Locusts – famine

A few weeks ago, the weekly parsha described how a gigantic swarm of locusts plagued Egypt. Although such invasions (on a smaller scale) have been common since the dawn of history, long centuries passed before anyone had the faintest idea where the swarms were coming from. As the Torah records, they were simply blown in by the wind. Where were the millions upon millions of locusts camping out between their periodic raids?

The theory that local populations merely diminish between plagues was demolished when investigators discovered that during these hiatuses, not a solitary locust can be found anywhere. Where were they? Do locusts sip Cokes in subterranean hideouts between their destructive excursions?

At last, in 5681/1921 Russian entomologist (insect researcher) Uvarov came up with his “polymorphism (multiform) theory” solution. He proposed that our friends, the desert locusts, lead a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde existence. Visit North Africa during regular years and you will find brown colored locusts minding their own business in solitude. Wait around for a few months and you may notice something strange. As the locust population explodes, new generations enter a rebellious phase. Bored with the stodgy brown of their parents, young jet setters deck themselves out in colorful pink outfits that turn yellow as they mature.

Then they develop an irresistible travel itch, and packing their bags they set off on a world tour. The difference between the stodgy and jet modes is so vast, that before Uvarov made his discovery people were convinced that these two forms of desert locust were entirely different species!

What mechanism sparks the youngsters’ rebellious attitude? Scientists theorize that as locusts multiply, their personal territory shrinks drastically setting off a chain of numerous traffic collisions. This tactile stimulation then sets off the chemical processes that practically create a new species. Scientists have even imitated the process by patiently stroking locusts’ legs. Do this for a few hours and you may see a new locust morph in front of your eyes!

The locust swarms set off on their odyssey, using wind currents to coast along at the rate of about 100 miles a day. This can be risky. In 5748/1988, powerful winds blew a locust swarm 4,000 miles from West Africa to the Caribbean. Millions must have perished en route.

Generally, locusts avoid water like the plague. Two years ago, Israeli scientists were intrigued when they realized that invading locust swarms had refused to take a short cut to Israel over the Gulf of Eilat. Investigating the enigma, they discovered that locusts have a special skill of detecting whether light is reflecting from a smooth surface like water, or from an irregular land surface. This triggers them to fl y away from water and save themselves from a watery grave.

How do the bustling swarms avoid traffic collisions? Attached to the locust eye is a special LGMD (locust giant movement detector) nerve. When the eye detects an oncoming threat, it takes only one 45/1000 of a second for this special nerve to telegraph a warning to the wing muscles: Take evasive action now!

The United States faced its greatest locust plague in the 1870s when settlers were pouring into the Great Plains.

However, this time the culprits were not African desert locusts, but Rocky Mountain Locusts. These flew in with such destructive force that farmers complained these locusts were consuming everything but the mortgage. This problem was solved the American way! Within a couple of decades, agriculture gobbled up most of the natural vegetation of the Great Plains and the last Rocky Mountain Locusts met their death in about 5662/1902, unable to survive on artificial farmland.

Eretz Yisrael
was plagued by these two-gram insects many times in the last centuries. A 19th Century traveler described a locust swarm two days long:
“On April 5th, when we were encamped at the fort of Jebel Musa (Mount Sinai) the locusts were first seen by us… they had the appearance of a snow-storm… every blade of green soon disappeared. For two days the flight passed over our heads, undiminished in numbers. In vain, the Arabs in charge of the gardens beat iron pans and shouted and brushed them away from the beds, with palm-leaves. They swarmed in till every green thing was eaten.”

Far worse was the next locust plague of World War I when the Yishuv was already in dire straits because of the war. The 5675/1915 plague meant that many Yerushalayim Jews had to subsist on chicken feed and weeds.

Alexander Aaronsohn, a Jew who was pressed into the Turkish army, described the disaster in his book, With the Turks in Palestine:

“While I was traveling in the south, another menace to our people’s welfare had appeared: the locusts. From the Sudan they came in tremendous hosts – black clouds of them that obscured the sun. It seemed as if Nature had joined in the conspiracy against us… For forty years they had not come to Palestine, but now their visitation was like that of which the prophet Joel speaks in the Old Testament.

