When G-d speaks to Moses in Exodus 3:8, He says, “…and I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” G-d talks of the Promised Land of Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey, or “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” The characterization of the Promised Land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” is found frequently throughout the Torah. G-d uses this phrase to juxtapose the fertility and freedom of the unknown land of Canaan with the harsh conditions of Egyptian servitude. The phrase “eretz zavat chalav udevash” is later used in the Torah in ironic fashion during the mutiny of Korach and his followers. While questioning the leadership and decision-making of Moses, Dathan and Eliab ask Moses, “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness…” (Num. 16:13). After all of the horrors of slavery in Egypt, Korach and his followers actually refer to Egypt as “eretz zavat chalav udevash.”
There are many interpretations and opinions concerning the exact meaning of Canaan being “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In Deuteronomy 33:13, it is said, “And of Joseph he said: Blessed of the Lord be His land.” The Talmud explains that Joseph’s land (the Promised Land) was the most blessed of them all. This was a gorgeous land irrigated by springs, open to the sun and the moon, full of abundance, and not lacking a single blessing (Sif Deut. 353.) In Jeremiah 3:19, the Land of Israel is referred to as “tziv’ot goyim,” or a land “desired and coveted by all the nations” (MTeh 5:1). Throughout the Tanach, it is made abundantly clear that the land of Israel was a place of abundance of land and spirit. When compared to the physical, mental, and spiritual slavery of Egypt, why would some turn their backs on “eretz zavat chalav udevash?”
It seems that we arrive at a set of issues, rather than one. Let us now look at the current state of affairs in our own country. For Black Americans and Americans of color, is modern America as Egypt was to the Israelites? We have spoken of the terrors of anti-Semitism and gender inequality, among other social issues. What it seems we desperately need to touch upon is not only the prevalent racial inequality, but the imminent danger that coincides with being black in America. While Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” I was moved when he spoke of removing his kippah to hide his Jewishness while in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. But what if the kippah is permanent and irremovable? There is no “‘passing” when the target of hatred against you is what happens to be your shade of skin. Many have spoken of the “American Dream” as some modern vision of “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” The systemic racism so ingrained into American life has hopefully given pause to those who would turn a blind eye to the extreme plight of their neighbors. as Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, tells us, many people are living an “American Nightmare.” Kendi, in his piece for The Atlantic, writes:
“While black Americans view their experience as the American nightmare, racist Americans view black Americans as the American nightmare. Racist Americans, especially those racists who are white, view themselves as the embodiment of the American dream. All that makes America great. All that will make America great again. All that will keep America great.”
In an America built largely upon the backs of slaves, how can we face the hardened Pharaoh’s heart of our past with the desire to be a modern land flowing with milk and honey? We can never be this notion of some idyllic nation when we do not treat our fellow human beings with love, dignity, and respect. To honor and love one another is the Jewish way. Our sages of the Talmud would likely be disturbed with the state of race relations in our contemporary society. Ben-Zoma said: “Who is honored? He who honors his fellow man” (Avot 4:1). Rabbi Eliezer said, “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:10). The sages are clear, not only should we be treating one another honorably, but we should actually take how others are being treated very personally.
We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when black men are killed defenseless in the street. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when a black woman is shot in her bed by police. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when “jogging while black” is a crime punishable by death. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when black parents must talk with their black children about how to survive being outside their houses.
It is our responsibility as Jews to not only “not” be racist, but to be anti-racist. This distinction is made clear in the Talmud: “He who joins himself to those who commit transgressions, though he does not do what they do, will nevertheless receive punishment as one of them” (ARN 30.). We cannot sit idly by to avoid the problem. Silence is compliance. We must listen to those who are being victimized, and we must act accordingly, in whatever way we are capable. According to the Talmud, The Holy One said to Israel: “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another” (TdE 26.) How simple the words seem, but how distant the reality that they represent appears to be.
It is our duty as Jews to tackle issues that impact our fellow human beings– our neighbors on this earth. First, we must admit that we do not currently live in a land flowing with milk and honey. Perhaps we can learn something from the people of Israel’s trek through the wilderness in the Torah. As true allies and anti-racists, we will be faced with moments that are uncomfortable. We need to face these moments and not turn back. We need to reflect on ourselves without diverting our eyes. When the wilderness of change begins to feel disagreeable, we might long in those moments for a return to the tolerable ignorance of Egypt. Perhaps we will become as Korach’s followers and say, “…thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness.” Deep within, we will know that we never lived in a land flowing with milk and honey. There has been no “American Dream”; there cannot be when so many are living an “American Nightmare.” We must always have hope coupled with action. If we work toward a future of equality, love, respect, honor, and dignity, we can start discussing the horizon. The horizon where we truly are “tziv’ot goyim,” or a land that is desired and coveted by all nations– “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” If we desire a land open to the sun and the moon, irrigated by springs, and not void of a single blessing– there is certainly much work to be done.
I would like to leave you with an excerpt from the poem Let American Be America Again by the great Langston Hughes:
“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)“
May we all be blessed to live in a world that inches closer to freedom, even if ever-so-slightly. A world where we can at least begin to taste the savory sweet milk and honey of the Promised Land of equality.