A land flowing with milk and honey, describes the abundance of the Land of Israel.
VA’ETCHANAN, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
The phrase eretz zavat chalav u’dvash, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 6:3), describes the abundance of the Land of Israel. Zionist pioneers turned these words into a song to celebrate their return to the Land and their arduous efforts to turn the desert into fruitful fields.
Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, closes before the people of Israel launch their invasion into the Land of Promise. Thus there is an incompleteness to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We call the fifth cup of wine at the seder the Cup of Elijah, who will announce the coming of the Messiah. The fifth cup can also symbolize the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise that the Jewish people, ingathered in the Land of Israel, will dwell in peace and security, also expressed in an agricultural image: “They shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). From the time of Joshua’s leading the Israelites across the Jordan to the present time of the State of Israel, nation-building is a messy business. It’s a part of American history (genocide, slavery) and it’s a part of Israel’s effort to find security for our people there.
Right after eretz zavat chalav u’dvash are the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) and V’ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:5) prayers: “You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”
During the Jewish revolt in the Land of Israel against Roman rule in 133 to 135 CE, the Romans issued a decree forbidding Jews to study and practice Torah. Rabbi Akiva defied the decree and supported the Bar Kokhba rebellion. He was arrested and thrown into jail. After an imprisonment of unknown duration, Roman authorities decided to execute Rabbi Akiva. As the executioners were raking his flesh with iron combs, Akiva concentrated on reciting the Shema.
His disciples asked, “Our teacher, even to such a degree would you still direct your thoughts to declaring God’s oneness and expressing your love for God?” Akiva replied, “For a long time I was troubled by a verse I did not fully understand. It is b’chol nafshecha, ‘with all your soul.’ This is how I interpreted it: You shall love the Eternal, your God, b’chol nafshecha, with all your soul, even if He takes your soul. And I would say to my students, ‘When shall I have an occasion to fulfill the precept?’ Now that I have the occasion, shall I not fulfill it?”
According to the Talmud, he died as he was prolonging the last word of the Shema, echad, meaning “one.”
I believe that Israelis are reliving the words and the experience of Rabbi Akiva’s mesirut nefesh (self-abnegation) in the face of continual attacks by terrorists. In 1938, Martin Buber wrote about the need to confront the Nazis: “Sometimes a man must use force to save himself or even more his children.” Buber taught that Judaism does not abjure force to combat wrong. He argued that force must remain available as a live moral option to combat evil in a world where aggression against innocents exists.
Indeed, the use of force may be the only just course a nation can adopt when confronted by radical evil. Yet, in a world torn by violence, let us not lose hope that one day God’s spirit, and not military might and power, will be a strong enough force to bring peace to the world.
Then we can sit down to enjoy our milk and honey with none to make us tremble.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at email@example.com.