upon us. We thereby alter the physical benefit into a spiritual benefit, influencing ourselves and those who surround us.

 

Our reflection upon and recognition of the special traits of the Land brings those traits out in even greater force, and hasten the complete revelation of those traits to ourselves and to all Israel.

 

[1] While in general the word “honey” in the Bible refers to date honey, there are instances where it refers to bee’s honey. Rabbi Akiva’s opinion is that our verse refers to bee’s honey. [Mechilta d’Rebbi Shimon bar Yoḥai 13:5]

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