Sustenance from the Source
City living can cause social fragmentation and environmental degradation.
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"And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, for these shall the land be divided as an inheritance according to the number of the names (Numbers 26:52)."
The Torah portion of Pinhas discusses apportioning the land of Israel according to preset measurements, called nahalot. These delineations are to remain forever (Rashi to Leviticus 25:15). These land apportionments are intended to provide the setting for true sustenance. As part of the great scheme of sustenance, God gave us land measures to keep as a sustainable and balanced inheritance.
The respect necessary for maintaining a sustainable relationship to the land can inform our approach, even outside of Israel. We need to strengthen our access to sustenance, both physical and spiritual, by feeling our connection to the land, even though we might live in modern cities. We can do this by making human health and well-being a goal in the architecture and scale of our cities, and making planetary health and well-being a guiding force in planning our source of nutrition.
The Torah directs us to live in faith and unity with creation; approximately half of the mitzvot involve agriculture and land apportionment. But city living distances people from the agricultural test of faith, and thus they also are deprived of the resulting closer relationship with God.
Dependence on God
In rabbinic literature, the order of the Mishnah related to agriculture is called emunah, a Hebrew word which means faith in God's blessings. Dependence on the land deepens our relationship with God through emunah.
With no emunah, land is harvested without an appreciation of the source of sustenance. Industrialized farming results in depleted soil, less nutritious food, and pollution from pesticides. This kind of farming has little regard for the natural balance of life. By working with nature, with God, organic sustainable farming produces a healthy harvest that will sustain the human immune system, as well as the environment.
In addition to compromised nutrition, the overall health of city dwellers is an ancient issue. As early as the 11th century, Rashi explained "Life is more difficult in the city, because so many live there, and they crowd their houses together, and there is no air, whereas in villages there are gardens and orchards close to the homes, and the air is good (comment to Ketubot 110b)."
Maimonides commented on city communities in the 12th century:
"The quality of urban air compared to the air in the deserts and forests is like thick and turbulent water compared to pure and light water. And this is because in the cities with their tall buildings and narrow roads, the pollution that comes from their residents, their waste…makes their entire air malodorous, turbulent, reeking, and thick…And if you cannot move out of the city, try at least to live in a suburb created to the northeast. Let the house be tall and the court wide enough to permit the northern wind and the sun to come through, because the sun thins out the pollution of the air, and makes it light and pure."
We know today that imbalances such as no sunlight, lack of sleep, inadequate fresh air, and environmental stress--all deficits common to city life--degrade health and immunity levels. The medieval sages understood the balance of land and health, and their recommendations for the city are valid today.
The Sages of the Talmud also noted that the emotional environment undergoes more damage in large cities than in small towns. In explaining a law of the Mishnah (Ketubot 13.10) that a husband may not compel his wife to move from a village to a large city, the Talmud cites the reasoning of R. Yosi ben Hanina, that life is more difficult in the city than the village.
Obviously city living is imperative nowadays, and has been for decades, for many people seeking a livelihood. However, despite some advantages that cities have over the smaller towns and villages that many people have left, individuals are weakened by living in places where identity is not reinforced and supported by a community. Social fragmentation is created in cities where the public and private domains are in conflict.
For Jews living in cities, the balance of public and private domain is defined by an eruv, a minimal structure symbolizing a fence that surrounds the city. Today there are many cities whose Jewish communities benefit from modern eruvim (plural of eruv). The eruv is effective for enabling the carrying of objects on Shabbat, by symbolically unifying an entire community to one domain.
Eruv construction and maintenance requires cooperative work by a community of people and benefits all involved. Thus, the eruv engenders a continuous social domain which is supportive of community life, and focused on God. Being included in a city eruv combats social isolation and spiritual estrangement.
Connecting to the Source
For city dwellers, the key to maintaining mental and physical health is to reconnect with the natural world, and its Creator. Cities without a connection to nature or agriculture, green space, light, air, and horizon create an imbalance which can support neither physical nor spiritual life. Rabbi Nachman would go for walks in the woods to speak to God just outside town. In this manner he was able to escape the damaging, isolating effects of the city, maintaining a connection with nature and the Source of creation.
By taking these minute, physical steps, we can reconnect to the land and the unity expressed in creation, returning to the Source of all sustenance, "by knowing and believing that all creation is not separate from God, but in reality an extension of his oneness (Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)."
Suggestion Action Items:
1) Communities today are attempting to reclaim what is missing by reconnecting to the land. Sustainable design is bringing courtyards, green roof gardens, and community garden spaces to cities. In addition, agricultural and nature preserves right outside city limits maintain life-giving nature zones around urban areas. By supporting sustainable design, organic agriculture, and community gardens we can strengthen the balance of population and land.
2) By helping to support eruv construction in your city, community bonds can be strengthened around a holy purpose.
3) Take a walk in a park inside or just outside of your city. Take some time to reflect on your dependence on creation, or to pray.
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