Bo: We may not be at the end of days, but the locusts are swarming now.

L’italiano segue l’inglese

And the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail has left.’ And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Eternal brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the borders of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.  For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing, either tree or herb of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:12-15)

The eighth of the disasters to come upon the Egyptians was that of the swarms of locusts, completing the devastation of the crops begun by the hail.

I remember the locust cage in the biology lab at school. The bright lights keeping the box warm and the locusts absolutely quiet and still: and the sudden and quite terrifyingly loud jumping and swarming when I put my hand into the box to feed them. The banging and whirring and jumping made my heart pound, even though I knew they were safely contained and anyway would not bite or sting.

That memory stayed with me – I can still feel the sudden violence of the movements, hear the bodies crashing against their confinement and my heart rate echoing their rapid thumping.

Reading the story of the swarming locusts in parashat Bo I can return to that memory and its accompanying visceral anxiety in a heartbeat. And now another layer of understanding is added as I read the reports of the locusts swarming in East Africa. Just like those in the biblical text they are consuming every last bit of vegetation needed for the people and for the animals to survive.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) this is the worst swarming in Kenya for a biblical sounding 70 years. It estimated one swarm there to be around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles); it could contain up to 200 billion locusts, each of which consumes its own weight in food every day. They can move up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) in one day. If unchecked, the numbers could grow 500 times by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region which is already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.

These locusts are not a phenomenon designed to show the power of God against those who do not recognise it – they are a natural and obvious consequence of the extreme weather events suffered in Africa in the last few years – drought, wildfires, floods, landslides, extreme temperature, fog and storms.

According to data maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Africa recorded 56 extreme weather events in 2019 and 45 extreme events in 2018. Nearly 16.6 million people were affected due to natural disasters in 29 African countries last year.

The locusts came this year after a year of extremes which included eight cyclones off East Africa, the most in a single year since 1976.  The cyclones themselves are linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean – something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole (or the “Indian Niño”) warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. This unusually strong positive dipole this year has meant higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia. We have seen the resulting overwhelming bush fires in Australia, but maybe the news of the heavy downpours devastating parts of East Africa has been less prominent. In the Horn of Africa there was up to 300% above average rainfall between October and mid-November, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.  The resultant floods and washing away of villages, soil and people, has also been horrific.

We have a Famine Early Warning Systems Network. We have a Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. We have a Food and Agriculture organisation which is part of the UN.  We know what the changes in climate and environment mean, not only for the people currently facing devastation, but for our interconnected and fragile earth. What it means for us all.

I never read the story of the plague of locusts with the same dispassion as that of the frogs. Frogs always seemed dear and sweet beings, who may be found in a cool cellar, or around a garden pond – they are generally seen as symbolising life or harmony, they are beneficial to the garden, they squat patiently in damp corners or sit on lily pads…

But the plague of locusts is fraught with all the visceral and atavistic responses to the harsh rattling of their wings, and the sudden jumping, flying, swarming – let alone the ability to consume their own weight in vegetation every day.

The bible tells us that the locusts would

וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

“Cover the eye of the earth, and one would not be able to see the earth” (10:5)

The eye of the earth will be covered, and he will be unable to see or understand the land – this is the message Moses will give to Pharaoh before the locusts will come, followed by the deep tangible darkness and finally the death of the first born.

There is a connecting theme of darkness, of blindness, of inability to discern in these final three plagues. It is a theme that resonates for us today – even with all the monitoring and the early warning systems, we are unable – or rather we are unwilling – to discern what the earth is telling us.   We are unwilling to really understand and to see that the disasters unfolding in different parts of our world are connected to each other and to us. Like the Pharaoh we stubbornly continue along our path in the face of the increasingly terrible events, until forced to wake up and cede to reality. This is plague number 8, there are two more steps in the biblical narrative until the final and most horrific event of all. There is – just – time for our politicians to wake up and cede to the reality of environmental disasters as a consequence of the change in our climate.  Like Moses and Aaron, we must communicate loud and clear to the prevailing powers, if we are to avoid the final devastation.

