The Midrash tells a story of a passenger on a boat who began to drill a hole under his seat. When his fellow passengers challenged him, he responded indignantly: “It’s a hot day and I want to cool my feet by letting some water into the boat.”
“If you do that, we’ll all drown!” they cried.
“But I paid for this seat,” insisted the passenger, “I can do as I wish!”
This is a powerful cautionary tale about the impact our actions have on those with whom we share this planet and those who will inherit it from us in generations to come.
Take, for example, the challenges of a young man named Emmanuel, whose life in Rwanda is an extraordinary story of survival and fortitude. In the spring of 1994, aged just nine years, Emmanuel’s life was devastated by genocide. He narrowly survived a vicious machete attack, when both of his parents and five of his siblings were brutally murdered.
For Emmanuel, survival was just the beginning. He found himself responsible for five siblings without a home or any source of income. Over time and with some help from charities, including World Jewish Relief and their Rwandan partner UNM, Emmanuel became a successful watermelon farmer and today he has a wife and children of his own.
Yet, one extreme weather event could destroy his livelihood all over again. One drought. One landslide. One flood. It could happen at any time and without any warning.
For some citizens of the UK, the impact of climate change can feel like a distant problem, if it even registers at all. Warmer summers might well mean that we can enjoy the feeling of sun on our faces, but at what cost to the countless other people who also call planet earth their home?
In Rwanda, some 90% of the population depend on the land for survival and prosperity. That is one of the reasons why, this year, my office will be taking a group of outstanding Jewish university students and apprentices to meet people like Emmanuel in Rwanda. Throughout the programme, they will gain a better understanding of the devastating impact of climate change, as well as other global issues, and learn why there is a Jewish imperative to respond to them.
When I addressed participants at COP 26 (Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow in 2021, I was saddened to discover that faith leaders played so little part in the global call for action on climate change, despite the fact that over 80% of the world’s population identify with a religious tradition.
Since that time, my office has been campaigning alongside others who felt similarly, to ensure greater representation of faith communities in global climate action. I held discussions with representatives of the government of the UAE, which will be hosting COP 28, and met with leaders at the United Nations.
I’m delighted to say that, when I attend COP 28 in Dubai this year, for the first time, there will be a faith pavilion at the Conference. This will better harness the catalysing impact that influential faith leaders can have on the climate crisis, and enhance efforts within and across faith traditions. In time, I hope this will lead to meaningful change in the attitudes of more people to Climate Action around the world.
As well as planning for the future, we must be ready to act now. Climate change, with its rising temperatures, extreme weather events and ecological disruptions, threatens not only the natural world, but also the delicate balance upon which human societies depend.
I urge everyone to embrace the call to address this issue as an essential expression of our Jewish values. If you are a student, that could be by joining our Ben Azzai Programme or it could be by working within your community to make a change. Learn about the work being done by the United Synagogue’s Dorot initiative and EcoJudaism to find out how you can contribute. In anticipation of the forthcoming ban on the sale of many single use plastics, consider how and where they could be replaced by reusables at your Synagogue and at home.
The choices we make today are having a very real impact on the lives of others. Climate change is not merely an environmental issue; it is a test of our values, our empathy, and our commitment to a better future. Let us embrace the teachings of our tradition as a guiding light on the path towards action on sustainability.
Together, we can be the custodians of a healthier, more compassionate world, fulfilling our Divine mandate to care for the Earth and ensure that its beauty and abundance will successfully endure for generations to come.
To apply for the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai Programme, visit: chiefrabbi.org/ben-azzai
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