We’ve all heard the phrase—Israel is the “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey.”
But what exactly does this mean? And can this phrase teach us anything in particular, as we reflect on Israel turning 75 this past week?
The end of this week’s Torah Portion (Achrei Mot-Kedoshim) contains one of the several instances of this famous description of Israel (though it is the only time in the book of Leviticus that it appears). In the context of this week’s parsha, the idea that Israel is a land flowing with milk and honey suggests a sense of distinction:
וָאֹמַר לָכֶם אַתֶּם תִּירְשׁוּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָם וַאֲנִי אֶתְּנֶנָּה לָכֶם לָרֶשֶׁת אֹתָהּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ אֲנִי ה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶם אֲשֶׁר־הִבְדַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִן־הָעַמִּים׃
and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the LORD am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. (Vayikra 20:24)
The pasuk (verse) states that Hashem has granted the Jewish people a beautiful land, one that is so bountiful and blessed that it is overflowing with resources. The commentator Ibn Ezra summarizes this very succinctly, saying “Ein Kamoha”—there is no land like it.
This is likely the most popular interpretation of the phrase. And there is a lesson to be learned from it, to be sure. Israel can indeed be like no other land, and the Jewish people are blessed to be able to live in Israel and build a state there. This blessing of the land of Israel makes the Jewish people unique and special. Through living in the land, we are separated from the other nations of the world (as the Torah specifically states in the pasuk above).
Yet there is a second, unexpected message to be found behind these words. In order to understand them fully, one must appreciate the ancient Near Eastern context in which the Torah was given. The Ugaritic god Baal was believed to be responsible for fertility and abundance. An ancient Ugaritic text states that this god made it so that “the heavens rain fat; the wadis flow with honey” (See Koren Land of Israel Tanakh, Leviticus, Page 154).
In other words, the description of a Land being one flowing with milk and honey is not unique to the Jewish people ( the word for milk in Hebrew, chalav, can also mean “fat.”)! Other cultures made use of this phrase as a reference to the bounty of their land.
The lesson to be learned from this interpretation is perhaps surprising: Even as we might consider our land to be unique and special, we must also consider the opposite: We are just like any other nation.
But really, one does not need to look at ancient Ugaritic texts to hear this message. Even the earliest Zionist leaders made clear that Israel was not only meant to be a unique blessing, but also completely common—just like every other country. In the Declaration of Independence that we celebrated this week on Yom Ha’atzmaut, David Ben Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel) says, “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” This commonality, in its own way, is a blessing—to be able to live like any other nation in the world, free of the pain and persecution and suffering that characterized so much of Jewish history before 1948.
Of course, it’s important to remember both of these messages, as they are both blessings: Yes, Israel is unique and special, and also, at the same time, it is like any other nation in the world. And while I could try to end this Dvar Torah with a poignant reflection of my own, it seems fitting to turn to David Ben Gurion’s inspiring words:
“Two basic aspirations underlie all our work in this country: To be like all other nations, and to be different from all the nations. These two aspirations are apparently contradictory, but in fact they are complementary and interdependent. We want to be a free people, independent and equal in rights in the family of nations, and we aspire to be different from all other nations in our spiritual elevation and in the character of our model society, founded on freedom, cooperation, and fraternity with all Jews and the whole human race…”