Parashat Vayigash

Joseph's Foresight and Restraint

A Torah teaching for the Western environmentalist.

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However, the Torah Temimah has a different view on Joseph, explaining that his self-imposed abstention from having children during the famine, while Levi bore Yocheved, teaches that the obligation to refrain from increasing the population during times of communal distress falls specifically on the wealthy, those who already have abundance.

Rabbi Natan Greenberg explains that Joseph's decision was in part a pragmatic one based on a broad, socially-aware perspective that in times of famine the collective is not served by having more mouths to feed. In addition, even as a high Egyptian potentate, Joseph made a principled decision to involve himself personally in the suffering of his community.

Ba'al HaTurim and Maharim note that Joseph's actions here merited the blessing that Moses gives him in Deuteronomy that he would increase from the blessing of the land. 

Reducing Consumption

Population and consumption are two fundamental drivers of environmental stress. In Joseph's time, when the vast majority of the population lived much closer to subsistence levels, foregoing another child would have been the appropriate gesture of solidarity and en masse would have made a difference.

In developed countries in today's world, where fertility is relatively low (and Jewish fertility in a country such as the U.S. particularly low), reducing environmentally significant consumption is much more important.

In today's globalized, highly interconnected world of instantaneous communication, the notion of the community is necessarily much larger than it was even 50 years ago. Is it acceptable for wealthy Jews in developed nations to follow the current consumerist ethos, with its high attendant levels of energy and material consumption, when people in their cities, country, or world are suffering miserable poverty, are malnourished, and live in environmentally degraded conditions? Particularly when this consumption is indirectly accelerating the world's environmental decline?

As a fundamental matter of energy policy, to ensure long-term energy access and security for everyone, developed countries must moderate their high energy consumption so that energy resources are available and affordable to lift the world's poorest out of poverty--without exceeding the earth's ecological carrying capacity. This is as much a moral issue as a matter of technology or economics, and as such it requires strong national-political commitment, and personal ethical commitment.

The implication today is that in a world in which a large percentage of the population is suffering privation in basic needs, including food and water, and in which rampant consumerism is driving a significant part of the global environmental decline--which impacts the poor disproportionately more than others--the wealthy can reign in their environmentally significant consumption and do not always have to live to the fullest extent of their economic abilities.

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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.