In Parshat Sh’lah Lekha (also simply called Sh’lah), we are presented with the term “Eretz Zavat Halav u’Dvash”, referring to the land of Israel as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Those of us with a sense of food history know that the dominant food sweetener of our people for most of our history was not cane sugar (and obviously not high-fructose corn syrup), as sugar cane is a product of tropical regions. It was not introduced to the Middle East until the 7th Century, by Muslims who brought it from its native India. In biblical cuisine, then, it was honey that sweetened most foods.
But wait! Even when we talk about honey, we may not be talking about what we, as American eaters, are used to in our food. The d’vash of the statement refers to date honey. That is, the guts (or the syrup) from inside a date, not the stuff bees make. (Bees are pretty much involved in everything relating to fruit, though, in some way, so let’s not discount them totally; either way, bees are not directly involved.) Although it is also technically called ‘honey’, it is not what we typically imagine when we say the word. Hang on, it gets harder to imagine! The halav of the statement isn’t what we think of when we think of milk, since cows weren’t running around the land, either. We remember our ancestors as shepherds and goatherders. So why do most of us, I believe, imagine the milk of old coming, like most milk of today, from cows? Sheep and goats dominated among middle eastern livestock until very recently and certainly the milk referenced flowed from sheep, goats or both. But not from cows!
As readers, it is natural and fitting that we would imagine the milk and honey of the Torah looking like, tasting like, and being derived from the same sources as the milk and honey we drink and eat. Any reader of any text does that: we have to imagine things mostly as we are familiar with them. This is part of the natural process of both reading and imagining. And yet, as adults, we know that most of history is neither as different as fairy tales make it out to be nor as similar as our sometimes-lazy imaginations let it be. The lives our ancestors led were filled with the stresses of work and relationships and punctuated by the joys that these things brought. Their goals and challenges were bettering themselves and those they loved in physical ways and in spiritual growth. They weren’t so different than we are. And yet, in so many ways, they were more different than we readily imagine. Far from trivia, this knowledge hopefully brings us to deep meaning in the Parsha and in Torah generally.
When we read the Torah as if everyone looked, ate and thought like we do, we are missing the Sitz Im Leben, the historical context we need as sophisticated learners. But what if we did the opposite? If we always had to see Torah in its scientifically proven historical context, we would read ourselves right out of the stories. We wouldn’t see Torah’s lessons, rules or philosophies as applying to us, but to some other people who didn’t dress like us, speak our language or understand our world. Instead, by engaging in a balanced reading, we can truly taste the mix of optimism and challenge, the sweetness and the tang of the land flowing with milk and honey.