On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, Jews have a tradition of eating fruit (usually an apple) dipped in honey. People eat the tasty combination and pray for a sweet new year. The meaning of the apple-and-honey combination extends deeper into the physical land of Israel and human behavior.
The Bible uses the expression “a land flowing with milk and honey” for the first time in Exodus 3:8, when God tells Moses at the burning bush that he will bring the Jews to a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”. The biblical commentator Ramban (Nachmanides b.1194-d.1270) said that the phrase has nothing to do with milk or honey. “Milk and honey” refers to the nectar of the fruit, and a land “flowing with milk and honey” is an expression used for a particularly fertile land that could produce abundant and juicy fruit.
The saying is used several times in the bible, each time meant to convey the richness of the land of Israel. In some cases, the phrase is paired with a threat or caveat. In Exodus 33:3-4, God uses the expression after the sin of the Golden Calf:
“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you,
because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn.”
Years later, when the spies returned from scouting the land as the people of Israel prepared to enter it, the spies paired the richness of the land with a warning in Numbers 15:27-28:
“it is also flowing with milk and honey and here is its fruit,
however, the people who dwell in the land are fierce.”
The promised land is identified as rich and fertile, but there are obstacles to getting it. God warns the Jews that their own behavior could keep them from reaching the land. Conversely, the spies described how other people may try to keep them out of the land. God’s words of warning direct the people to improve themselves or risk never reaching Israel; the spies caution that enemies will fight them for the land. God tells people to look inward; the spies, outward.
As Jews around the world welcome in the new year, they consider more than just the sweetness of the foods they eat. The honey dripping from the apple is a reflection of the fertility of the land of Israel. To continue to merit that promised land, Jews must consider and always improve upon their own behavior. Internalizing the blessings of Israel and the necessity to behave properly will fortify the people to defeat its enemies.
Let the New Year of 5775 be a year full of blessing for the land and people of Israel.