David Glassberg has been representing the JCA at recent initiatives to address climate change, some of which have focused attention on “climate justice”–the intersection of the ecological upheaval of global warming with issues of economic and social justice. As part of the JCA’s participation in “Human Rights Shabbat” last December, he delivered this d’var Torah.

D’var Torah for “Vayigash” (Genesis 44:18-47:27), prepared by David Glassberg for Jewish Community of Amherst, December 7, 2013

“Climate Justice and Human Rights”
If you’ve ever sat around the Seder table at Pesach listening to the story of Exodus and wondering how the Jews got to Egypt in the first place, Vayigash is the parsha that fills you in. They migrated from Canaan because of the effects of climate change. The parsha also contains the moving story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers, and ultimately with his father Jacob, after a long absence. Vayigash is largely a parsha about forgiveness and reconciliation, as Joseph puts aside personal animosities stemming from what his brothers had done to him earlier in his life in order to take them in and save them, and the Jewish people, along with the Egyptians, from famine and drought. In reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela, who died a few days ago, it is truly amazing that like Joseph he emerged from his many years of suffering at the hands of others with a mind clear enough to focus on the task at hand and cooperate with his former tormentors.
However, because this is a human rights Shabbat, I’ll be taking the d’var torah in another direction. When we think of human rights, we usually think about making sure that individuals around the world are free from being tortured, killed, or enslaved. We might extend the concept to claiming that everyone around the world has a fundamental right to adequate food, clothing, and shelter, and to raise their children in an environment free of toxic substances. And while we don’t often articulate this in words, we often act on the belief that everyone in the world has a right to assistance in recovering from the effects of an Act of God such as a tornado, an earthquake, or a tsunami. The near-spontaneous outpouring of charity in the past few weeks for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines offers only the most recent evidence of this.
But in what some scientists have termed the anthropocene era, when human activities have become recognized as a crucial influence on the global environment, what really constitutes an Act of God? What ethical and moral responsibilities do we have in a time of climate change? Is not only environmental health, but also environmental sustainability, a human right?
I want to skip the debate over whether or not human activities since the industrial revolution have contributed to a rise in the overall temperature of the earth. As Rebbe Daniel Patrick Moynihan, alav ha-shalom, once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts.” The overwhelming majority of scientists (97%) believe in the existence of the “greenhouse effect,” through which a dramatic increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (an estimated increase from 280 ppm in the mid 1700s to 390 ppm today) has trapped a greater amount of the sun’s rays and made the planet warmer. Using a combination of modern and historical data, scientists estimate that humans have sent a total of 305 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere since 1751; half of these emissions have occurred since the mid-1970s. At the same time, the decades with the highest average temperatures in the 160 years since temperatures have been recorded are 2000-10, 1990-2000, and 1980-1990. Scientists predict further increases in average temperature—from 2 to 5 degrees—from now through the rest of this century.
Scientists observe several changes happening right now as a result of this global temperature increase: 1) hotter, drier weather has contributed to an increase in the number and size of wildfires in Australia and the American West; 2) warmer temperatures have reduced the size of polar ice caps and glaciers, contributing to a rise in ocean levels; the shrinkage of glaciers in the Himalayas and other mountain ranges also consequently threaten the water supply of the peoples who live below them; 3) tropical storms and hurricanes crossing over oceans with warmer temperatures have grown more severe.
I don’t think any of this is news to you. Things change. The moral and ethical question facing us is what we should do in response to the change. In last week’s parsha, Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dream about seven thin cattle devouring seven fat cattle as a warning that he should store up grain during the next 7 years of plenty in order to survive the 7 lean years that will follow. Pharaoh follows that prudent advice, so that in this week’s parsha, which takes place during the second of the lean years, Joseph has grain to distribute to the starving Egyptians as well as the Jews arriving from Canaan. Interestingly, Joseph does not give away the surplus grain, but sells it to the Egyptian feudal lords in return for the title to their lands, making them the Pharaoh’s serfs. They now had to give 1/5 of their harvest to the Pharaoh. Joseph expects the same rent from the Jews when they settle in the land of Goshen. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what this says about God’s position on feudalism, sharecropping, and private property vs. nationalization. But at the minimum, the parsha makes a strong case for planning ahead in the event of environmental disaster. If only our political leaders heeded the scientists as well as the Pharaoh heeded Joseph.
