Rabbi Eitan Cooper
This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Israel is the land flowing with milk and honey.” But what exactly does this mean? And can it teach us anything, in particular as we reflect on Israel turning 75?
In the context of this week’s parshah, the idea that Israel is flowing with milk and honey suggests a sense of distinction:
“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 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 Kamocha” ― there is no land like it.
This is likely the most popular interpretation of the phrase. 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. Through living in the land, we are separated from the other nations of the world.
Yet there is a second message to be found behind these words. 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 flowing with milk and honey is not unique to the Jewish people (as the word for milk in Hebrew, “chalav,” can also mean “fat”).
The lesson from this interpretation is perhaps surprising: Even as we might consider our land to be special, we must also consider the opposite: We are just like any other nation.
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 county. In the Declaration of Independence that we celebrated this week on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion 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 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…”
Rabbi Eitan Cooper is assistant rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.