All Writings
December 7, 2002

A Land That Floweth With Milk And Honey

The deafening silence of Jewish and Islamic scholars and religious leaders in response to the tragic events have taken place over the past two years in the Middle East brings to mind, in a curious way, a biblical reference to the land of Canaan (present-day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and most of Jordan) and the fortunes of the ancient Israelis and the Palestinians.

Joshua, who was sent by Moses more than 3,000 years ago to spy on the land of Canaan before the Jews could enter it following their exodus from Egypt, reported that it "floweth with milk honey." In contrast, the representatives of the 12 Jewish tribes who joined him on his expedition claimed it to be "a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof" (Numbers. 13:27, 32).

Jewish scholars of the Old Testament interpret these descriptions in a variety of ways. Some suggest that as the land was occupied by very strong men, called Nephelin, who looked like giants and lived in fortified cities: Only men such as these could survive the harsh conditions. Hence the land must be a land that would consume its weaker inhabitants. Other scholars believe that the ancient Jews saw the land as devouring when they realized that they would have to wage war against a formidable enemy to conquer it and in the process sustain massive casualties.

The eleventh-century scholar Shlomo Ben-Yitzhak (Rashi) who studied and worked in France, and is considered the foremost Jewish interpreter of the Old Testament, advanced a more compelling explanation. In his view, the land of Canaan can either be the land of milk and honey or a land that consumes those who dwell there. God intended it to be that way: The choice of whether it would be a land of abundance or devastation was left to the inhabitants themselves. Should the governors be just and caring, the people compassionate, abiding by the highest morality in their day-to-day conduct and respecting each other's rights, then they should live in peace. If they made this choice, then the land would indeed exude milk and honey. But if they decide to live in opposition to these standards, then violence, cruelty, and hatred, greed, venom, revenge, and retribution will be the result, and they will eventually perish through their own misdeeds.

The long history of the land of Canaan attests to the fact that no other land has seen so much glory and despair, and no other land has touched the souls of so many. It is a land that has shaped the destiny of its inhabitants and witnessed the rise and fall of many ancient empires, including those of the Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Romans, and Greeks. All failed to live up to their promise. By denying human rights and justice to those who lived there, they rendered themselves unfit to possess the land. Consumed from within, in the end each perished.

Now, in our own time, for nearly a century Israelis and Palestinians have been at war. They have inflicted terrible wounds on each other. Governed by leaders who have not sought peace, the two peoples have acted out of blind hatred and animosity, poisoning generation after generation. Today cold-blooded murders, suicide bombings, stabbing, abductions, and various other hideous crimes perpetrated by one side are countered by demolition of homes, detentions, assassinations, expulsions, and daily humiliations, each of these actions defying the very premise of the religious connections of both peoples to the land. So is sacred soil defiled.

Unless the Israelis and the Arabs wake up to the reality of their inevitable coexistence, they will, by their own actions, have fulfilled the prophecy of doom uttered by the representatives of the 12 tribes. For in attempting to consume the other, they consume themselves.

There are extremists and fanatics among both Israelis and Palestinians who are bent on destroying the peace process. In particular, Hamas and Jihad seek the destruction of Israel, while revisionist right-wing Israelis, still dreaming of Greater Israel, are willing to fight to the death to achieve this end.

But the majority the mainstream Israelis and Palestinians "believe in coexistence, believe in their mutual right to live on the same land, believe that they share the same destiny and that they must live and let live to make the land of Canaan a true land of milk and honey. Led by their religious leaders and scholars, Israeli and Palestinian moderates must seize the historic opportunity and resolve to quell the self-destructive fanaticism that is engulfing them.

Hamas and Jihad can kill another hundred or a thousand Israelis, thousands of Palestinians can be expelled or shot to death, but then what? Israelis and Palestinians will be left still facing each other. As both sides reposition themselves, they will be talking with one another, simply because there is no other choice. Except this time, hatred will run deeper, mutual fear and suspicion will erode even more trust, taint every gesture and action. The loss of human lives and the pervasive sustained suffering will have taken their toll too, further scarring hearts and minds, making the negotiators increasingly intractable.

Those extremists who are moved by passion rather than ambition or fanaticism that knows no reason should take heed of history. Jews and Palestinians have been thrust together once again. The third Jewish commonwealth is strong and daring. Israel has fulfilled the prophecy of the ingathering. The Jews have returned to their "home" And the Palestinians, they too are the dwellers of this land; they too, have built a home there. About 1,400 years later, they have developed the same attachment to the land as their ancestors had. The prayers of both peoples have been heard and answered. This is the most compelling reason why their pain and anguish must now come to an end. The salvation of the souls of both peoples and the redemption of the soil must be the task at hand. But where are the Jewish and Muslim religious leaders when they are most needed? Why have they handed over their flocks to religious perverts? If they do not heed the call of their own peoples, who will?

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can have it all: It is impossible in the deepest sense to build one's home on the ruins of another. The self-consuming cycle of violence must stop. Jewish and Muslim clergy, men of true religious wisdom, must make their voices heard. Their silence thus far has been deafening. They, more than any other Israeli or Palestinian, have the solemn responsibility to speak out against this raging madness. They must not allow religious lunatics to pervert the holy Koran or distort the moral tenets of the Old Testament in the service of an unholy alliance with the devil. They must speak out; otherwise, by their silence, they will fulfill the prophesy of doom and forfeit this perhaps final chance to make their holy land what it was meant to be: "A land that floweth with milk and honey."