Parashà Bo:

Potremmo non essere alla fine dei giorni, ma le locuste stanno brulicando.

di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 27 gennaio 2020 

  Il Signore disse a Mosè: “Stendi la tua mano sulla terra d’Egitto per l’invasione delle locuste in modo che invadano il paese e distruggano ogni erbaggio della terra, tutto quanto ha risparmiato la grandine”. E Mosè stese la sua verga sulla terra d’Egitto, e il Signore fece soffiare un vento orientale sul paese tutto quel giorno e la notte seguente; al sorgere del mattino, il vento dell’est trasportò le locuste che si elevarono su tutta la terra egiziana e si andarono a posare in tutto il territorio egiziano in modo straordinario; mai prima di ciò si era visto un fenomeno tale né, dopo, nulla di simile accadrà. E le locuste ricoprirono la faccia di tutto il paese, cosicché tutto si  oscurò; e le locuste divorarono ogni erba, ogni frutto d’albero che era stato risparmiato dalla grandine; e non rimase alcunché di verde degli alberi, né alcun erbaggio della campagna in tutto il paese d’Egitto. (Esodo 10: 12-15)

L’ottavo dei disastri che colpirono gli egiziani fu quello degli sciami di locuste, che completarono la devastazione delle colture iniziata con la grandine.

Ricordo la gabbia delle locuste nel laboratorio di biologia a scuola. Le luci intense che mantenevano il contenitore caldo e le locuste assolutamente silenziose e immobili: l’improvviso e terrificante rumoroso saltare e sciamare al momento di mettere la mano nella scatola per dar loro da mangiare. I colpi, i ronzii e i salti mi facevano battere forte il cuore, anche se sapevo che erano tenute in sicurezza e che non mi avrebbero in nessun modo morso o punto.

Quel ricordo è rimasto con me: sento ancora l’improvvisa violenza dei movimenti, sento i corpi schiantarsi contro il loro confinamento e sento il mio battito cardiaco far eco ai loro rapidi tonfi.

Leggendo la storia delle brulicanti locuste nella parashà Bo, in un battito di ciglia torno a quel ricordo e alla sua compresente ansia viscerale. E ora si aggiunge un altro livello di comprensione mentre leggo i resoconti delle locuste che brulicano nell’Africa orientale. Stanno consumando ogni ultimo pezzetto di vegetazione necessario alle persone e alla sopravvivenza degli animali, proprio come quelle del testo biblico.

Secondo l’Organizzazione delle Nazioni Unite per l’Alimentazione e l’Agricoltura (FAO), questo è il peggior sciame in Kenya da settant’anni, che risuonano biblici. Si stima che lo sciame sia di circa duemila-quattrocento chilometri quadrati e potrebbe contenere fino a duecento miliardi di locuste, ognuna delle quali consuma ogni giorno cibo pari al proprio peso. Possono spostarsi fino a centocinquanta chilometri in un giorno. Se non controllato, il numero potrebbe aumentare di cinquecento volte entro giugno, diffondendosi in Uganda e nel Sud Sudan, diventando una piaga che devasterà i raccolti e i pascoli in una regione che è già una delle più povere e vulnerabili del mondo.

Queste locuste non sono un fenomeno progettato per mostrare il potere di Dio contro coloro che non lo riconoscono: sono una conseguenza naturale e ovvia degli eventi meteorologici estremi subiti in Africa negli ultimi anni: siccità, incendi, alluvioni, frane, temperature altissime, nebbia e tempeste.

Secondo i dati conservati dal Centro di ricerca sull’epidemiologia delle catastrofi a Bruxelles, l’Africa ha registrato cinquantasei eventi meteorologici estremi nel 2019 e quarantacinque nel 2018. Quasi 16,6 milioni di persone sono state colpite da catastrofi naturali in ventinove paesi africani lo scorso anno.

Le locuste sono arrivate quest’anno dopo un anno di fenomeni estremi che ha incluso otto cicloni al largo dell’Africa orientale, il maggior  numero in un solo anno dal 1976. I cicloni stessi sono collegati a differenze di temperatura più alte del solito tra le due sponde dell’Oceano Indiano: qualcosa che i meteorologi chiamano “Dipolo dell’Oceano Indiano” (o “Niño indiano”), ovvero temperature del mare più calde nella regione dell’Oceano Indiano occidentale e il contrario ad est. Il dipolo positivo insolitamente forte di quest’anno ha significato precipitazioni e inondazioni superiori alla media nell’Africa orientale e siccità nel sud-est asiatico e in Australia. Abbiamo visto gli incendi boschivi che ne derivano in Australia, ma forse la notizia dei forti acquazzoni che devastano parti dell’Africa orientale è stata meno importante. Nel Corno d’Africa ci sono state piogge fino al 300% superiori alla media tra ottobre e metà novembre, secondo la Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Anche le conseguenti inondazioni e il loro spazzar via villaggi, suolo e persone sono stati raccapriccianti.

