In A Perfect World
The cicadas are coming.
I am not looking forward to seeing them.
“Cicada” is another name for “locust.” The type of locust known as “Brood X” is the one I’d like to talk about here. It has a curious life cycle. For seventeen years, these locusts lie dormant beneath the ground. Also known as “adult periodical cicadas” (pronounced se-kay-das) the creatures remain out of sight and out of mind for all those long years. Then, at the summons of an inborn instinct that is triggered when the ground temperature reaches 64 degrees, they come awake. All of them. At the same time.
The moment they wake, they are on the move.
Simultaneously, hordes and hordes of these locusts tunnel up from the ground that has sheltered them for nearly two decades. This spring will be the seventeenth since the last emergence, and predictions call for the cicadas to swarm over fifteen states, with the highest concentration expected to take place in the state where I happen to live. Listen to this statistic: in Maryland, the epicenter of what we can only call an impending plague, a staggering 1.5 million cicadas per acre is expected. That means that my front and back yards may play host to hundreds of thousands of these unwanted guests this spring. It means that my state will play host to trillions of them.
And these guests won’t be staying for a day or two, or even for a week or two. Adult cicadas live between two and six weeks after they emerge from the ground. They are due to make their first appearance in mid-May, and we won’t see the end of them until mid-June. How will they spend their short but glorious season in the sun? With one simple task: making sure that there’s a new generation around to do it all again in another 17 years.
Basically, the cicadas’ entire purpose in emerging from their long dormant state is to lay eggs. The females crawl up every available tree and deposit batches of eggs on branches and twigs. While going about this process, the locusts make plenty of noise about it. Their shrill cry, multiplied in their millions, fills the air night and day with a weird, otherworldly shriek. The first and only time I experienced this onslaught, I remember calling my sister in Lakewood and holding up the phone to let her hear what my world sounded like just then. It was eerie. And it was loud.
The cicada is not a handsome creature. It looks like a two-inch black slug with transparent wings limned in yellow, and bulging red eyes. No one you want to become better acquainted with. But during the weeks that encompass their short life span, they are everywhere. The air is filled with the sight and sound of them. They bump into things. If you’re not careful, they will fall down your collar or fly into your mouth (I know someone this actually happened to!). For this thankfully brief period of time, the cicadas basically take over the world.
With their eggs safely deposited and their task complete, the cicadas have completed their mission in life. And so, they start dying. In their millions they give up the ghost, their brittle corpses lying in big, black heaps wherever you look. The odor that these corpses give off is not a pleasant one. For a few days, the very air smells of decay. Even in death, the cicadas make their mark.
And the baby cicadas that hatch from those eggs? Driven by instinct, they waste no time scurrying down the tree trunks and right into the ground. There, in the dark, they will lie asleep for another seventeen years… until it’s time to start the cycle all over again.
What, I ask myself as I contemplate these upcoming delights, are we to take away from the life cycle of the cicada?
There are various lessons that we can glean from these creatures’ passionate drive to perpetuate their way of life, handing their traditions down to their young just as we do. Of course, in the cicada’s case the traditions are limited purely to the realm of physical instincts and drives. As human beings endowed with a divine soul, we are tasked with transmitting far more meaningful matters to our own future generations. What we pass down is not merely a how-to manual for surviving this world, but also, and even more importantly, a guide to acquiring eternal life in the next one.
That, of course, is a crucial difference. But the single-minded drive of the cicadas to choose life comes from the same imperative that Hashem gave to every living creature.
We can take another message from the life-cycle of this humble member of the locust family. Pirkei Avos adjures us not to disdain anyone, because every person has his moment. The lowly cicada dwells in darkness and obscurity for such a long time. During all those years, the world deems it of no account. Insignificant. Powerless.
And then, for one brief but glorious season, the cicada comes to life. It emerges into the light to create life and to perpetuate life. For a few weeks which may admittedly grate on their human neighbors’ sensibilities, the cicadas take over the world. Finally, their voice is heard.
I am not urging anyone to make a public nuisance of themselves in the interests of garnering their moment in the sun. But it is worthwhile for us to remember that, as Pirkei Avos teaches, each of us has our unique hour. A moment in time when we will rise from obscurity and shine.
It may not be a public shining. Our mission may encompass simply raising little ones to the truth of Torah and a firm commitment to our Father above. It may stretch a bit farther to include activities that benefit our communities and our cities. For a select few, their mission will impact the destiny of the entire nation. There are heroes and heroines in our national saga who stood in the spotlight for a very brief time indeed. But they left an impact. They made a change. And they will never be forgotten.
If this is true for each of us as individuals, how much more so for all of us together, as a people! For thousands of years, we have stoically endured the darkness of golus. At times, life has been productive and pleasant; at others, it’s been soaked in blood and tears. Through it all, like the humble cicada, we await the signal that will tell us that our long wait is over.
When that moment comes, united in purpose we will burst out of the darkness. We will emerge onto the stage of history for a dazzling final act in which the apparent heroes of the drama slink off into the wings, and the character with the most steadfast heart throws off his rags and is revealed as the true star of the show.
Everyone has his hour. Even the lowly cicada.
The plague of locusts is coming, and I am not looking forward to it. In fact, I’m rather dreading it.
But maybe I can find some consolation in remembering the lesson of the cicada. A message of renewal, of the passionate pursuit of life, and of the reward in store for those who wait patiently and faithfully for their hour to come, no matter how long it may take.