Infestation Inspiration

The thought, a staple in the writings of the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953), is best known to people unfamiliar with his thought and writings from a famous and evocative paragraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson mused, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Rav Dessler, who wrote poetry too but was above all a keenly incisive philosophical thinker, explains that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.

That we are inured to the magnificence of the stars in the sky is unfortunate. We city dwellers can still capture some of the grandeur of Emerson’s “city of G-d” if we journey to less light-polluted places. I recall the shock I felt as a young man driving with some friends through West Virginia on a cross-country trek and suddenly seeing, for the first time in my life, the Milky Way. It was a moonless night and the river of white across the sky so struck us we stopped the car and got out to gape at the splendor.

It’s important, though, to try to capture some of the miraculous in the mundane wherever we are and whatever we are surveying. The short Jewish prayer on awakening – “I am thankful before You, living, everlasting King, that You have mercifully returned my soul to me…” – sets the day’s stage for acknowledging the Divine gifts we are daily given. That our sleep was not permanent, yes, but also that our hearts have been beating all the while, and our lungs filling and emptying; that arms and legs do our bidding, that the food we eat nourishes us and allows us to live, to think, to do…

But human nature makes it hard to be filled with gratitude at the sight of the rising sun, much as we should be.

And so it’s a special occasion when we are able to see something in nature that reminds us of Rav Dessler’s nature-equals-miracle equation. And one such occasion is near, at least for those of us in the northeast of the United States.

The more perceptive among us might notice in coming days small holes appearing in the ground. And the least perceptive will find it impossible to not notice what will quickly follow: billions of large dark blue insects with strikingly red eyes and beautiful lacy, orange-veined, nearly transparent wings. People who are not blessed with the miracle of vision will know of the sudden visitors through the miracle of hearing. The noise that large numbers of Magicicada septendecim generate en masse can be overwhelming.

As another poet, born Robert Zimmerman, put it, “And the locusts sang, yeah, it gave me a chill.”

What will allow us, if we’re sufficiently sensitive, to see the upcoming “natural” happening not as an infestation but an inspiration will be the knowledge that the members of “Brood II,” the cicada group soon to emerge, emerge only every 17 years.

Although they are commonly called “locusts,” cicadas are not biologically related to locusts (which we Westerners call “grasshoppers”). But they are impressive creatures, ferocious-looking but entirely harmless to humans and animals (who readily feast on them).

After the insects mate and the females among them lay their eggs, they quickly die. The nymphs that will emerge from the eggs several weeks later will then burrow into the ground, to make their own grand entrance, G-d willing (meant most pointedly) in 2030.

No one really knows why the cicadas spend so much time waiting to emerge, and how they “know” when 17 years have elapsed. John Cooley, a research scientist at the University of Connecticut who has been studying Magicicada septendecim since the early 1990s, was asked about the 17-year wait.

“Man,” he responded, “I wish I knew.”

No doubt science will eventually provide a good hypothesis or two for the marvel. But anyone who wants to experience the frisson born of recognizing the miraculous in the natural, who wants to see the phenomenal in the phenomenon, can just open his ears and eyes to these unlikely envoys of beauty.

And consider, as Mr. Zimmerman did, that “Yeah, the locusts sang, and they were singing for me.”

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A “re-run” of a Shavuos-themed essay, about how the holiday might be seen as a celebration of something that contemporary society considers debasing, can be read here.

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