One cannot help but pity iron. Compared to its “flashier” cousins, gold, silver, and copper, it appears dull and plain. In Tanach, its treatment gets no better. Iron is disqualified from the Beit HaMikdash due to its “violent” essence. A Mizbayach’s stones cannot even be cut by iron, because of iron’s nature. In Sefer Daniel, the iron part of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue is considered the harshest and most unyielding. The iron chariots of the Canaanites are enough of a deterrent for Shevet Yosef to avoid conquering their entire territory.
Therefore, one of the virtues which Eretz Yisrael possesses is a curious one, when one continues in this vein. After praising the 7 Minim, Moshe praises the land as “a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.” Why is it a bracha that Israel’s stones should be made from iron? What redeeming virtues does iron have that it must be a necessary part of Eretz Yisrael?
One of iron’s key characteristics is that it is very practical. Unlike its metallic cousins gold and silver, it is not expensive. The Seforno explains that iron and copper is necessary for a thriving economy. Although the land is blessed with the 7 Minim, a nation’s economy cannot run on crops alone. A country without such industrial resources would be forced to invade other countries, like Japan did in the 30s. Iron, explains the Seforno, is even beautiful when it is used for construction. (In his super-commentary on the Seforno, R. Yehuda Copperman quips that it is rare to find building material which is both strong and aesthetically pleasing.) The Seforno concludes that a country, where iron is readily found, is indeed blessed. This
The Ramban, citing the Targum Yerushalmi, expands on the usefulness of iron. When Bnei Yisrael would find iron, it would place them at a higher technological level than that on which they had previously lived. When they were still slaves in Mitzrayim, most of their buildings were made from clay and plaster. Although clay is study, it is not useful for any advanced construction work. Once Bnei Yisrael will have access to iron, concludes the Ramban, they will be technologically advanced to the point that they could build fortresses and fortified cities. According to the Chizkuni, iron gates are considered a sign of wealth. A poorer person would only have wooden gates, which are easier to penetrate.
A second, more infamous purpose for iron is that as being practical for making weapons. The iron chariots of the Canaanites were more advanced than any weapon which Bnei Yosef had in their arsenal. Therefore, in Moshe’s Berachot which he blesses Bnei Yisrael before his death, he blesses Bnei Yisrael’s borders, via saying they should be iron-tight to shield the rest of the land against invaders. R. Sa’adiah Gaon explains that when the borders are sealed like iron, they will be a source of strength for the nation.
The Netziv develops a spiritual dimension to iron. Iron-strong borders protect the nation, but they cannot operate alone. According to the Netziv, every beit Knesset, where Jews gather together to daven, is an iron gate. The power of tefillah b’tzibur, explains the Netziv, is powerful as both an offensive and defensive weapon. When Hashem commands Moshe to create the two trumpets, or chatzotzrot, they were meant to be blown on a number of occasions, military included. When Bnei Yisrael would go fight an offensive war, the soldiers, in conjunctions with prayer, would be victorious. When facing a siege, tefillah would become a defensive shield.
Rabbeinu Bachye expands the spiritual dimension of iron in a second direction. In his examination of the passuk, he explains that all of these blessings are referring to wisdom required for deeper Torah study. As Bava Basra 158B states, “the air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise.” Those who mine copper and pick up the iron are the Torah scholars, who build up the country in conjunction with the physical structures.
A third positive quality of iron is its inability to be used for deceitful business transactions. The prophets frequently lament how Bnei Yisrael would cheapen their gold and silver in order to rob the poor. These alloys would never be beneficial. In contrast when iron is combined with other metals to form steel, the resulting product is not an inferior one at all. Steel is even stronger than iron, and plays an even more important role in modern industry.
Therefore, when one examines the positive uses for iron, one realizes that perhaps iron’s reputation is not as bad as it appear on the surface. According to the Chasam Sofer, the belief of R. Yishmael in the combination of Torah and labor as an ideal level of living specifically applies to living in Israel. As Bnei Yisrael did long ago, and as we still see today, a strong country must be built on both levels, with everyone playing a role on both levels. The double bracha of iron is sending that message to Bnei Yisrael, and to us as well. May we always successfully utilize the physical and spiritual powers of iron to bring achdut to the Jewish People in these deeply polarized and divisive times. Only with achdut could we bring about a time when all weapons will become obsolete with the arrival of Moshaich.
By Adina Brizel