Rabbi Nosson Slifkin
Urban sprawl is a hot topic. Although it has been studied since the 1950s,
it has only recently sprung to the forefront of public attention. The
current (December) issue of Scientific American features a study of the
problem. A recent poll found that Americans are more concerned about urban
sprawl and traffic than crime, employment and education, which is unlikely
to come as a surprise to anyone who has ever been stuck in a sea of traffic
on a six lane freeway.
But the unstoppable spread of apartment blocks, shopping malls, highways and
car parks has more harmful effects than mere traffic delays. The
environmental impact is catastrophic. Wildlife habitats, wetlands and
watersheds have been wiped out all over the place. Pollution of water and of
the most basic necessity, the air itself, has become so severe as to pose a
real health hazard. Even the inspiration from the starry night sky has been
lost in many places due to "light pollution."
The astonishing thing is that it is taking so long to get anything done
about it. It was years before people were even basically conscious of the
issues, and it is taking decades to create legislation and actually get
something done about it. Apparently, man is slow to notice and even slower
There are a variety of approaches to solving the problem. But probably one
of the most basic has actually been in legislation for over three thousand
years. In an extraordinarily sensitive ruling, the Torah (Numbers 35:2)
instructs that the cities reserved for the Levites are to have a green belt
1000 cubits wide surrounding a city, as well as a further 2000 cubits for
agricultural use. Maimonides explains that these regulations apply by
extension to all the cities of Israel.
In one fell swoop, this places a stopper on urban sprawl and solves most of
its environmental dangers. The city can no longer spread out uncontrollably,
which means that there is a limit as to how much traffic and pollution will
accumulate. Trees, plants and grass are able to grow, purifying the air and
making a better environment for our children.
But environmental legislation should not only apply to city planners. It is
something that affects each and every one of us. And the Torah therefore
lays down laws that govern how every Jew relates to his surroundings.
First and foremost, there is the prohibition of bal tashchit, wanton
destruction of the world. According to Jewish tradition, even plucking a
leaf from a tree for no particular reason is forbidden. And there is another
rule, written in the Torah, that is perhaps the most remarkable of all. It
states that a soldier going out to battle must pack a small spade in his
This small spade is not to assist in planting a sapling for the Jewish
National Fund. It is not to dig a water channel and improve the scenery. It
serves a purpose that is neither openly spiritual nor a trendy environmental
fad. It is for digging a toilet so that his waste is buried and does not lie
on the ground.
Incredible! The Torah is a book of religion, Divine wisdom and spirituality.
It is discussing wars, matters of grave national significance. And yet it
finds the opportunity to discuss the very lowest and dirtiest of human
This is an outstanding testimony to the Torah's exquisite sensitivity to the
importance of doing everything ≠ ≠ properly. The Torah is called
Toras Chaim, instructions for life, and it governs all aspects of life. From
urban planning to a soldier's private toilet, the Torah ensures that we act
responsibly. Jewish tradition cared about green belts and personal hygiene
for millennia before these seeped into the human consciousness.
It's a good thing that the world is becoming more careful about these
issues. But it's a crying shame that it took so long. Before we rampage out
of control with our technological prowess and industrial success, we should
eat a slice of humble pie and look to the wisdom that our tradition has
imparted to us. It beat Scientific American by 3300 years.
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin teaches about Judaism's perspective on the animal
kingdom at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and at other zoos worldwide, and he is
the author of numerous books and essays on this topic. His education
programs are described at www.zootorah.com.