by Jeremy England, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physics at MIT

We tend to think of climate change as a highly contemporary political issue. Of course, in many respects, it is: the computer simulations and detailed climatological measurements that fuel this discussion are the product of relatively recent technological innovations.  However, from another perspective, it has been possible to ponder the underlying issues involved since the dawn of human civilization.  Suppose an argument is being made by someone that the natural world has a predictable pattern to it, and that in the not too distant future, this pattern spells doom for all or most of society unless – and this is the crucial part – unless people in the present dramatically alter their behavior, engaging in some kind of material self-restriction in order to avert disaster.

Though I could be talking carbon taxes and rising global temperatures, my intention here actually is to reference a famous and fascinating passage in the Torah, namely the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph is the celebrated interpreter of dreams who convinces Pharaoh to undertake a dramatic food rationing effort during years of plenty so as to conserve grain in store cities for when it will be needed during the years of famine that are expected to follow.  We tend not to think of Joseph as a climate scientist, yet, while I do think there is a case to be made for this view of him from the text, to some degree it is an irrelevant question.  As readers of the Torah, we do not need to understand how Joseph makes his agronomical prediction in order to know (by reading further ahead) that the prediction turns out to be stunningly correct.  So, let us focus on the following question that the text provokes us to examine: if a wise person or group of people foretells an avoidable natural calamity for a whole society, what is it appropriate to do in response?

When we read this story as children, it seems like Joseph and Pharaoh get things exactly right.  They store the extra grain from the good years and are able to feed more or less everyone in the known world and prevent mass starvation when the famine hits.  From this perspective, Joseph is the hero, who saves countless lives, including those of his entire family.

However, taking a fuller and subtler view of things in light of the rest of what happens in the Books of Genesis and Exodus, we have significant reason to be troubled.  The people of Egypt come to Joseph starving and desperate, so much so that they eventually sell all their possessions and even themselves to Pharaoh in exchange for something to eat.  Joseph is thus the architect and consolidator of the Egyptian system of slave labor that we associate with the bitter servitude suffered by the Israelites centuries later, and once we recognize this, it is hard not to be critical of the path he chose.

We can restate the implicit question(s) as follows: if society as a whole seems to be threatened with a looming, but distant natural disaster, should we be willing to attempt anything and everything in order to steer things back onto a safer course?  How confident must we be that our prescriptions are going to work before we are willing to coerce other people to play along? How much power should be given, and to whom, in the name of saving humanity from what think we can predict in the future?  And when that power is used to limit individual freedom and reorganize economic behavior on a global scale, how can we even tell afterwards whether what we did “worked”?

For a first attempt at an answer, we will do well to consider the case of Noah. Noah had in common with Joseph that he saw a massive climatological upheaval from far off, yet his reaction is very different. Whereas Joseph seeks to apply his own wisdom to implementing a technical solution to the problem at hand, Noah takes a decidedly prophetic tack: from start to finish, everything he does is the fulfillment of God’s command, with the minute details of the ark he constructs being specified through divine revelation. Though in one sense there is something basically prudent about building a boat to survive a flood, the emphasis in the text reflects that Noah is focused not on ensuring the vessel’s seaworthiness, but rather on making sure the Maker of the world is properly served and acknowledged.

Thus described, Noah’s approach sounds superficially like the correct one: what could be better than serving the Lord and trusting in Him utterly? Yet, as with Joseph, it is hard to be very happy here with the outcome. Noah saves his family and the animals, but stands idly by while the rest of humanity is wiped out. In stark contrast with Joseph, he makes no recorded effort to save the lives of strangers, and does not even argue with God in the manner of Abraham at the destruction of Sodom. Noah’s example may be comforting from one standpoint – it is nice to think that doing right by God can be enough to save a person when he or she feels unable to change a giant cataclysm that is happening all around – but it is pretty disturbing as well.

Is Noah’s apparent indifference to the demise of all mankind what God wants from us? Presumably not; this is perhaps why after the flood Noah, the Lord says he is never going to do things quite this way again. It is also why Moses, when offered the opportunity to found a new nation as the Israelites face destruction for their sins, vehemently refuses, and lobbies successfully for God to instead forgive the people. The nation of Israel is, among other things, a pact of mutual responsibility that rejects the idea that any individual should be indifferent to the fate of his brothers and sisters.

Joseph and Noah both have their merits, yet they also represent extremes that we cannot help but view as problematic. Thankfully, there is at least one way of resolving this tension by studying a prophetic text elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Jonah has legion intertextual parallels forcing a comparison to the story of Noah. Aside from the fact that Jonah means “dove” in Hebrew, we also have a boat, a threatened mass destruction of a sinful mob of people (in this case, the city of Nineveh), the association of forty days with the presaged doom, and more besides.

