Culture, Justice

Toldot and Toilets: A Drash for World Toilet Day

“If this is happening, why am I me?”
In this week’s Torah reading, Rebekah laments a struggle in her guts. Her pregnancy, carrying the next of her family’s special line, is so hard. She wonders: “Why is there so much turmoil?” What was happening to her, and what was wrong in her belly?
Rebekah’s tempestuous belly becomes twins, and their struggles continue for chapters and chapters. While not everybody experiences the tribulations – and joys – of pregnancy, we have all experienced our guts churning with turmoil. We wished for relief, and usually, relief came. Depending on the gut trouble, that relief could reach its end in a bathroom or an operating room. Sometimes, the distress continues or returns over and over again until a body cannot take it anymore.
Rebekah, like many people, wrestled with understanding what was happening in her guts. She surfaced this struggle, making it something to discuss, and this week’s limited, free release of the new documentary Flush confronts us with a discussion about our sewage (Yes, OURS, you do it, too, thank goodness.) and how it moves away from your home, and continues to exist in the world.
Many Jews make jokes about our gastrointestinal challenges, calling for lactaid, graciously declining dairy-heavy desserts, or secretly enjoying a pareve (dairy-free) selection of treats. Not as many Jews take the time to speak out about worldwide sanitation issues. Flush’s director, Karina Mangu-Ward, delves into one city’s sewage systems, sanitation procedures, and sewage overflow locations, some of which are just blocks from her own home. Mangu-Ward’s investigations find her in a rowboat in a notoriously disgusting canal, a brisk walk along a beloved jogging path, and on a trip hours away from her bathroom, all where one city’s excrement goes to, well, stay out of our way.
It is so easy to just shut the lid over, and then flush away, gross things that you don’t want to think about. Sure, a matzo-patterned toilet-seat cover makes us giggle about how the bread of affliction afflicts our beleaguered Jewish guts as we munch the afikoman, but it would be considered rude to talk over dessert about what you did in that bathroom, and why you went in the room with the funny seat cover in the first place. Why is excrement so shameful? We all do it, and it’s miraculous, so much so, that we have a prayer that praises the expert crafting of our bodies, with holes that open and close at all the right times and none of the wrong. Because, of course, when it goes wrong, that’s when our guts are in turmoil. And that is tragic.
Later in the parsha, there are numerous wells created, revealing sweet, fresh water for Isaac and his family – Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau. This water was relatively easy to come by. Today, Flush examines what is happening to our fresh water, and we would all be well-served (Well! Zing!) to turn our social justice minds to what’s happening with what comes out of our guts on a regular basis. Not only is it hard to talk about crap, and sewage, and sanitation, we are doing the world a disservice but not thinking about the millions of people who suffer because of sanitation issues worldwide. From big storms to refugee crises, there is sanitation cross-over crisis, and Israel’s high-tech solutions in the field of reusable water can be part of the salvo used to repair some of these gut-wrenching, if you will, issues.
World Toilet Day happens on November 19th, 2017, the day after we read Toldot in synagogues around the world, and from November 15th-21st, you can watch Flush for free, as it will be streaming online. Rebekah struggled. Jacob and Esau struggled. Wells of sweet, fresh drinking water were dug. Jacob’s arms were covered in furs to convince his weak-eyed father Isaac he was blessing his son Esau.
When we flush away what our bodies miraculously create and never think of these miracles again, we are covering up something real. We are trying to keep closed the eyes of people around us that something natural and real doesn’t exist. The problem? The things we drape over the real sanitation process are not real, they’re not totally convincing, and they’re keeping us from making the world a better place. Take off the skins, watch Flush, and commit to working to promote sanitation justice and change, at home and worldwide.
Research has shown that microbiome of good bacteria in your guts can impact how you feel and think.  These sanitation issues are real, and if you listen to your gut, the feeling will be that you have to be part of the change for the good. Why you? Why not all of us. It’s a mess out there, and it is on all of us to help clean it up.
Flush will be available free online for a limited time, November 15 – 21. A premiere World Toilet Day event will take place November 19 at Caveat, 21 A Clinton St, New York, NY 10002, including a Micro Toilet Conference, film screening, live-streamed panel, and evening comedy show. More details at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.