By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh Yeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
It is said that a religious tourist complained to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook about how frustrated he was to see the level of Shabbat desecration and other grave sins in Eretz Yisrael. He wondered why it was that so many Jews who observed the mitzvot when they were abroad became spoiled when they arrived in the holy land.
Rav Kook asked the man where he came from, and he told the Rav. That place had a reputation as a health resort. So the Rav asked him, "Then how can it be that from what I hear there are so many sick people in that city?" The man smiled and said, "It is not that the place made them sick. Rather, they were sick before they came to the resort, and that is why they came." Rav Kook told the man, "If so, then listen to the meaning of what you just said. The sick Jews who came here from afar came to be cured, it is not the place which made them sick."
And Rav Kook explained to the man the characteristic of the land which helps to mend faults. He said that this is included in the description of "a land flowing with milk and honey." I heard this story from Rav Kook's son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda.
With respect to milk, we have been taught that "blood becomes cloudy and is turned into milk" [Nidda 9b]. Rashi explains, "The blood of Nidda becomes cloudy because of the birth of a baby, and it becomes milk. This is thus a novel occurrence – at first it was blood and whoever drank it would be punished by Karet, and now it is permissible." This is the subject of the discussion in the Talmud: Why is milk permitted, since it comes from blood which is prohibited? And the Talmud finds a source for the halacha in the Torah.
A similar question can be asked about honey. While usually it is assumed that honey is produced from sweet nectar in flowers, it is seen in the Prophets that there is also honey which comes from the bees themselves. An example is the case of Shimshon: "Behold, there was a swarm of bees in the carcass of the lion, with honey" [Shoftim 14:8]. Similarly, when Shaul declared a fast his son Yehonatan dipped the end of his staff "in the honey." RADAK interprets this as "the honeycomb." The usual rule in the Torah is that what comes from an impure source is impure. However, even though the bee is an unclean bug, the Torah gave permission to eat the honey.
Thus we have seen two examples of transformation of a serious prohibition into something that is permitted. And that is the benefit of Eretz Yisrael. It is a land "flowing with milk and honey," which can transform impure material into something pure, and something bad into a good thing.
According to the Zohar, the head of the yeshiva in the palace of Mashiach will declare, "Whoever does not know how to transform bitterness into sweetness and dark into light shall not enter here" [Bereishit part 1,3].
This, in fact was the greatest sin performed by Datan and Aviram. They said, "Isn't it enough that you brought us up from a land flowing in milk and honey?" [Bamidbar 16:13]. But the expression "milk and honey" refers to the unique properties of Eretz Yisrael, which are not matched by any other site. It has the ability to change red into white, darkness into light, bitterness into sweetness, and bad into good. However, Datan and Aviram try to transfer this property to Egypt. Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook added that the shock from this attempt is so great that the earth itself trembles and blows up – "And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them" [Bamidbar 16:32].