What a strong and powerful picture! The Prophet Joel surprises Israel with a most disturbing message: God is the commander of an army of locusts ready to overrun his holy mount in Zion, the land of Israel (Joel 1:4–7, 2:10–11). Not only Egypt is overrun by this plague, but also Israel itself is in danger – and indeed, has often been overrun by swarms of enemies: the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greek, the Romans.
In the Jewish tradition, a lot of thought is given to the locust. Amazingly enough, many texts in the Talmud centre around the marks that serve to distinguish the four kinds of locusts that are considered to be kosher when some commentators count as many as six hundred different species which are not for us to be eaten. We may not fully appreciate the value of locusts as a welcome addition to our menus. But it is good Yemenite Jewish tradition to pickle them and dry them for food – and Rashi explains about the average Egyptians that they started to collect and roast them when Moshe sends down the plague of locusts onto Mitzrayim. With the east wind the locusts came, and the wind eventually cleans them away, also those – says Rashi – that had been set aside as nutrition by the poor Egyptians who had already been punished by so many plagues before.
Joel, however, clearly emphasises the destructive force of an army of locusts that is sent to make people shiver and tremble. Travellers in all centuries report in so many words that the devastations they make are often appalling. It was Jerome, one of the Church Fathers, who claimed that the invasions of locusts are the heaviest calamities that can befall a country. Their numbers exceed computation. Unable to guide their own flight, though capable of crossing large spaces, they are at the mercy of the wind, which bears them as blind instruments of Providence to the doomed region temporarily given over to them.
Innumerable as the drops of water or the sands of the seashore, their flight obscures the sun and casts a thick shadow on the earth (Exod. 10:15; Judges 6:5, 7:12; Jer. 46:23; Joel 2:10). It may be “like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them is a desolate wilderness. . . . At their approach the people are in anguish; all faces lose their colour” (Joel 2:3,6). No walls can stop them; no ditches arrest them; fires kindled in their path are forthwith extinguished by the myriads of their dead, and the countless armies march on (Joel 2:8, 9)
The picture is truly apocalyptic. Joel qualifies locusts as God’s holy cavalry1. The aim and mission of its appearance is clear: in our parashah the swarm of locusts is aimed at Pharaoh, who has refused to humble himself before God and who has hardened his heart. In Joel the earth shakes, the sky trembles and the people Israel dreads the coming of the day of the Lord, the day of judgment. In both instances the locusts are the punishment for not accepting God’s dominion and for ignoring God’s kingship.
It is curious that in Aramaic (Onkelos) the translation of locust is ‘gova’, and this is more than reminiscent of the Hebrew for “height”. The plague of the locusts comes from on high and reminds us that Pharaoh, the self-appointed God-King, is being punished for his lack of humility in facing the Creator of the universe. Joel, however, emphasizes that Pharaoh is just an example: we Jews are just as well subject to the message of the locust. If locusts had been created for no other reason than to teach humankind humility and submission to the Creator they would have justified their existence.
I owe it to Israel Mattuck2, in whose view the little grasshopper teaches this lesson: nothing but God’s infinite mercy can bridge the gap between our merit and our need for forgiveness. A good thought to back up our New Year’s resolutions for 2011.
Rabbi Professor Walter Homolka
Rector, Abraham Geiger College
1Joel 2:4: “They have the appearance of horses; they gallop along like horsemen”, The Italians refer to the grasshopper as “cavalletta”, the Germans as “Heupferd” and various writers have pointed out that the head of a locust is in shape like that of a horse. It is not by accident that the locust later appears as a mystical animal, like a horse prepared unto battle, also in the Book of Revelation (9:7a) reinforcing its nature as a dubious Godsend (John Gill).
2Israel Mattuck, The Thought of the Prophets: Prophetic Ideals from Amos to Malachi and their Importance to the Contemporary Scene, 1953, p. 50f.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.