God’s Fondness for Beetles, and Other Thoughts for the Days of Awe


Rabbi Lisa’s Column from the September/October 2015 G’vanim issue.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the distinguished [early 20th century] British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” Footnote of a paper published in The American Naturalist in 1959, quoted here

I recently attempted to rescue a June bug/beetle from drowning. Alas, too late, I thought, as it lay unmoving on the sidewalk for over an hour. I emptied a little cardboard jewelry box, leaving in it only the cotton pillow, and I placed the motionless body in the box and put the lid on. My intention was to mail it to a friend who collects bugs. I knew she would like its bright green wings and iridescent belly. The box sat on our kitchen counter for a couple of days, as I hadn’t managed to get to the post office yet. But Shabbat morning the lid of the box was ajar and a beetle leg was poking out. Assuming I’d knocked the box with the morning paper, I lifted the lid to have a look and, yikes, its legs were moving!! I placed it gingerly outside in the dirt and put a tiny dish of water next to it – it moved slowly, not even a crawl, it seemed unable to spread its wings, but when I came back to check on it a little while later it had apparently flown away.

After “rescuing” the June bug I went off to our monthly Shabbat morning minyan at BCC. And during our private Amidah prayers as I read the
Gevurot, I couldn’t help thinking about my “returned from the dead” June bug:

“Your love sustains the living, Your great mercies give life to the dead. You support the falling, heal the ailing, free the fettered. You keep Your faith with those who sleep in dust. Whose power can compare with Yours, Master of life and death and deliverance?”

I laughed a little to myself, wondering if it was a beetle that long ago inspired the writing of such a prayer, and then I teared up because of the humans I wished had experienced such “great mercies,” but who did not.

God’s Fondness for Beetles, and Other Thoughts for the Days of Awe We are fast coming up on Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, a time of year that can be such a blessing or such a challenge depending on where one is in one’s life and one’s relationship with God. This year I know some of us will not only feel challenged by, but will be challenging God. As a community we’ve lost a number of friends this year – too young; some of us have suffered other personal sorrows; and the world certainly has experienced no shortage of disasters and threats, many induced by human carelessness or deliberate action.

When we arrive at the prayers that invite our grief or fear or awe at the mystery of the known and unknown world, some of us will surely have difficulty offering praise or feeling appreciative. Anger and grief or anxiety can take over.

In those moments I often find that focusing close helps. Maybe this year I’ll even remember my June bug and my delight when I saw that leg moving in the box on the kitchen counter.

And maybe I’ll think about some of the inspiring facts I’ve read about beetles since spending a Shabbat with that surprising creature:

Today beetles can be found almost everywhere on the planet. One out of every four animals on Earth is a beetle. If we include plants in the count, one in every five known organisms is a beetle. Beetles as we know them first appeared on Earth about 230 million years ago.

The scientist Haldane was also an atheist, and so his response, if made at all, may have been just a witty remark on his part. But I take it a little more seriously. His idea, especially during these Days of Awe, invites us to spend some time awestruck by all the large and small amazements to focus on — the blessings and hurts, the griefs and joys, the people in our lives (whether sitting beside us or living in our memory or imagination), the wonder brought by the brilliant hue of a June bug or the depth of the love we feel this moment – no matter who or what is the object of our love.

May the new year 5776 and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) with which it begins bring awareness, amazement, and “inordinate fondness” to us all.

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