“Pumping Iron” Parashat Ekev 5776

In Parashat Ekev Moshe concludes his last will and testament. In the finale it is the Land of Israel that takes centre-stage. The Parasha is rife with descriptions of the land, as well as its intimate connection with Am Yisrael that is contingent upon our deeds.

The Torah is positively glowing in its description of the land of Israel [Devarim 8:7-10]: “For Hashem is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” There is one word in the description that is tricky and that is the first word: “ki” – “for”. The word “ki” can be translated in one of four ways[1]: “if”, “perhaps”, “but”, and “because”. The chabad.org website has chosen to translate this instance of “ki” as “for”, or “because”. With this translation, the verse can be succinctly summarized in five words: “Because the land is wonderful”. Obviously, this sentence is not grammatically correct because it is incomplete. Additional wording must come either before the word “because” or after the word “wonderful”. To discover what these words are, all we have to do is to look back one verse [Devarim 8:6]: “You shall keep the commandments of the Hashem, to go in His ways, and to fear Him”. When we combine the verses, we get the following instructions: “Keep Hashem’s commandments because the land [which] is wonderful [will remain yours only as long as you keep the commandments]”. This is a familiar message, one that the Torah has conveyed in the past[2].

But perhaps there is more than meets the eye. While reading the verse on iron and copper, I remembered a summer ten years ago when we went with our children to visit Park Timna, located about twenty minutes north of Eilat. They have a very nice evening walk that ends up at a rock formation called “Solomon’s Pillars”. Multi-coloured lights are shone on the pillars and it’s all quite impressive. More impressive than the pillars are the copper mines dug deep in the bedrock – Timna is chock full of them. Radioactive dating has shown that these mines date back to the period of King Solomon, nearly three thousand years ago. Many of these mines have been turned into tunnels in which children and adventurous adults crawl around and have a ball. But even above the surface there are blotches of green, indications of the copper ore that lies just below. Indeed Israel is a land “out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” But what about the iron? The verse makes it sound as if the iron is just lying there for the taking – “a land whose stones are iron”. Just bend over and pick up a nugget!  There are two inaccuracies with this verse: First, iron must be mined or hewn from underground ore, just like copper. Second, the Land of Israel does not contain any meaningful deposits of iron ore[3]. Perhaps Yonatan ben Uziel was aware of at least one of these inaccuracies[4], because he translates “a land whose stones are iron” allegorically as “a land whose scholars are as sharp as [iron] knives”. No, there is no iron lying around.

I would like to propose an explanation that incorporates the translation of Yonatan ben Uziel, not allegorically, but as the simple meaning of the verse. When one reads the above verses describing the natural resources in the Land of Israel, one is reminded of a story in the Talmud in Tractate Ketubot [111b] that tells of a Rabbi who once saw goats eating under a fig tree. The fig-honey dripped from the over-ripe figs and fell onto drops of milk that shone on the udders of the goats. The Rabbi was reminded of the verse [Shemot 3:8] “a land flowing with milk and honey”. It turns out that in order to get the land to flow with milk and honey a tremendous amount of work is required. Israel is sorely lacking in natural resources required for agriculture, specifically, fertile land and water. Historically, water always needed to be meticulously gathered and stored. Most towns had at least one large underground water cistern that had to be dug and then plastered. In order to minimize the water lost to runoff, hills were usually terraced. All of this required a tremendous amount of back-breaking labour.

Now let’s fast forward by about three thousand years. Israel’s hot and dry climate and its arid land remain the same. The solutions, however, are biting edge technology. In the 1950’s, an Israeli named Simcha Blass became the father of drip irrigation (taftafot), which uses tapes, tubes and nozzles to deliver water drop by drop to the exact location of individual plants in the field. Drip irrigation reduces water wastage to essentially zero. According to their web site, the Israeli company Netafim “is the global leader in smart irrigation solutions for a sustainable future”.

The biggest problem, however, pertains not only to conserving water but to accessing fresh water in the first place. Israel’s water comes from the Sea of Galilee and from a number of subterranean aquifers. To Israel’s west lies the Mediterranean Sea with abundant water but too salty to drink. Currently Israel and the rest of the Middle East are in the throes of a drought of epic proportions. Less than a decade ago the country was on the verge of water rationing. The Sea of Galilee had dropped to within inches of the “black line” at which irreversible salt infiltration would flood the lake and ruin it forever. And yet today Israel actually has a water surplus and is considering exporting water. The key is the desalination of the water in the Mediterranean Sea and the key to desalination lies in an Israeli invention that uses porous lava to capture micro-organisms that would otherwise “gum up the works”. Three desalination plants are providing more than 55% of Israel’s fresh water[5].

In a similar vein, Israel has always been lacking in sources of energy. We have always been the one country in the Middle East without “black gold” in the ground. Until recently, Israel had to buy coal from South Africa and crude oil from Russia in order to satisfy its rapidly growing appetite for energy. But then the impossible happened: Large natural gas deposits were discovered underneath the Mediterranean Sea – first in Yam Tethys, off the coast of Ashdod, then in Tamar, to its northwest, and in 2010, Leviathan, the largest gas field in the Mediterranean Sea[6]. Not only will Israel soon become self-sufficient: It is very possible that within less than a decade Israel will become a major exporter of natural gas.

The common denominator of drip irrigation, desalination, and underwater natural gas fields is that in order to harness the vast potential of the land that Hashem promised Israelis had to dig deep, both figuratively and literally. In the same way that we must “hew copper”, we must also “hew” our water and our fire. We are successful because of our “iron” – our scholars who are as sharp as knives. Hashem has blessed us with abundant raw material and with the intelligence to access it and to transform it into useable products. “Keeping Hashem’s commandments” is no different. It is admittedly not always easy keeping the mitzvot. Everything we do is highly regulated. They’re eating cheeseburgers while we’re fasting on Yom Kippur.  But leading a life of Torah is never beyond our reach. We are commanded to leverage our ingenuity and our strength to mine below the surface and to gain access to infinite wellsprings of spiritual energy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] See the Talmud in Tractate Rosh HaShanah [3a].

[2] See, for instance [Vayikra 18:28] “Let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you”.

[3] While researching this shiur, I found that in the 1950’s Israeli’s were certain that they had discovered iron in the Upper Galilee, the Negev, and on Mount Tabor. None of these discoveries panned out.

[4] As my son Elyassaf commented, Yonatan ben Uziel probably did not know that there was no iron ore found in Israel.

[5] See this article: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/israel-proves-the-desalination-era-is-here/

[6] This was true until the August 2015 discovery of the Zohr gas field off the coast of Egypt,

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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