“They came full-grown, ripe for breeding; the ground was covered with the females digging in the soil and depositing their egg-packets, and we knew that when they hatched we should be overwhelmed, for there was not a foot of ground in which these eggs were not to be found.”

Realizing that his army might starve if the swarms were left unchallenged, Djemal Pasha, head of Turkey’s Fourth Army on the Palestine Front, begged the Jews to help because local Arab farmers were not interested in lifting a finger. As Aarohnson pointed out:

“The Arabs are lazy and fatalistic besides; they cannot understand why men should attempt to fight the Djesh All-h (“G-d’s Army”), as they call the locusts.”

A frantic battle developed.

“Djemal Pasha put some thousands of Arab soldiers at his disposition, and these were set to work digging trenches into which the hatching locusts were driven and destroyed. This is the only means of coping with the situation: once the locusts get their wings, nothing can be done with them. It was a hopeless fight.

“Nothing short of the cooperation of every farmer in the country could have won the day; and while the people of the progressive Jewish villages struggled on to the end, men, women, and children working in the fields until they were exhausted, the Arab farmers sat by with folded hands. The threats of the military authorities only stirred them to half-hearted efforts.”

After two months the Turks conceded defeat and the locusts spread in hordes over the whole countryside, reminiscent of the plague Yoel Hanavi described centuries earlier, “The field is wasted, the land mourns, for the corn is wasted. The new wine is dried up, the oil languishes…. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness.”

Only one benefit was gained from the disaster.

“The Arabs… really got a good deal out of the locusts, for they loved to feast upon the female insects. They gathered piles of them and threw them upon burning charcoal, then, squatting around the fire, devoured the roasted insects with great gusto. I saw a fourteen-year-old boy eat as many as a hundred at a sitting.”

Of course, this benefit was not much use to many Jews. It is true that the Torah writes, “But this you may eat of the flying insects that walk on four legs – that which has (long legs whose) knees extend above their feet (and uses them) to hop on the ground. These among them you may eat – the red locust according to its kind, the yellow locust according to its kind, the spotted gray locust according to its kind and the white locust according to its kind” (Vayikra 11:21-22). It is also true that the desert locust fulfills Chazal’s criteria that kosher locusts must have regular legs, jumping legs, and wings that cover most of its body (see Yoreh Dei’a 85).

However, there is one catch. Chazal require that kosher locusts have an unbroken mesora (tradition) that Jews call them by the name chagav. Locusts are so rare in Europe that no mesora could be transmitted, leading the Lithuanian poseik, the Aruch haShulchan to state that in his time no one ever heard of anyone who eats chagavim.

Of course, many Jews in Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen were still consuming this delicacy, even though the Ohr haChaim and others are not certain whether the mesora is properly reliable. Relying on this ancient tradition, a strange banquet took place in Yerushalayim a few years ago when a group of frum Jews, relying on the opinion that Jews of one kehilla can rely on the mesora of another kehilla, ate a seuda including various species like pigeons and locusts that are generally anathema to most observant Jews. Their goal was to help these mesoras survive.

What is the desert locust’s purpose? The ancient sefer, Perek Shira, that describes the songs of each animal species, puts the following verse into the locust’s mouth:

Hashem, you are my G-d. I will exalt You, I will thank Your name. Because you did wonders. Your counsels from long ago are faith s t r e n g t h e n i n g ” (Yeshayahu 25:1).

What have these beautiful words to do with the destructive locust?

Commenting on this verse, the Malbim notes that the next verse praises Hashem because, “You made a (rubble) heap out of a town, a ruin of a fortified city, a palace of strangers (destroyed) from being a town, that it will never be built.”

In other words, Hashem manifests His greatness not only through great beneficence, but sometimes also through immense powers of destruction, and what better personifies that than the indomitable voraciousness of a locust army?

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