The recent COP26 summit brought countries together to discuss the actions they must take in order to combat the effects of climate change. This summit signals a hopeful future for our planet as those in power are finally acknowledging the issue. However, individuals must continue to make noise if we are to hold leaders accountable for the pledges they have made and encourage our politicians to address the full extent of the task at hand.
The Jewish tradition, like many others, emphasizes human responsibility to care for the earth and for future generations. Human beings have been tasked with the responsibility of cultivating the Earth, guarding it, and using it wisely. Psalm 89:12 teaches that this world belongs ultimately to G-d, humans have a duty to respect it before returning it unspoiled. It is in our interest to care for the earth since the natural world plays a central role in Jewish law, literature, and liturgical and other practices.
Several Jewish principles may be applied to causes such as climate justice.
- Tza’ar ba’alei chayim,”the suffering of living creatures,” is a commandment to treat animals humanely. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are severely reduced, our changing climate could cause a quarter of land animals, birdlife, and plants to become extinct.
- Jewish law also forbids the deliberate destruction of natural resources. Ba’al tashchit, meaning “do not destroy or waste,” is applied to fruit trees in Deuteronomy, but applies to all of creation.
- The highest Jewish value is often viewed as that which saves a life, known in Hebrew as pikuach nefesh. No one will be truly secure from the ravages of a changing climate and deprived world until we can ensure all are secure.
We ought to utilize the wisdom provided to us by Jewish teaching, combined with the collective passion and ingenuity of the Jewish people, to create a vision for the future that matches the magnitude of the challenge ahead.
There are different levels of action and all are necessary to make a change. At an individual level, we should be making lifestyle changes such as reducing our meat consumption. At the communal level, we can encourage sustainable choices by using biodegradable or reusable products and serving as an example of a community standing up for its values and advocating for environmentalism.
The Talmud (Sotah 37a) shares the following account of the story of Nachshon: Seven days following the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites found themselves trapped between a turbulent sea and the Egyptian army. The order had been given to go forward into the sea but the Israelites, including Moses, remained frozen. Each of the tribes hesitated, saying, “We do not want to be the first to jump into the sea.” One man, Nachshon, saw what was happening, and, demonstrating immense devotion and bravery, jumped into the sea. The rest of the Israelites then followed Nachshon’s example and entered the sea, ultimately saving themselves as the sea split, providing them safe passage.
The story is a call to action. Nachshon was under no obligation to be the first to jump, yet he recognized that they needed to move onwards to Sinai and did what was necessary. The story focuses on the power of both individual and collective human action. We must be the change we want to see in the world, paving the way so that others will follow in our footsteps.