Abbiamo una rete di rapidi sistemi di allarme per le carestie. Abbiamo un centro di ricerca sull’epidemiologia delle catastrofi. Abbiamo un’organizzazione alimentare e agricola che fa parte delle Nazioni Unite. Sappiamo cosa comportino i cambiamenti nel clima e nell’ambiente, non solo per le persone che attualmente affrontano devastazioni, ma per la nostra terra interconnessa e fragile. Sappiamo cosa ciò significa per tutti noi.

Non ho mai letto la storia della piaga delle locuste con la stesso distacco di quella delle rane. Le rane sembrano sempre esseri cari e dolci, che possono essere trovati in una fresca cantina o intorno a uno stagno del giardino: sono generalmente viste come simboli della vita o dell’armonia, sono benefiche per il giardino, si accovacciano delicatamente in angoli umidi o si siedono su un giglio …

Ma la piaga delle locuste è irta di tutte le risposte viscerali e ataviche al duro tintinnio delle loro ali e all’improvviso saltare, volare, sciamare, per non parlare della loro capacità di consumare ogni giorno vegetazione pari al proprio peso.

La Bibbia ci dice ciò che le locuste possono fare:

וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

Ricopriranno la faccia della terra così da non essere in grado vedere la terra” (10: 5)

La faccia della terra sarà coperta e non si sarà in grado di vedere o comprendere la terra: questo è il messaggio che Mosè trasmetterà al faraone prima che arrivino le locuste, seguite dalla profonda e tangibile oscurità e infine dalla morte dei primogeniti.

C’è un tema di collegamento tra oscurità, cecità, incapacità di discernere in queste ultime tre piaghe. È un tema che risuona per noi oggi: anche con tutti i sistemi di monitoraggio e di allarme rapido, non siamo in grado, o piuttosto non siamo disposti, di discernere ciò che la Terra ci sta dicendo. Non siamo propensi a capire veramente e a vedere che i disastri che si verificano in diverse parti del nostro mondo sono collegati tra loro e con noi. Come il faraone, continuiamo testardamente lungo il nostro cammino di fronte a eventi sempre più terribili, fino a quando non siamo costretti a svegliarci e cedere alla realtà. Questa è la piaga numero otto, ci sono altri due passi nella narrazione biblica fino all’evento finale e più orribile di tutti. I nostri politici hanno appena il tempo di svegliarsi e cedere alla realtà delle catastrofi ambientali a seguito del cambiamento del nostro clima. Come Mosè e Aronne, dobbiamo comunicare forte e chiaro con le potenze prevalenti, se vogliamo evitare la devastazione finale.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Lech Lecha – the story of a famine which displaces vulnerable people needs to be heard

When Abram and Sarai, his nephew Lot and the souls they had made in Haran travelled on God’s instruction to the Land of Canaan, they arrived and stopped at Shechem, where Abram built an altar and where God promised that land to his descendants. Abram journeyed on, via the mountain near Beit El, where he built another altar, and continued southwards travelling the length of the land of Israel until they exited the Land on its southern border with Egypt.

It reads rather as an anti-climax to that famous imperative in the first recorded encounter between God and Abram:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ:

God said to Abram “Go for yourself from your land and your birthplace, and from the house of our father, to the land which I will show you”

No introduction, no explanation, no conversation – just a command to go elsewhere, the trust that the journey will have an end is implicit, God will show Abram the place when he gets there.

But it isn’t exactly what happens. Because there is famine in the land – very heavy famine.  Abram and Sarai will die if they stay there, so, prefiguring the Joseph narratives, they travel into Egypt for refuge.

