Locust: Mutations of Consciousness

I would like to talk about insects.

And I would like to move freely between the levels of peshat – simple narrative reading of the text – and sode – secrets about the transformation of consciousness.

Shemot/Exodus 10:13 says:

V’ruach hakadim nasa et ha’arbeh.

“The east wind carried the locusts.”

Or, if you read more deeply, “A creative spirit brings change.”

Listen to how this can be.

Bo is a parashah of transformation: the Israelites make up their mind to leave Egypt, celebrate their first communal festival, and gather great riches.  That transformation is previewed in the description of the eighth plague, locusts. Ruach kadim could be translated as: the east wind, the primal wind, the wind of origination, or the spirit of originality. And arbeh, the locusts, as the symbol of transformation.  For what is a locust but a transformed grasshopper!

Desert grasshoppers are normally solitary animals.  But when rainfall patterns cause vegetation to grow in small, contained areas, grasshoppers are attracted to those areas.  There they eat, drink, and multiply.   When conditions become crowded, the pattern of the grasshoppers’ maturation changes, and the normally solitary animals grow up into a hungry herd without enough to eat.  Their bodies harden and darken and together they swarm off to find food.

Scientists believe that the mysterious origin of locusts was first understood in 1921.  But the secret of the locust is encoded in the four letter Hebrew word that the Torah uses for “locust.”  Rearrange the letters, and find the secret.  The locusts, the arbeh  (aleph resh bet hey) come into being when grasshoppers travel to the well, be’erah (bet aleph resh hey) where miraculously they multiply, arbeh (aleph resh bet hey) and become something new that God created, barah hashem (bet resh aleph hey).

The Ba’al Shem Tov says, “even a worm serves God in its own way.” And he says, “be as scrupulous in your performance of a small mitzvah as you are in your performance of a great mitzvah. Because you don’t really know which is which.” And Reb Hillel Goelman says, “Find a mitzvah that is your personal mitzvah, a mitzvah that really speaks to you, a mitzvah that is your contribution to the world.”

I’d like to let you know about a small mitzvah that I have done conscientiously for years. When the spring and fall rains wash earthworms out of their gardens, I look for them on the sidewalk, pick them up, and carry them over to the nearest dirt, so that they can burrow down, and stay moist instead of dry up and die. An earthworm is pretty small, and I don’t really know how to have a relationship with one, so I guess this is a pretty small mitzvah. But from the perspective of the earthworm, it’s pretty big.

When the Ba’al Shem Tov says that a worm serves God in its own way, he has in mind a particular definition of serving God.  For the Ba’al Shem Tov, service to God isn’t Temple service, or even prayer service. It’s transformation of consciousness, the raising of awareness of the constant presence of God, even within one’s own thoughts and feelings. If the Ba’al Shem Tov says that a worm serves God, the Ba’al Shem Tov means that a worm has consciousness. And, that in the context of its own life, the worm’s consciousness can grow and change, in ways we don’t and can’t imagine. Perhaps even as a result of its life being mysteriously saved!

To me this is an amazing thing, and not an amazing thing at all. It’s amazing because, with all our talk about whether conscious alien creatures live on other planets, we often forget that conscious alien creatures live right with us on our planet. And it’s not amazing because it’s an “of course” – this is the nature of life on earth, creatures great and small, all created by God, who presumably stamped some kind of logo in the consciousness of every creature.

About seventeen years ago, Charles and I moved into a new house in Charlotte, North Carolina. The owners swore they never had a pet, but it wasn’t true. A few months after we moved in, the summer became very hot, and fleas exploded everywhere. And I mean everywhere. On the four cats, on the carpets, on the bare tile floors, on the kitchen counters.  The cats were in great pain and they were members of our family, so we had to help them. And we, actually I, set out to kill the fleas. This was an exquisitely painful experience for me. Each time I killed a flea, I was painfully conscious of the damage I was doing to this little spot of life, this spark of consciousness. I knew that I needed to think of the fleas objectively, as objects attacking my cats and my home, but it just wasn’t happening.

Some months later, I wrote down a description of my thoughts and feelings. I described the experience as a war between me and the fleas, and I analyzed my actions based on the criteria of ethical warfare. I found that my behavior met all of the criteria for a justified declaration of war, and that my behavior met all the criteria for just and ethical conduct of war. And still — no matter how you analyze it, I was killing at close range. The essay was I wrote was graphic, disgusting, sardonic, funny, sad, and unabashedly political. I named the essay “I Wouldn’t Hurt a Flea.”

The essay about the fleas got incorporated into a book, and one of the reviewers commented at some length on this essay. She said it was disrespectful and insulting to human beings to write about fleas as if they had moral status. I could not believe how deeply she had missed the point of the essay: Insects do have moral status and the fact that we ignore it doesn’t make it go away.  And if you grasp this about insects then, kal vachomer, even more strongly, you will be able to grasp it about human beings. Members of enemy armies and resistance groups have moral status, and the fact that it can be too painful for us to grasp this doesn’t make it go away.

To me it was a wondrous, amazing thing that my encounter with the fleas made it possible for me to grasp a moral truth at very close range. For the reviewer, it was an outrage that I dared draw an analogy between human consciousness and insect consciousness. And yet, it’s those outrageous analogies that blow our consciousness beyond its boundaries. It’s those outrageous analogies that make us broaden our moral vision. It’s those outrageous analogies that make us gasp, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

In her commentary on Parshat Va’era, Nechama Leibowitz asks the question, What does Torah say is the purpose of the ten plagues? She analyzes all the passages where God seems to articulate the purpose of the plagues, along with many traditional commentaries about them. She concludes that the purpose of the plagues is to bring da’at HaShem, intimate knowledge and awareness of God, to the people of Mitzrayim and to the Israelites.

How could the plagues bring this knowledge? How could a tribe of mutated insane grasshoppers bring knowledge of God?

Well, I’ve set us up for the answers. They can bring wonder at their very existence, their amazing transformational existence.  They can blow our mind with their purposefulness, and make us aware of our own smallness in the scheme of the planet. They can bring suffering in their wake, forcing each of us who is capable of helping another to grow in our ability for difficult service. And our fierce battle with them, living creatures who are only in search of food, and whose very need to eat offends us, can challenge our moral categories.

As the east wind carries the locusts, a primal spirit brings change.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2008

250 of the words about the locusts were presented at my Smicha (ordination) ceremony in 2005. The essay about the fleas is published in Family Pictures: A Philosopher Explores the Familiar (Open Court, 1998).

Image: by Richard Melling,

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