One of the most striking sections of parshat Ki Tavo is the tokhekhah, the rebuke or admonition. Its language is terribly harsh, moreover when we know that many of the horrible chastiments described in the text were atrocious tests actually suffered by our people. Therefore, the widespread custom is to chant this text in a lower voice and hastening the reading.
Nevertheless, I think that in Israel we should read it at the normal tone and speed – it is a warning to take full responsibility for the land, its environment and the people living in it.
There is a deep connection between this calling for responsibility and the first paragraph of the parashah, a text far from the rebuke. There we find the mitzvah of bringing the bikurim, the first fruits, to the Temple. An essential factor of this act was the recitation of a formula that resumes the first steps of our People, finishing with the following sentence:
“And the Lord brought us out of Egypt (…); He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore, as you see, I have now brought the firstfruits of the land which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:8-10).
A land flowing with milk and honey, what a beautiful metaphor of a rich and all providing land!
The expression “flowing with milk and honey” appears several times in the Bible, but only once there seems to be an explanation of what kind of land it actually is. Some chapters before our parashah, in Deut. 11 (parshat Ekev) the Torah says:
“So that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord swore to give to your ancestors and their descendants: a land flowing with milk and honey. For the land you are entering in order to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it by foot, as a vegetable garden. But the land which you cross over to inherit is one of hills and valleys, which soaks up water when rain falls from the sky; it is that the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning to the end of the year.” (Deut. 11:9-12)
So a land flowing with milk and honey is actually one that God has to take special care of. It does not get water regularly and abundantly like the land of Goshen, in the Delta of the Nile. It needs the divine concern and constant surveillance to deliver its fruits.
Noga Hareuveni, an Israeli botanist who, following his parents work on the ancient flora and fauna of the land of Israel, founded the Biblical garden and nature preserve “Neot Kedumim”, explains that the expression “flowing with milk and honey” refers actually to an inhabited and even desolate land. He reminds us of the verses in Isaiah, where the prophet describes de desolation to come after the Assyrian invasion:
“In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.
In that day a man will raise a young cow and two sheep and, because of the abundance of milk which they give, he will eat curds; for every one that is left in the land will eat curds and honey.
For in that day, wherever there were once a thousand grapevines worth a thousand pieces of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows men will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns.” (Isaiah 7:20-24)
What is the relationship between destruction and devastation, briers and thorns in the language of Isaiah, and abundance of milk and honey? – asks Noga Hareuveni (“Teva v’nof b’moreshet Israel“, Neot Kedumim 1980, pag. 15-27 [in Hebrew]). He explains that the abundance of grass and free vegetation allows wild sheep and cows to eat freely and produce, consequently, more milk. Honey, on the other side, may be found in natural honeycombs that bees build in tree hollows, between rocks and in every hollowed place where there is no external menace (like humans).
A land flowing with milk and honey is, in consequence, a territory where pasture and all the plants may grow freely, when God is concerned with it bringing good rains and climate during the year.
The person who brings the first fruits to the Temple has to acknowledge that it is not him the one who produced these fruits, but it is the intimate partnership between the person and God that allows the ground to express its full potential. To ensure this, there has to be a neat equilibrium between the supremacy of the Human Being on the land and the freedom of the land itself to express its nature. That is why the person has to declare: “Therefore, as you see, I have now brought the firstfruits of the land which You, O Lord, have given me“, meaning “I bring what You, God, and me have made possible the land to produce”.
By expressing that the land is one that flows with milk and honey, we also remind ourselves of the richness made possible by this partnership with God, as well as the behavior we must have so as not to bring again the land to the destruction and desolation that may render it flowing wildly with milk and honey, breaking the partnership and covenant with God.