Parashat Vayigash

Joseph's Foresight and Restraint

A Torah teaching for the Western environmentalist.

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Nevertheless, commitment to some basic environmental management principles and values, such as the precautionary principle, should be a guide for environmental planning in the face of uncertainty. The precautionary principle implies "...a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof [or] evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay may prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations."

In the context of climate change and increasing energy insecurity, this translates into governments, corporations, and civil society spurring innovations in technologies, institutions, business practices, and social norms that will reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition, developing renewable, carbon-neutral sources of energy for modern society is a necessity. To have practiced foresight like Joseph, this would have implied making these investments in earnest decades ago, when the ecological indications of potential anthropogenic climate change were speculative or tentative. Had we developed such foresight and the ability to act on it, we would not have waited until just recently to take the issue seriously, now when the first deleterious effects of climate change are already noticeable, with much worse to come.

Even today, when concerned economists emphasize how relatively little sacrifice of the one-time world gross domestic product would be necessary to invest in effective greenhouse gas mitigation, vested interests in well-to-do countries are reluctant to forego even this. Their leaders march to the beat of global financial markets and short election cycles; they cannot judiciously plan for the future because in an economy where shareholders demand high returns in the current fiscal period and consumers demand instant gratification, future concerns barely matter.

Socially-Aware Pragmatism

Returning to Joseph's self-discipline, we learn from the text that Joseph did not have children during the famine and even that he may have deliberately limited his offspring before the famine because of his knowledge that it was about to occur: "Now to Joseph were born two sons--when the year of the famine had not set in… (Genesis 41:50)" Rashi comments: "From here [we see] that it is forbidden for a person to have marital relations during years of famine."

The talmudic source of this proscription is a statement by the sage Resh Lakish (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a). Tosafot clarifies that this stricture applies to one who wishes to act especially piously, as Joseph did, but does not necessarily apply to the rest of the people, as is shown by the fact that Levi fathered Yocheved (Moses' mother!) during the famine.

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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.