Jonah’s story combines elements from those of Joseph and Noah. Like in the case of Joseph, the population threatened with disaster is spared, however in contrast, they are not saved by clever technique, but rather by their own contrition.  Also, like in the case of Noah, it is emphasized that the threatened destruction is a consequence of wickedness, yet only in Nineveh do we see the group of sinners seize the opportunity to repent and seek to reform themselves rather than be washed away.

The basic message in Jonah seems on its face to be closer to that of Noah, albeit with a more positive spin: when we face a looming threat, we should think about the Lord, His judgment of our actions, and His capacity to forgive those who strive to improve themselves.  But is that it?  Do we simply conclude there was no point whatsoever to Joseph’s maneuvers in Egypt, and that danger should only ever be confronted with self-critical, moral introspection that pays no attention whatsoever to the brass tacks of how a given threat might be evaded or survived? Such a notion of repentance and its power to determine our fate is far too magical to accept, particularly given that our tradition roundly rejects this approach when it comes to praxis. When a life is at risk, even the Sabbath may be violated to take practical steps to save it; in light of this, we cannot simply say of calamity that its antidote always lies straightforwardly and solely in moral self-improvement.

The resolution of this issue may lie in some subtler details of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh. Interestingly, the first response to his prophecy of doom is, in fact, widespread material self-restriction: the people fast and wear sackcloth.  Subsequent to this, the king doffs his finery and declares that the people should repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but it is worth nothing that before the Ninevites’ leader gives such an account of why everyone is fasting, the basic fact of what they are doing looks a lot like what the Egyptians did under Joseph: they ate less because they were told their society was in a precarious situation.

What the text seeks to show us is that the same actions can mean something different, depending on how we talk about them.  In Egypt, the story was that Pharaoh was wise and he had the power and knowledge to save everyone, so long as they obeyed him.  In Nineveh, though, the king acknowledges God as the ultimate arbiter, and ‘brands’ the fasting as a symbolic gesture meant to demonstrate to the Creator of the world that the people acknowledged and rejected their sinful past. At the same time, it is certainly reasonable to imagine that the fasting had a practical impact as well; the text relays that the Lord has mercy on Nineveh, but for all we know, the mechanism of His mercy in this case may well have been the ripple effects of getting the whole city to change its patterns of consumption.

Ultimately, we do not know for certain what the future holds, and we always must struggle with the question of how to act in the present, given our best predictions of what is likely to occur with the passage of time.  Tanakh offers different models to consider for how these calculations can play out at a societal level, and it is interesting to think of them in terms of the present day discussion about carbon dioxide emissions.  Joseph’s cautionary tale reminds us that it is not enough to have a highly accurate understanding of the technical and material dimensions of a societal problem such as global climate change; there remains the more significant question of how people should respond through collective action, and how the crushing dictatorship of technocratic overlords can be avoided.  Jonah would seem to suggest that, even when pursuing a practical strategy for the ostensible benefit of humanity, it is important both for the sacrifices to be made voluntarily, at the individual level, and also for the leadership’s account of what is occurring to acknowledge that the outcome ultimately rests on God’s judgment of all our actions, including those that have no rational connection to the apparent threat.

The need to orient our actions towards what we owe to our Maker should not be thought of as some magical formula for conjuring miraculous deliverance. For one thing, the fasting of Nineveh might well have reduced their carbon footprint, so to speak, and none can say that made no difference to their future.  But, even more crucially, our intention and self-understanding matters when we act because it dramatically affects how we view and relate to the outcome, whatever that turns out to be.

The lesson of Noah comes back into the picture now.  For, if we want to save life, the Pharaonic technocrat might say to us: we’ve run the numbers, and there’s no room left for argument; it’s slavery or the end of the world, take your pick. Noah gives us the courage to reject and ignore this false dichotomy, reminding us that all ends of the world are really just upheavals so large that we cannot see beyond them, and that we have to wait to find out what things are like on the other side.  Noah did right by God, and was thus ultimately able to determine that shape that the new world took after big change came along.  Similarly, whether we are talking about the nation of Israel or humanity as a whole, we all can choose to reject the bondage that Egypt embraced out of its fear of the unknown.  Instead, like the Israelites following Moses to freedom, we can pack seemingly insufficient provisions and head for the sea, borne forward by the ultimate trust that our Creator can bring us to the other side unscathed, while Pharoah and his troops are washed away behind us.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Maimonides Minyan, a Modern Orthodox kehilla in Brookline, Massachusetts. It is adapted from a guest sermon delivered by Professor England).