Parashat Vaera

The Earth is the Lord's

Modern-day plagues are occurring with greatly increasing frequency around the world.

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The accumulated emissions of these greenhouse gases are accelerating climate change, which, besides greatly exacerbating many of the other environmental problems just mentioned, is evidently already starting to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding, and droughts. These problems are consequences or manifestations of humankind's assault on the biosphere and the growing perturbation of planetary life-support systems.

This time, these "plagues" have not been wrought directly by God but are anthropogenic. And for the present and looming environmental catastrophes, we lack immediate Divine warnings, as they are the work of man. Scientists and others have warned of calamity from the continued degradation of the environment, and, until perhaps very recently, they have been largely unheeded.

Jewish Responsibility

But unlike the generation of the Exodus, the Jewish people today do not enjoy special protection from environmental harm, and the land of Israel will not be spared from environmental assault as was Goshen, the Egyptian territory where the Jews resided. In the Diaspora, and in the land of Israel particularly, Jews will suffer along with the rest of creation from the ravages of ecological degradation and climate change.

Deeply enmeshed in modern industrial society, we bear our share of moral responsibility for what is happening. As ancient champions of the helpless and victimized in society, Jews should be especially concerned that those least responsible for the majority of environmental insults since the industrial revolution not bear the brunt of the consequences.

But indications are that the poorer parts of the world will experience more extreme consequences of climate change while having less technological and financial wherewithal to cope with them.

Looking to mend one's own environmental ways may be inadequate to address the scope and complexity of the problems. The modern political economy has a built-in tendency to export environmental threats over distance and time and to obscure responsibility for their creation. The consumer, businessman, or banker tends not to realize he is trampling the earth through his ordinary commercial activities, which he may pursue only as one small link in a destructive global system.

God's display of power and mercy during the plague of hail was enough to bring about a temporary change of heart in Pharaoh, but by that time his sins and stubbornness had already set him and his nation on the road to ruin. Let us work for and pray that collectively we will heed the mounting environmental warning signs and change course in time to avoid consigning ourselves to the same fate.

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Dr. David L. Goldblatt

David L. Goldblatt received degrees from Brown University and Yale University and a doctorate in environmental science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). He is currently a research consultant in energy and the environment for industry, ETH, and other universities, and he co-directs the translation and editing firm Dr. Goldblatt lives in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and four children.