Parashat Vayigash

Joseph's Foresight and Restraint

A Torah teaching for the Western environmentalist.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

Joseph is a paragon of foresight, self-discipline, and concern for the larger community. As we saw previously in Parashat Miketz, Joseph used prophetic insight to instruct Egypt to make provisions during the seven years of plenty for the seven-year famine that would follow. He had sure knowledge of an impending human-ecological problem and gathered grain in the time of plenty as insurance against hard times to come.

canfei nesharimIn this week's Torah portion of Vayigash, we see how Egypt benefits from the provisions that Joseph stored. In the years before the famine, the Egyptians were obliged to show restraint--to consume less in return for non-material gain, in this case the surety of survival in leaner times.

As Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum of Jerusalem comments, "Joseph used the seven years of plenty to teach the Egyptians to put limits on immediate consumption and gratification in order to save for the future." As we will explore below, this is a lesson that modern societies sorely need to learn.

As it turned out, during the second year of the famine, all the Egyptians' stored grain rotted. The Midrash says that when the Egyptians came to Joseph for food, he insisted they circumcise themselves and thereby symbolically commit themselves to a path of self-restraint. After selling their livestock for food, they sold themselves and their land (Genesis 47:13-19).

Rabbi Daniel Kohn explains that Joseph ultimately brought the Egyptians to a point where they had concern for and a relationship with the earth ("and the land will not become desolate," Genesis 47:19), even though by that time the land no longer belonged to them.

Certainty & Power

Joseph had two distinct advantages in implementing his plan for safeguarding Egypt--advantages we lack today:

1. His knowledge of the future was perfect (Joseph having been prophetically told by God through Pharaoh's dreams what would transpire).

2. As second-in-command to Pharaoh, his control of the Egyptian agrarian system was absolute and his ability to carry out his plan complete.

Some level of uncertainty is inherent in many current environmental problems, particularly climate change, and the predictive ability of even the most advanced computers for these most complex phenomena, especially those further in time or in narrow geographical areas, is limited. Thus, it is a much greater challenge to plan and execute wise environmental policies based on predictive knowledge.

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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 editranslate.com. Dr. Goldblatt lives in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and four children.