Parashat Pinhas

Sustenance from the Source

City living can cause social fragmentation and environmental degradation.

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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. 

Eruv

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.

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Michael Rosen owns the Green Studio of Architecture & Design in Los Angeles, CA, specializing in green building.