At the end of this month the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, will be held in Glasgow. Postponed from 2020, it is regarded by many as possibly the last chance the world has to take coordinated action on the threat of climate change.

The biblical precedent for a world-wide climate crisis is Noah’s Flood that we read about in this week’s parasha.

Although the flood is seen as a result of man’s moral footprint rather than his carbon footprint, there are, nevertheless, powerful lessons to be learned.

What lead to the decay of society that brought about the flood in the time of Noah? The rabbis of the midrash have a curious answer to this question. Listen to their discussion:

“And the world was full of chamas from before them.” (Bereishit 6:13) 

What is chamas? Rabbi Chanina answered:

Chamas is the theft of an item worth less than a perutah (a small coin.)” A person would set up his stall of beans in the market. Someone would come by and run off with a bean. The amount was too small to be recoverable in law. Then another would come by and run off with a bean. And so on. (Midrash Bereishit Rabba 31:5)

The rabbis identified what seems to be a tiny defect. Yet, it had catastrophic consequences. Why should this be so?

The theft of trivial amounts was indicative of an outlook in the world. People at that time had the attitude of “what can I get away with?” By deviously stealing amounts that were below the limit that would invoke the legal authorities, they insidiously undermined the cohesion of society. They came to persuade themselves that was simply nothing wrong in what they were doing.

By only thinking of themselves and their own needs, the generation of the flood unraveled the cohesion of society. The drip-drip corruption, that was left untrammeled, became a flood. Literally.

The lessons are only too relevant in our own time. In the late Rabbi Lord Sacks’ words: “we are the generation whose idol is the self and whose icon is the selfie.” When it comes to our own individual role to deal with the challenges of climate change, we will all too easily only think of our personal needs and forget the potential longer-term impact of our actions.

We still have the chance to avert the world-wide risks of rising sea levels. Noah’s generation were deaf to his warnings. Surely, we can do better!