When it comes to climate change, planning ahead means two things: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we release into the atmosphere. Adaptation means acknowledging that at the same time that we mitigate there are changes already in motion that require immediate action, such as building seawalls against a rising tide or moving people out of flood zones, inoculating against the expansion of insect-borne diseases (e.g. ticks now live here almost year round), and assisting “refugee species” of plants and animals to migrate further north.
This is not only a matter of leaving a more hospitable environment for future generations, but also a matter of basic justice and human rights. Is it fair that the poorer nations of the world, like the Philippines, suffer the consequences of Americans unwilling to reduce the amount of carbon that we spew into the air to support our relatively affluent lifestyles? You can commit to reducing your “carbon footprint” on an individual basis (driving less, getting a free energy audit and insulation materials from MassSave). But even more important is to act collectively to influence public policy. In Massachusetts right now, there are bills that you can support that would end the use of coal-burning power plants, divest the state pension system from fossil fuel companies (Senate Bill 1225, there’s an effort to get it reported out of the Committee on Public Service in the next two weeks—see cards in lobby), and persuade Governor Patrick before he leaves office to appoint a commission to investigate the implementation of a carbon tax.
Even closer to home, there’s a disproportionate impact that climate change poses to poor people and people of color, Warmer summers mean more ozone alerts and more asthma. Poor people often live in low-lying areas, like the Holyoke Flats or East Boston, more subject to flooding, and have fewer resources to pay for flood insurance or to rebuild. Shifting agricultural zones result in higher food prices. The MassSave program for energy conservation, which everyone pays for as part of their electric bill, helps homeowners to lower their heating and air conditioning bills but leaves renters out in the cold since most landlords don’t bother with the program, especially when their renters pay for the heat.
What can we do about this individually, and as a Congregation? On September 28, the JCA co-sponsored, with 40 other groups, a Climate Justice conference in Springfield. The event was organized by Climate Action Now, an environmental organization based here in the Upper Valley, and Arise for Social Justice, the poor people’s advocacy group based in Springfield. Well over 200 people showed up, not only white middle class environmentalists but also African Americans, Latinos, and local residents with lower incomes concerned about where they live. Out of this extraordinarily diverse mix, unusual for an “environmental” gathering, came priorities for action. They included pressuring the PVTA to extend bus service from Springfield and Holyoke to link up with the 5 College system; developing a comprehensive climate plan for Springfield outlining specific measures for mitigation and adaptation; organizing a campaign to stop pollution arising from the incineration of trash on nearby Bondi’s Island; and obtaining vacant lots and other spaces for Springfield youth to grow healthy and affordable food.
This last effort is one that members of the JCA might get behind. There’s an organization in Springfield, “Gardening the Community,” that is essentially an inner city CSA. The members have set their sights on obtaining a piece of abandoned city property on Walnut Street where they can build greenhouses. Right now, they need money for legal assistance, soil testing, and other expenses. Then they want to start building hoop-style greenhouses with the help of UMass Amherst Agricultural Extension specialists and volunteers from up and down the Valley. Along with that, they could use volunteers to mentor the youth growing the food as well as additional funds to help make the family food shares affordable. I’ve left information about this on the table in the lobby, and of course can tell you more about it after services.
I want to close by returning to parsha Vayigash. At the very end, it says “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the country of Goshen; and they took possession of it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.” (47:27)
The Hebrew word vayei’achazu (“and they took possession of it”) literally means “and they took hold of it,” but also translates, “and they were held by it.” Both interpretations are cited by our sages: Rashi translates vayei’achazu as related to the word achuzah, “land holding” and “homestead”; the Midrash interprets it to imply that, “The land held them and grasped them… like a man who is forcefully held.” Achuzah also appears earlier in Beresheit when the ram that is sacrificed in place of Isaac is caught in a thicket. The Midrash goes on to explain that the use of achazu in Vayigash, that the Jews not only held the land but were held by it, refers to the galut, the exile, foreshadowing the Jewish people later being held against their will as slaves in Egypt.
However, I want to offer a different interpretation. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are “held by the land.” We are not held by force, although there is no place else that we can go, but rather held in a loving embrace. The Earth has been good to us, and we have the responsibility to take care of it, to keep it hospitable for future generations of our species as much as we can for as long as we can. We also have the responsibility, from an environmental justice perspective, to take care of one another. As the climate changes around us, just as Joseph took care of Egyptian and Jew alike during the famine, those of us living here in relative affluence can bear the cost of mitigation and adaptation to ensure the health and comfort of our less fortunate neighbors in the Connecticut River Valley and throughout the world.