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Tu B’Shvat teaches us we each must take on the obligation of addressing climate change

Amid today’s climate catastrophe, Tu B’Shvat offers us a chance to consider our role as environmental caretakers. This past year, news of droughts and deluges, fires and floods, has woven itself across our news feeds in an unending parade of devastation that can only be described as biblical in proportion.

But what should the role of individuals be in addressing this crisis? While we know that greenhouse gases are leading to rising temperatures, violent weather and desertification, it remains unclear what exactly each one of us is supposed to do about it.

Can the Torah provide us with wisdom with how to best grapple with this seemingly intractable challenge?

One of the greatest difficulties of climate change is that it is virtually impossible for the actions of individuals to make a significant impact on its progress. Even if thousands of us were to deny ourselves such climate-damaging luxuries as driving, air travel and meat consumption, the effects would be minimal so long as the rest of the world continued to release greenhouse gases indiscriminately.

Yet the Torah gives us the obligation to protect ourselves and others from hazards to life and limb. Maimonides summarizes this obligation: “It is a positive commandment to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life… If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment and violates the negative commandment: ‘Do not cause blood to be spilled.’”

Even so, the obligation to remove hazards is not only incumbent on the individual, but also on the entire community. As the great 19 and 20th century Talmudist Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow wrote, “In the public domain the obligation is incumbent on the community and on the courts all together and not only on a single individual.” Between Maimonides and Perlow it is clear that individual community members and leaders hold the responsibility to address threats to life in tandem.

What does this mean? Although leaders hold the power to enact policy, the responsibilities of the individual are not canceled upon the election of responsible leaders. We now must provide oversight to guarantee that our leaders live up to their promise. We must remind them, pressure them, demand from them that they use their power, as they to remove deadly hazards and ensure the safety of the community.

Applying this principle, we find that our country’s leadership, from President Biden to state and local officials, do indeed hold a responsibility to remove the danger to human life represented by the climate crisis. But they hold this responsibility in common with us, the individual citizens of the country at large.

Our obligation is not fulfilled by simply electing leaders to deal with problems, especially as environmentalists remind us that even after the enactment of the Biden climate plan, more action will be necessary to solve the crisis. The American community as a whole and the Jewish community in particular must continue to agitate and lobby them to take action to solve the climate catastrophe.

On Tu B’Shvat, we must remember that we are not permitted to sit back and assume that our leaders will solve this crisis without our continued engagement and encouragement. As individuals alone, we likewise cannot solve the crisis. But if we push our leaders and our leaders push the world, we can fulfill our communal obligation to remove life-threatening obstacles from the earth and create a safe place to live.

Rebbe Haggai Resnikoff is Director of Community Learning of the YCT Rabbinical School in Riverdale, New York

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