On December 8, Jews celebrated the first night of Chanukah. On December 9, the UN Climate Change talks failed in Doha (See Reuters, Despair after climate conference, but U.N. still offers hope). The two events were not only temporally linked, but featured a decidedly similar focus: oil that burned far longer than it ever should have.
The weekly Torah portion read on December 1 (just one week before Chanukah, and right in the middle of the UN conference) contained some topical advice for those seeking to address the climate crisis — if you look hard enough.
Vayishlach begins with a confrontation between two brothers, (#team) Jacob and Esau. In preparation for an encounter with his vengeful brother, Jacob sends flock after flock of she-goats, he-goats, ewes, rams (and more — see Genesis, 32:15 for the complete list; and for a treat, take a look at the verse in Hebrew and see if you can figure out what makes it unique). When the two finally meet, Esau makes to turn down the gift: “I have a lot; my brother, let that which thou hast be thine” (33:9). Undeterred, Jacob urges him to accept the gift, because “God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have all” (33:11).
The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jewish sage Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (the Kli Yakar) famously jumps on this exchange to highlight a key difference between the brothers. On the one hand, Jacob recognizes that God is with him and has given him everything he needs. But Esau, whose measure of wealth is material possession, admits to owning merely ‘a lot’ – implying that he could always use a little more. In the end, Esau accepts the gifts.
The Kli Yakar could not have chosen a better time of year to highlight the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’ – between the religious and the secular — between the spiritual and the material — on the heels (Hebrew pun intended) of Cyber Monday, Black Friday, and Gray Thursday (they renamed Thanksgiving), and in the run up to Chanukah and Christmas.
It’s easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit — sometimes, a little too caught up.
Winter is a time of giving and sharing, but too often, our gifts sit in disuse on a shelf, in a closet, or off in a landfill. But these transient gifts — along with all the other material possessions we take for granted — have effects that last far longer. From manufacturing to transportation, from packaging to disposal, everything we buy carries a cost beyond the discount that appears on the price tag. And that price takes its toll on the planet we like to call home.
Obviously, people have material needs. We eat, we sleep, and during finals, we study. But at some point, we move beyond what we need to live, or even what we need to live comfortably, and start to accumulate things that we decidedly don’t.
And at that point, the pursuit of things transforms us from Jacob into Esau, from people who recognize that they are fortunate to live in the most prosperous nation the world has ever seen, to people for whom holiday sales are more meaningful than the holidays themselves. We change from people who are blessed with everything to people for whom even that can never be enough.
It’s easy to read everything I just wrote as a moralizing sermon, an admonishment against buying the very things that make you happy. And on some level, it is. But I think that focusing on individual choice distracts us from making the choices that matter — the choices that can make a difference — as a nation.
Doha is over, and Doha failed, but as talk picks up regarding a domestic carbon tax (see, David Frum: A tax we could learn to love), you’re going to hear politicians caution against a reduction in the ‘quality of life’ the electorate has come to enjoy as a matter of right.
Yes, prices are going to rise. And some people will have less than they did before. But there are ways to ensure less means less wants not less needs, less quantity not less quality. It’s not fair to ask only the most conscious and aware among us to shoulder the burden, any more than it’s right to deprive anyone of those things they genuinely need. But there are policy solutions to these challenges, and no amount of protest should preclude us putting a market signal (i.e. a price) on carbon.
It would be a shame to let a family of paper tigers derail real progress in the fight against climate change. A world is a terrible thing to waste.
A version of this post appeared in DBH in 2009.