Locusts are bad news. In this week’s parashah, God deploys a swarm of locusts as the eighth plague: “They ate up all the grasses of the field and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left, so that nothing green was left … in all the land of Egypt” (Ex. 10:15). The “thick mass” devastates, pillages, and destroys, leaving nothing in its wake.
No wonder the Amalekites are referred to as a swarm of invading locusts (Judges 6-7). No wonder locusts are an evocative metaphor employed when Jeremiah describes the Babylonians (Jer. 46) and Nahum describes the Assyrians (Nah. 3). No wonder they are a curse against treacherous Israelites (Deut. 28:38) and an image of the End of Days (Joel 1-2).
Why, then, are we explicitly allowed to eat them while almost all other insects are forbidden (Lev. 11:20-22)? What is to be learned from our permission to consume that which devours everything in its path?
Here’s one possible answer: Making locusts kosher redeems them from their ignominious reputation. There’s still a lot to be concerned about, but ultimately they’re not all bad.
The same is true today of the produce we eat in our daily lives. Much of the fresh produce we consume is hand-picked by laborers whose working conditions often fall below the minimum standards required by law. Take tomatoes for example: Until recently, any fresh American tomato you found in a grocery store, restaurant, or cafeteria between November and May probably came from Florida, and it was probably picked by someone living in the town of Immokalee. These tomato workers – who are the same people who pick strawberries, oranges, watermelons, and more throughout the year – have been paid less than minimum wage, and their basic human rights to health and safety have historically been jeopardized. You might rightly feel guilty eating food from a system that regularly abuses its workers.
But now, many tomatoes are “fair,” just as locusts are kosher. The worker-organized Coalition of Immokalee Workers has implemented a phenomenally successful Fair Food Program that secures fair pay and decent conditions for nearly all of Florida’s farm workers. Restaurants such as Burger King, McDonald’s, and Chipotle and grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Walmart, and Trader Joe’s have agreed to pay farm workers more and to ensure the protection of their basic human rights. Visit www.fairfoodprogram.org to learn more - and be on the lookout soon for a Fair Food label just like you might look out for a kosher label. This will tell you the tomato came from an ethically stable American farm!
As Jews, we seek food that’s “kosher” or “fit for our consumption.” Remembering the plight and redemption of the locust can remind us that even when something seems overwhelmingly negative, there’s always a ray of light we can latch onto. And that holy connection can bring each of us, bite by bite, a tiny bit closer to the ultimate Source of our sustenance.