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Jews: The World’s Grasshoppers

There is a strange recurring theme in the Torah when it comes to sacrifices: the leftovers (noh-tar) are somehow holy, and must be either consumed by people or consumed by fire. There is something mystically and symbolically important about the sacrifices that were not finished in the main event.

The first time this word meaning “leftovers” is used, it refers to Lavan’s flock, after Jacob had removed all the spotted and speckled sheep and goats from the herd (he left them with his sons to tend). That which was left over was the flock that Jacob took aside and conducted a strange breeding experiment that generated more spotted and speckled sheep and goats.

It seems that the idea was that discolored sheep were somehow inferior, but Jacob used that to his advantage. He invested his own time and work into those leftover animals, and was able to change their offspring into animals that he could call his own.

I think that Jacob invented this idea of making the remainder, the leftovers, into something special, something with significant symbolic meaning. Jacob was a shepherd, of course, and we already know that G-d followed Jacob’s lead in other ways (e.g. when journeying to his ancestral home, creating huts for his flock and a home for himself). It seems at least possible that G-d similarly copied from Jacob in this respect: make something of what remains when you pull the chaff away from the wheat. In other words, make something of the chaff.

Jacob was the first person in the Torah to separate animals, to split a flock. He then invests in that breakaway group, creating something different. This is the precursor to G-d choosing a people, separating them from their environment in Egypt, and making them into His own people.

The leftovers are not better – indeed, they would naturally be inferior to their source. A Passover lamb, for example, would have been eaten, with the best bits consumed first. The leftovers are least palatable… and yet they are assigned pride of place, they are given special attention. In the tabernacle the priests either ate those leftovers, the things that G-d had not already taken (thus absorbing them into their own bodies), or invested fire into incinerating the last vestiges of the offering. (Ex. 29:34, Lev. 2:3, 2:10, 6:9, 7:17, 8:32, 19:6). In the case of oil, it was the leftover oil, not the initial application, that fulfilled the primary function of protecting the person bringing a guilt offering. (Lev. 14:16-17, 29).

Even individuals can be referred to as the leftovers, as remainders. Aharon loses two sons after they offer a strange fire, and that very day both the offering and his other sons are both referred to as “remainders.”

Moses spoke to Aaron and to his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar: Take the meal offering that is remaining from the LORD’s offerings by fire and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. … [Moses] was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons (Lev.10:12, 16)

The sons are lumped together with the offering. They are what survive. They are most holy. And I think it is because they are the future. The other brothers may have been better, they might have been worse. But they are no longer living, so it is in the living, the remainders, that Moses and Aharon and G-d invest themselves. Eliezer and Ithamar are the future of the priesthood even if only by virtue of being alive when their brothers were not.

Even leftover time is given special consideration. When a jubilee year approaches, the value of consecrated land is prorated based not on how many years have elapsed since the last jubilee, but instead according the years leftover until the next jubilee. What is leftover is actually the future, because what has already been done is not something we can do anything about. This is another way in which we Jews do not focus on sin we may have done in the past, but instead on how best to grow and improve with the time we still have before we, too, pass from this world. Leftovers cannot dwell on what was, or what might have been. We have to focus on what can still be.

The parallels keep stacking up, of course. Jacob focused on the leftovers because they represented the changeable future, the things that he could affect and improve.

The Jewish people are these second-class leftovers from the world. You don’t have to take my word for it – the text tells us so! The spies into the land of Canaan tell everyone that, “we were grasshoppers in our own eyes, so, too, we were in their eyes.” (Num. 13:33)

Wait! What does a grasshopper have to do with being a leftover, a remainder?

Grasshoppers are only mentioned one other time in the Torah:

But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground. Of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. (Lev. 11:21-22)

This is very odd, of course. But bear with me, because it gets pretty cool, at least from my perspective. And it is cool because of a mistranslation. The word that is used for “to leap,” is actually never used elsewhere in the Torah to mean “leap” or “jump” or any variant. It is instead the verb variant of the word used to describe a leftover or remainder.

