In Rio this week, politicians and activists from around the world are meeting at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The Torah has always been concerned with the environment and with the care of the physical world. And while Jewish society was mostly agrarian at the time, Jewish law also set certain standards to make crowded (urban) living more comfortable and healthy. Take, for instance, the Torah’s regulations on waste.

Often when we think of “olden times,” the image that comes to mind is that of the medieval city in which urban inhabitants emptied their chamber pots into the streets. Deuteronomy 23:13-14, however, demonstrates the great value the Torah places on maintaining a sanitary place in which people can live: “[When you camp against your enemies]…And you shall have a designated place outside the camp, so that you can go out there [to use it as a privy]. And you shall have a designated place: And you shall keep a stake in addition to your weapons; and it shall be, when you sit down outside [to relieve yourself], you shall dig with it, and you shall return and cover your excrement.”

One can imagine that the conditions at an ancient army camp, especially in times of battle, could easily become truly base. The Torah, therefore, states this law to serve as a reminder to all humankind to live with dignity wherever they may be.

In fact, we are taught in several places that Jerusalem-the ideal city in all Jewish texts, must be kept completely free of human waste. For instance, Baba Kama 82a states that in Jerusalem “No dunghills should be made there… no kilns should be kept there.”

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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