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The Caterpillar and the Cocoon

Rabbi Sarah Marion
“The Caterpillar and the Cocoon”
July 24, 2020

I once read, that when a caterpillar wraps itself into a cocoon, it uses its own gastric cells to digest and dissolve itself into liquid form. Once a caterpillar, now an amorphous goo inside of a sack, the size of a paperclip.  And it is that protein-rich caterpillar liquid that then fuels the growth of new cells – new cells that eventually rise up into two-straight antennae; new cells that pulsate into fluttering, multicolored wings. Cell by cell, bit by bit, it breaks itself down, and cell-by-cell, bit-by-bit, it builds itself back up, into something entirely new.

Over time, tiny, microscopic changes – undetectable to the human eye – eventually give way to transformation, to beauty, to butterflies. I’ve come to think of the summer season as the season of butterflies. This is the season when my kids come home from toddler day camp with dirty feet, sweaty hair, red, sun-kissed cheeks, and the art project du jour – which, at one point or another, always has something to do with butterflies. Butterflies creatively constructed out of clothespins, tissue paper and pipe cleaners.

Or depictions of a butterfly’s life cycle, using the appropriate dry pasta shapes to illustrate the various stages of its life: orzo for the egg, rotini for the caterpillar, shells for the cocoon, and farfalle for the butterfly.

Though the butterfly art projects have come home this summer as they always do, this butterfly season, of course, feels different from the ones prior. Toddler day camp now includes masks and daily temperature checks – and unlike every other butterfly season that I can remember, this is not a season of cavalierly spreading our wings and traveling across land and sea for summer excursions and visits with family and friends. And if we are traveling – we are doing so with caution, trepidation, and with a steady supply of hand sanitizer.

This butterfly season, by and large, we are still encased in our cocoons – though, perhaps, some of our cocoons have expanded to include other friend or relative cocoons – but, for better or for worse, we are getting used to the idea of cocooning ourselves; we are getting used to the reality that it will likely be a while before we will be able to go out – unabashedly, and care-free.

And, yet – alongside the frustrations; alongside the unimaginable losses; alongside the pain and the grief of the coronavirus plague and all the other plagues of our time – small but significant changes are beginning to take shape. Bit by bit, cell by cell, change is happening and we are building ourselves up towards something entirely new. We are seeing new rituals and new traditions – who would have thought, for instance, that a Passover “Zeder” – would become a part of our Jewish vocabularies. And we are hearing from new leaders and new voices, especially those empowered by the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, who are finding the space, the power, and the resolve to be known and heard. And every day, we are learning so much more about our role in mitigating the virus. It’s quite astonishing, actually, after just four months, just how much has happened and just how far we have come. 

When I picture the opening scene in this week’s Torah portion, I imagine him standing, in front of the Israelite people, with a trace of nostalgia in his eyes. With the confining wilderness cocoon squarely behind him, and with the image of the Land of Israel – the land of freedom and promise – just over the horizon, Moses begins his final address to the Israelite people, with wistful words of memory: “For forty years,” he says to them, “We traveled the great and terrible wilderness….For 40 years we fought battles; dismantled rebellions; and established systems of order, and justice.”[1]

Or, in other words, what I think that Moses is really saying, is “Look at how far we have come. Look at all that we endured, and look at how we have prevailed. Though we experienced unbelievable loss and devastation along the way – look at how much we have changed and how much we have reinvented ourselves, for the better. Look at how much we have learned about who we are and who we are meant to be. Look at how much strength and how much resilience we discovered within ourselves – more than we ever knew we had.

Fast forward, millions and millions of years, to the summer of two thousand and twenty. The uncertainties of this moment in time are excruciating. And there are so many of them. But, what is certain, is that, someday, we, too, will look back on this time and say: “Look at how far we have come. Look at all that we have endured and look at how we have prevailed. Look at how much we have changed and how much we have transformed. Look at all the strength and all the resilience that we never knew we had.

And look at all the ways – just like that cocooned caterpillar – that we contributed to our own personal and collective growth, throughout it all.

That is what I love the most, about the caterpillar. I love that it uses its own tools – it uses what it has at its disposal – to enable its own growth, its own transformation, its own change.

Sometimes, I get stuck in the mindset that meaningful, large-scale change is dependent upon big, powerful forces and events – or that I need to do something big or something major to make any kind of impact in the world. But all seismic change – from the transformation of a tiny caterpillar into a butterfly, to the creation of new public policy, to the election of a new president – these all unfold with of the smallest, tiniest, most microscopic courses of events over time. Bit by bit, cell by cell, step by step. One small change, one small choice, one small step at a time.

Like delivering one meal to a family That has been hit hard – financially or emotionally – by the pandemic.

Or donating one bag of food a week to a local pantry – there are so many that are struggling to keep up with the growing demand.

Or putting one Black Lives Matter sign in our front yards – we never know who might be paying attention.

Or sending one note of thanks to an essential worker,  who may be on the brink of burnout and exhaustion. We never know how our words of appreciation may inspire someone else to keep on going.

Or calling one senator or representative a day to voice our concerns and our values.

Or helping one person be able to vote.

Or, on one or two days, maybe it’s simply making the decision to get out of bed and get dressed in the morning.

Maybe it’s simply making the choice to trust and believe that, despite it all, the world still needs me – despite it all, I still have something to give.

And then, someday, perhaps it will be during the Season of Butterflies,  when we will look back and we will say: look how far we have come. Look at how much we have transformed and how much we have grown. Look at how much we have learned and how much we have changed, as a result of that time in our cocoons. Look at all the beauty and all the butterflies that now exist in the world, because we helped to make it so. Bit by bit, cell by cell, step by step.

That time of looking back will come, I know that it will. It is the way of nature. It is the way of the world. It is the way that God intended it to be.

[1] Parshat D’varim, Deuteronomy 1:10-3:22