The grasshopper does not leap. He separates from the ground. He makes himself into a leftover. He can touch holiness because he is no longer part of where he came from.

In so doing, he has a lot in common with Jews. Jews have wandered for thousands of years, always being on the outside, never fully connected to our host countries. The grasshopper leaps up and away from the earth, striving for elevation and a higher connection. And then… he falls back down again, like we all do. But as long as he lives, he keeps trying. Because he is a survivor.

Unlike the other kosher insects that have jointed legs, the grasshopper does not swarm (like locusts), and takes no refuge in numbers. Each grasshopper can be a loner, making its own solo impact on the world.

The grasshopper is also the smallest and most insignificant of any kosher animal. Yet its entire body serves as its voice, and pound for pound, it is far louder than any kosher mammal. We Jews certainly can make a racket! And we are called by the Torah to be contradistinct from the earth: every kosher animal has to have an incomplete connection to earth, to be symbolically capable of elevating. And so the food that we eat is to remind us of that divinely-charged purpose: to elevate ourselves and the whole world. We do it not because we are numerous, or large or powerful in any conventional sense. Jews are powerful because, like the grasshopper, we refuse to stay down. We make our voices heard whether they are welcome or not. We make an impact.

There is no shortage of analogies today. We are keenly aware that the wealthiest nations are in fact not in possession of a corresponding spiritual wellbeing. Bigger is not better. The history of the world has no shortage of stories of the fall of great countries who rotted out from the inside – not because of lack of numbers or physical wealth, but by a profound loss of meaning, of spiritual goals. Nations that lose a connection with the divine and instead pursue harmony with nature (as ancient Egypt did) are doomed to meaninglessness and destruction. It is from these great nations that Jews keep separating, leaping away, trying to connect with something higher.

The Torah closes the loop. Remember that the men who compared us to grasshoppers (and all of their generation), as a result of their lack of courage, were condemned to die in the wilderness. The only ones that survived to enter the land were the two who stood apart from the crowd, who refused to go along with the superior numbers, who themselves separated. The Torah tells us

“They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them was left over, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. (Num. 26:65)

Caleb and Joshua were themselves the leftovers, described in the text with the same word for what grasshoppers do, the characteristic that makes them kosher. The joke is that the description of the people as grasshoppers had merit – but it was only applied to the true grasshoppers among them, the only two people there who were truly left over after the rest of the generation had died away.

G-d considers the leftovers to be holy, to be special, to be the ways into the future. He tells us to eat animals that embody this concept, to respect the things that are, like us, survivors against the odds. The power of the Jew is found in that willingness – even eagerness – to ignore the odds, to refuse to accept that might makes right. Because we know that G-d, like Jacob, invests Himself into those who are separated, who are merely leftover from the bulk of the flock. Because that is what a true shepherd does.

We know that in the natural world, the firstborn is favored. It gets most food. In most societies, it inherits the lion’s share.

But in Judaism, everything is upside-down. None of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph or Moses were the firstborns. Egypt was arguably the oldest nation, but G-d chose the late-arriving Jews instead. Jews are the leftovers, the less powerful. G-d invests in the grasshoppers of the world, accepts that His people have more in common with this insect than one might think at first.

P.S. There are many accompanying symbolisms, but I just wanted to point out the use of the number “three” when talking about enabling change. The Third Day of creation was when life was created. Yaakov removed himself and his “leftover” flock from everyone else by a three day journey, and then he invested in the flock. The Binding of Isaac occurred on the third day. Similarly, Moses tells Pharaoh that he wants to take the Jews away for a mere three days to sacrifice to G-d. The leftovers from a freewill offering (Lev. 7:17) also needs to be consumed in fire on the third day. And the single most transformative event in Jewish history, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, also happened on the third day. It is the number needed for profound change, for growth toward a relationship with our Creator. It is a part of the formula for how something normal can become something special.

[another @iwe, @susanquinn, and now @eliyahu-masinter production!]

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