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The Solar Field and the Mezuzah

By Rabbi Michael Cohen

ARAVA VALLEY, Israel (July 17, 2011) — One can see a mezuzah on a lonely gate facing a desolate sun-drenched open plain of the Arava Valley here, where more than 100,000 years ago our earliest human ancestors entered Asia as humanity began to spread from Africa. The migratory nature of the valley continues in our own lifetime as every year half a billion birds fly from Africa to Asia and Europe and six months later return in the opposite direction. And a few miles south of the fence and the mezuzah is the oasis of Yotvata, mentioned twice in the Torah as a location where Moses and the Children of Israel encamped on their own journey from Africa to Asia.


But this is not just any gate of any fence, and this is not your average mezuzah — it is the first mezuzah in the world that is also a sun dial. Designed by Danny Lavie for this specific location, the sun-dial mezuzah sots vertically along the fence gate, making it more complicated to adjust to the correct meridians and altitude angles than standard horizontal sun dials.


The fence, just south of Kibbutz Ketura on the Israeli-Jordanian border, surrounds the first commercial solar field in the history of Israel. So how did the fence and mezuzah get here? In 1996, five years before I co-founded the Green Zionist Alliance, I was awarded a sabbatical from the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vt., and I became a founding faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located on Kibbutz Ketura. The Arava Institute is the premier environmental teaching and research program in the Middle East, preparing future Jewish and Arab leaders to cooperatively solve the region's environmental challenges. Since then my family and I have divided our time between Vermont and Israel.


On one of our long periods on Ketura we overlapped with Yossi Abramowitz and his family who had just moved to Israel from Boston. Yossi, a well-known Jewish activist, educator and innovator, came to the Arava desert wanting to do something with the sun.


One day Yossi approached me and said, "Michael, what the world needs is solar-powered air conditioners."


"That's a great idea, but try thinking bigger," I replied. "Look across the Arava road, we need to fill those empty agricultural fields of the kibbutz, as well as the entire Arava Valley, with solar panels. It is time to take solar-panel technology out of the testing lab and mainstream it. We need to move from thinking and testing to doing."


With that very short conversation the Arava Power Company was born. Yossi did some initial work and discovered that the epicenter of some of the highest solar radiation in the world is in the Arava Valley. I introduced him to Ed Hofland, the kibbutz member in charge of business development, and we received the backing of the kibbutz to start the project. David Rosenblatt was brought on board as vice-chairman, Ed became the chairman, and Yossi became the president. The three of them then began a five-year journey, including a $15-million investment by Siemens along the way, that culminated last month with the dedication of the solar field.


Israeli Knesset members Dr. Einat Wilf, Uzi Landau and Orit Noked joined me at the mezuzah's dedication ceremony. In reference to the Sh'ma prayer inside the mezuzah, I referenced the commentary of R. I talked about the parchment inside the mezuzah which contains the Sh'ma and the paragraph that follows it, as well as a second paragraph also found in the Torah. About the Sh'ma, I quoted Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who translated the word sh'ma as "listen" rather than the more traditionally translated "hear" because listening, he said, is active, and hearing is passive.


"The intent here is that we must actively listen," I said. "Listen to what? The answer is found on the second paragraph in the mezuzah, 'And if you truly listen to my bidding, as I bid you now ... then I will give you rain upon your land in its appointed time, the early rain, yoreh, and the later rain, malkosh.' From this we learn something extremely important — there is a relationship between the doings of humans and the health of the environment, our home. We now need to listen to the cry of the Earth calling for help. So what are we to do? Solar energy is one solution, and a very important one. The mezuzah of this field serves to remind us that we need to fix the world. The work of these solar panels is sacred work."


In the past 40 years we have seen the growth of environmental movements within the world's religions. These movements have given voice to environmental messages that have been listened to over the centuries, as well as those environmental messages which have too long sat dormant within our respective traditions. The time has come to actively listen and act.




Rabbi Michael Cohen is a co-founder of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.



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"Thus water, after having penetrated the soil, is collected in the clouds and seas; light, after having permeated the earth and brought forth the plants-these children of light-is yet concentrated in the sun, the moon and the stars; the seed, after germination in the ground, is taken from the earth to become the ripened fruit, so that the earth will have to receive in order to give again. Thus one immense bond of love, of giving and receiving, unites all beings."

- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Did You Know?

With about 70% of its treated sewage water being reused by agriculture, Israel leads the world in wastewater reuse.

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