Shabbat Eikev • July 30, 2010
There's a story told of Moses on the mountain, looking out over the Promised Land, frustrated that he will only see it but not cross into it. In his conversation with God, he said (picture Alan King, cigar in hand, telling this):
"God, how wonderful! A land flowing with milk and honey -- wonderful!"
Then Moses continued,
"But God, how about maybe some oil?"
This type of joke, and others like it, has entered the Jewish consciousness. Israel is called "a land flowing with milk and honey" 17 times in the Torah, but never a land of oil (ok, maybe olive oil). Perhaps there's something here about the psychology of not appreciating a blessing. Perhaps today, looking around, we can't help but see the wealth of some of Israel's neighbors, the resource richness.
This "resource envy" is misguided. Consider that studies have shown that countries rich in oil and natural resources (e.g. minerals) -- think Middle East and Africa, especially -- tend to be plagued by corruption, poverty, and war, not to mention inequality and lack of democracy. For further reading on this idea, check out The Paradox of Plenty by Terry Karl.
And there have been some recent examples. When it became big news last month that Afghanistan is sitting on $1 trillion worth of mineral reserves, some commentators (including Jon Stewart) expressed their condolences to the war-torn country. The sentiment went something like this: "Congratulations, Afghanistan: you're now assured centuries of conflict, greed, and instability."
Similarly, natural gas was discovered recently off the coast of Haifa. Initially hailed as good news for Israel's economy, the excitement turned more dismal when Hizbollah claimed the rights to the resource deposit. Journalists then began to speculate on another Israel-Lebanon war, this time over resource rights.
One economist (Paul Collier of Oxford University and the World Bank) has estimated that, in countries who depend solely or mostly on natural resources, the chance of civil war can be 20-40 times higher than in other countries.
This is know as the Resource Curse or the Paradox of Plenty. The interesting thing about this idea is that it applies not just to countries and international politics -- but also to people, to us.
It's already old and tired to say that we live in a materialistic, consumer culture. But how many of us have more shoes than we need? More clothes than we actually wear? Too many tchotchkes? (And believe me, as someone who just moved last week, I am guilty of this myself. I am not immune!)
And the deeper, harder question is:
When we raise children immersed in this culture of amassing things, what are we teaching them? What are they learning about the value of a dollar? About the value of a day's work? About plenty and poverty, and where they fit in in the world? About what really matters in life?
Now, Judaism is not an ascetic religion. We don't really have a monastic strand who rejects material possessions and all worldly wealth to live a life of poverty. Judaism is not anti-wealth. But it is against valuing substances over substance. It is against -- to use our metaphor -- valuing oil over milk and honey.
Milk and honey are the antidote, precisely because they are not the most valuable resources, but rather the truest blessings in life.
Milk resonates with motherhood, nourishment, and love, as well as protection and empowerment.
Honey symbolizes sweetness, joy and celebration. And it's worth noting that it's produced by bees only in community, reminding us about the nature of human fulfillment -- that we need to be in relationship.
Milk and honey are things without which we cannot live, without which we cannot be fully human.
Two final thoughts.
First, it might actually be a blessing in disguise that Israel has no oil. It's had to rely on intellect, creativity, people power. It has created cutting edge hi-tech; great music, film and arts experiences; and religious and spiritual flourishing. Without oil reserves to rely on, but with plenty of milk and honey to go around, Israel found a better way. The question is, how can we take a lesson from that success into our lives? What can we learn about how human ingenuity and imagination flourish -- when we're forced to play outside (although in Aspen, I'm preaching to the choir!)? When we read a book? When we spend time with a friend, or helping someone in need, rather than with our things?
Second, we recall what we heard chanted tonight from Deuteronomy (11:10-11):
For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.(Sounds a little bit like our own Roaring Fork Valley, doesn't it?) This description is a reminder: that we aren't ultimately in control. The rains come and go, and we don't command them. There are mountains and valleys, ups and downs, highs and lows, and we don't get to control those either.
What we do get is milk and honey. What we give, if we will take up our responsibility, is milk and honey. Nourishment and sweetness. In community, in relationships, in friends and family, in the beauty of nature, in the quiet of Shabbat. In service and tzedakah, in tikkun olam.
Oil's value rises and falls. But milk and honey are priceless, and eternal.
Shabbat Shalom -- may it be sweet and satisfying.