Famine appears with grim frequency in bible. Each of the patriarchs will suffer serious famine – Abram goes to Egypt, Isaac goes to the Philistine King in Gerar rather than go to Egypt(Gen 26:1). Jacob and his sons go down into Egypt to buy food when the famine takes hold. The book of Ruth describes the famine that led Ruth and Elimelech to flee to Moab (Ruth 1:1). In David’s time there was a famine lasting three years (2Sam 21:1). The story of Elijah records the famine in the land (1Kings 17:1) and in Elisha fed the famine starved people of Gilgal (2Kings 4:38). Famines are also recorded in Jerusalem in the time of Tzedekiah (2Kings 25:3) (see also Jeremiah’s painful description of the drought 14:1-6) and in Canaan in the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 5:3)

The Land of Israel was dependent on the rainfall for its crops and trees, so drought and therefore famine were always to be feared. There was also fear of pests or diseases that would destroy the crops (Joel 1:4ff)and which we see most dramatically in the plague in Egypt just before the Hebrew slaves were able to leave.

War and sieges would also bring famines – again described in biblical texts with painful clarity. Famine, along with Pestilence and the sword (war) (Dever v’Herev v’Ra’av) appears regularly in a triumvirate in the Hebrew bible (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11,) and has entered the liturgy in both Avinu Malkeinu and in the Hashkiveinu prayer  (second blessing following shema)

הָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אוֹיֵב דֶבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב וְיָגוֹן

 

Talmud also discusses the problems of famine. We read in Ta’anit 5a “Rav Nachman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the Eternal has called upon a famine and it shall also come upon the land seven years” (II Kings 8:1)? Specifically, in those seven years, what did they eat?

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: In the first year they ate that which was in their houses; in the second year they ate that which was in their fields; in the third year they ate the meat of their remaining kosher animals; in the fourth year they ate the meat of their remaining non-kosher animals; in the fifth year they ate the meat of repugnant creatures and creeping animals, i.e., any insects they found; in the sixth year they ate the flesh of their sons and their daughters; and in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms, to fulfil that which is stated: “Each man shall eat the flesh of his own arm” (Isaiah 9:19).”

The starvation and breakdown of social norms that famine brought can be seen across the literature.  In the Talmud we read the pitiful story of one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, Marta bat Baitos who could not buy food with all her silver and gold, and who died after picking out the grain from the animal dung she stepped on (Gittin 56a;  Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (Ant. 14:476) and one during Herod’s reign (Ant. 15:7).

Drought, with the rains withheld, has generally been theologised into punishment for transgressions, a tool wielded by God when we do not follow the rules that acknowledge God’s ownership of the land by bringing tithes both to thank God and to feed those who cannot grow food for themselves,  and when we fail in our our obligations to the Land to treat it well and allow it to rest.

Rabbinic responsa are also very sensitive to drought and famine, with a growing list of actions to pray for rain with special prayers added into the liturgy, fasting etc. So seriously did the rabbis take the realities of famine that they permitted emigration from the land of Israel in the case of famine, albeit only when survival would become extremely difficult(BB 91b; Gen. R. 25).

Rabba bar bar Ḥana says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: They taught that it is prohibited to leave Eretz Yisrael only if money is cheap, i.e., not excessively difficult to obtain, and produce is expensive, similar to the case in the baraita where two se’a of wheat are sold for a sela. But when money is expensive, i.e., it is difficult to earn money for sustenance, even if the price of four se’a of grain stood at a sela, one may leave Eretz Yisrael in order to survive.(BB91b)

Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Ta’anit 11a) also forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Our tradition knows about the difficulties of living and thriving in a world where the rains may not come, where crops may fail and people may starve. It understood that while famine may come as a result of war, it is more likely to be because we, the human stewards of the world, do not treat the world as it must be treated, and the consequences of this lack of care will come to haunt us.

Abram and Sarai left their home to reach the land God had promised, but having reached it they immediately became environment migrants. The land would not let them stay and thrive, they had to put themselves at greater risk and depend on a foreign power to survive.   This part of their story is not often emphasised – the great journey to the promised land is a far more palatable thread to take from this sidra, but the short verses that tell of the famine that would have killed them should they have stayed are maybe more instructive in these times of climate change happening across the globe as a direct result of human carelessness and greed.

Lech Lecha is the call to activism – Get up and go, make something happen! We Jews are called as our ur-ancestors were called. We should pay heed to the increasingly serious warnings our planet is giving us, and return to the work of stewarding, protecting and  supporting a healthy and diverse world.