On Tu b’Shevat we celebrate the bounty of the Land of Israel. But If the Land of Israel is supposed to be flowing with milk and honey, why don’t we see that kind of abundance in the Land of Israel today?
First of all, while Israel may not be literally oozing milk and honey, there is definitely an agricultural and material abundance which, in this semi-desert region, is unprecedented in the last two millennia and far exceeds any other country of modern times in the area.
Israel has a thriving, modern, industrial, high-tech based economy as well as a broad, varied, productive, export-oriented agricultural market. This is due to great effort and ingenuity which is literally fueled by Israel’s need to survive.
Still, even if we are to understand the description of milk and honey as referring to material abundance alone, G‑d doesn’t mean that this abundance is an indigenous, natural quality of the Land. Rather, there is a spiritual connection between the Jewish People on the Land and its bounty.
A proof is that the land remained desolate for the last two thousand years because nature alone doesn’t sustain it. Even human enterprise could not cajole its growth, and other peoples and empires were not able to procure its blessing. Even the industrious, powerful and modern Great Britain, after extensive geological surveys, concluded that the land was basically useless for the needs of mass settlement and could never sustain a modern nation.
Considering this, the blessing enjoyed in Israel today is miraculous. Israeli effort and ingenuity alone is not enough without G‑d commanding the Land to issue its bounty to His children on the Land. But the degree of that blessing also depends on the extent to which the Jewish People are acting as His children while in the Land. An appreciative and loyal son will enjoy the full bounty of his father’s table; a brazen, self-centered son’s portion might be limited. Perhaps this is why we don’t see, despite the blessing, the Land flowing with milk and honey.
Interestingly, descriptions of the Land in Talmudic sources, written at a time when Jews had a very heightened awareness of G‑d, portray a land with such bounty. A Rabbi was once walking through the countryside of Israel when he saw hundreds of robust she-goats eating luscious figs from large trees. The nectar that burst forth from the figs mixed with milk oozing from the goats’ udders to form rivulets of milk and honey flowing down the valley (Ketubot 111b). In another discussion, the Talmud describes the fruits growing on the bank of Lake Kinneret as being so luscious, potent and concentrated, that they were actually intoxicating (Berachot 44a).
This blessing was not only prosaic, but also so palpable that it had halachic implications as well. We find that quantity or volume is relevant in many discussions of halacha (Berachot 41b). These values are calibrated by the standard/average size of fruits such as a pomegranate, fig, date, olive or egg. From the Talmudic discussions of these “standard” volumes it becomes apparent that their olive was the size of our eggs, and their eggs were the size of our tomatoes. And in biblical times, the fruits and produce were even larger such that among the men sent by Moses to survey the Land of Israel, one’s hands were full with a huge pomegranate, another’s with a giant fig, and it took eight men to carry one cluster of grapes!
This shows that the material quality of “milk and honey” of the Land is a direct function of G‑d’s willing the Jewish People there, and the extent to which they do G‑d’s will there. If today that quality seems lacking, it may be because our connection to G‑d is lacking. However, if we will endeavor to extract the spiritual milk and honey indigenous to the Land of Israel which is the Torah and the mitzvot, and we cause our lives to overflow with their sustenance and sweetness, then will G‑d shower upon us both spiritual and material blessing in the Land.