Justice for Our Planet Shall We Pursue

Parashat Shoftim 5781 / פרשת שׁוֹפְטִים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 

This week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a summary of a report 6-years in the making, involving more than 200 authors whose work is derived from some 14,000 peer-reviewed studies related to the physical science of climate change. The full report is almost 4,000 pages long. The summary, however, is only 40 pages. 

I read about the report in Jewish Currents magazine, where I found an interview conducted by the magazine’s newsletter editor with a staff writer from The New Republic who covers climate policy. What I learned from the writer, Kate Aronoff, is that the information found in this new report is both horrifying and hopeful.

She says, “It’s not so much new information as a synthesis that allows us to say with confidence that climate is ‘unequivocally’ caused by human activity — mostly the burning of fossil fuels. While much of it isn’t new, the tone scientists, who tend to underplay things, take up in it — calling this ‘code red for humanity,’ for instance — should be a wake-up call.”

But, Aronoff says, the mainstream media outlets are boiling the 4,000 into “the most doom-filled headlines you can imagine. The big takeaway of the coverage has been that climate change is now irreversible, that we have passed the 1.5 Celsius degree temperature increase threshold..” She explains that while there is some basis for these claims in the report, these headlines don’t present the full picture. In fact, we’ve warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees, which is very concerning, and there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere for that to to increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. BUT that hasn’t happened yet, in part because we have forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”

Rather than read into the report the idea that we’ve passed a point of no-return, Aronoff  says, we should adopt the mindset that “there’s no point at which you can say that we might as well just give up. There’s plenty of  suffering that can be prevented.” She points to the fact that every 10th of a degree Celsius of warming “translates to tens of thousands of lives lost, so every little incremental step we can take to mitigate climate change matters a tremendous amount.”

Aronoff then goes on to list a number of policies which, if adopted and executed wisely, could keep things from getting “infinitely worse.” 

What Aronoff and the scientists behind the climate research are suggesting, I believe, is that we must all do our part to prevent things from getting infinitely worse by adopting new mindsets and modes of behavior and by getting involved in the political system. From my point of view, heading this call is a matter of environmental justice.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (or “Judges”), we read the words: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Eternal your God is giving you.” What does this mean? It means that for us to achieve the ideal of transforming the world into the malkhut Shadai — the kingdom of the Almighty — we must be committed to pursuing justice under all circumstances, in all places and for all time. Rashi, the medieval biblical commentator, says “consider what you do, and conduct yourselves in every judgment as if the blessed Holy One were standing before you.” The pursuit of justice includes enforcing our laws equitably and judging without prejudice. But it also means creating a world in which all human beings can survive and thrive, where the image of the Divine can shine forth from each unique soul.

In a world increasingly ravished by drought, wildfires, devastating flooding, warming waters, catastrophic storms, rising tides and rising temperatures, we must take seriously our tradition’s call to pursue justice for the natural world.

We see a hint of this imperative for environmental justice in the laws of warfare, that are also part of this week’s reading (Deut. 20:19): When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its fruit trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” While the Torah does permit armies to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees for the construction of siegeworks, in general it prohibits the kind of deforestation that makes human life unsustainable. Fruit trees take years to bear fruit, and the Torah prohibits us from using the fruits for the first three years of a tree’s life. This wartime prohibition is a reminder of our dependency on the natural world for our very existence. If we destroy fruit trees, we might not be alive to eat the fruits of trees that we plant in their place. If we destroy our planet, the science is saying, at some point we won’t be able to repair it. And if we can’t establish a healthy balance between humanity’s needs and what is needed for the planet to sustain us, we will eventually perish and it will happen at the rate of tens of thousands per 1/10th of a degree Celsius, if not quicker. We already see how our friends and families in other parts of the world are suffering, not to mention what is happening in economically depressed countries who lack the medical resources to soften the health-related blows of climate change.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Let us do all in our power to secure justice for our planet and all God’s creatures.  Tzedek for ourselves. Tzedek for all people. Tzedek now. Tzedek always. Justice, justice shall we pursue.

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