Two thousand years before, the armies of Rome had conquered Jerusalem and razed the holy Jerusalem Temple. The Rabbis taught that Rome was not the cause of the Kingdom of Israel’s downfall, but rather the hatred which prevailed at the time between the Jews themselves. The House of Israel was divided within, and this is what brought about the nation’s destruction by a foreign conqueror.
At first, Tevye stood paralyzed. The low flying cloud approached with menacing swiftness. All over the colony, field workers were shielding their faces from a dry, stinging wind. A gusty hamsin was not an unusual thing, but a desert wind had never been followed by the ominously descending black cloud. The Arab workers who had been hired since the start of the strike threw down their tools.
“Jarad! Jarad!” they hollered, running away in fear.
More clouds appeared, one following the other like battalions. A gust of wind blew a dozen locusts directly at Tevye’s face. He swatted at them and watched them fall to the ground. Suddenly, the dense cloud swooped down upon him. Futilely, he tried to shield the corn stalks with his body, but his efforts were hopeless. Hundreds and thousands of locusts rained down on the field. They battered Tevye all over his body. Wings flapped in his face. There was nothing that he could do. Falling down on his knees, Tevye clutched his head in his arms and prayed.
Long minutes passed. When the roar of the storm abated, Tevye looked up. Locusts blanketed all of the corn. The ears were invisible. The stalks had turned into columns of the Heaven-sent demons. The corn field had turned into a forest of locusts.
All over the settlement, the scene was the same. Locusts covered the wheat fields, the orchards, the vineyards, and the vegetable gardens. Stalk after stalk, vine after vine, branch after branch, were enveloped with the plague. The shocked settlers were still inspecting the scope of the damage when yet another hot wind blew out of the east and a second black cloud swept over the plain. Defenseless against the great swarms, the Jews ran for shelter inside of their houses and tents. The roar of the locusts sounded over their rooftops like the thunder of heavenly chariots.
Locusts crawled under doorways and battered against tightly closed shutters. With brooms, hysterical women beat at the creatures which fell down from the cracks in their roofs.
By late afternoon, the prisoners could once again venture forth from their houses. The evil wind had vanished, but the army of locusts remained on the crops. Tevye had never seen anything like it. The nearest thing to his memory was a late Russian frost. With sunken expressions, the settlers weighed the devastation. A year’s work was doomed. Tevye’s own tomato patch had disappeared under the heaps of insects in his garden. There were so many of them, he could hear them munching away. When he kicked them off a vine, others quickly took their place. Stunned by the nightmare, he cast a glance up to Heaven. This new plague was worse than the mosquitoes and swamps.
“Are we made out of iron that You test us like this?” he asked, raising his hands to the sky. “Is it fair to send millions of locusts against a handful of men? Why? Tell me why?”
“It’s a punishment from God,” Carmel said, standing beside him, holding their son in her arms.
“Yes,” Tevye said. “We don’t always behave like we should. But if He wanted us to be angels, He should have created us with wings.
Elisha blew on a shofar, summoning the settlers together. After leading the afternoon prayer, Nachman stood before the congregation with a Bible in his hand. Even the striking workers were present, feeling an equal sense of tragedy and loss.
“When a disaster falls upon the community, we are all called upon to examine our deeds,” he exhorted. “All of the feuding, the curses, the words spoken in anger and hatred between brothers, this is the cause of this terrible plague. Listen to the words of the Prophet….”
Not a man in the room made a rustle. Everyone sat in the synagogue and listened intently as Nachman read from the Book. Outside the door, the woman crowded together to hear.
“Hear this, you old men, and give ear all of you inhabitants of the land. Has such a thing transpired in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? That which the cutting locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten. And that which the swarming locust has left, the hopping locust has devoured. Awake drunkards and weep. Howl all you drinkers of wine, because the sweet wine is cut off from your mouth…. Be ashamed, O you farmers. Wail, O you vine growers over the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is perished.”
The assembly was silent. The voice of the Prophet seemed to echo through the synagogue like a condemnation from the past.
“Sanctify a fast!” Nachman read. “Call a solemn assembly! Gather the elders and all of the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord!”
“We have to make peace with the workers!” a settler stood up and shouted.
Other voices assented. Settlers turned toward the non-religious laborers in conciliation and friendship. Everyone shook hands. A fast day was called for the morrow. In the morning, as dawn rose, the locusts still clung to the crops. The corn fields had been wiped out completely. Ears sagged like empty sacks. Here and there, kernels littered the earth. Stalks, like wounded soldiers, wilted lifelessly toward the ground. Not a tomato was left in Tevye’s garden.
Predictably, the Arab laborers didn’t show up. Instead, the striking union returned to the fields. For the first time in a month, the Jews set off together. But no one knew what to do. If they left the locusts alone, the voracious insects would wipe out the crops. But when the settlers tried to beat them away, they flew into other orchards and fields. Most dangerous of all, Elisha told them, was the chance that the locusts might begin to lay eggs. He had seen storms of locusts in Yemen, and they had always left starvation and ruin in their wake. The only thing that could save them, he said, was a wind that would blow the ravenous grasshoppers into the sea.
Like the sands on the seashore, there were so many locusts, they could never be numbered. The settlers decided to try to shovel them into wheelbarrows and beat them with brooms, but the strategy proved hopeless. The enemy was simply too numerous. True to Elisha’s warning, the locusts hopped away onto other stalks. The women of the settlement followed after the men, carrying shovels and sacks. As the men whacked at the locusts, knocking them to the ground, the women scooped them into the folds of the burlap. Not every woman’s stomach was strong enough for the job, and gradually their ranks began to dwindle. But as soon as the settlers cleared one row of stalks, more locusts would fly through the air to replace them. The settlers and workers were finally united at work, but the peace they had made proved fruitless against their common enemy. When they tried to harvest whatever crops they could salvage, locusts swarmed in their faces. Defeated, the workers returned to their barracks, and the settlers retreated to their homes.
The afternoon brought another dry wind and cloud after cloud of locusts. Darkness fell over the colony. Gloom fell over everyone’s heart. Not a furrow or field was spared in the onslaught. The following morning, a feeling of despair hung over the whole yishuv. Not knowing what else to do, a strategy suggested by Elisha was put into action. Settlers emerged from their kitchens carrying all of the pots and pans they could gather. Like a marching band, they walked along the rows of their crops, clanging the utensils together, making a thunderous noise. Startled by the racket, the locusts flew into the air. All morning long, the settlers chased after the demons, pots and pans crashing like cymbals. Determined to win, the Jews chased the unwanted invaders from field to field until they flew off in a cloud further south. With cheers of success, the settlers returned to their fields. But the joy of their victory didn’t last. The damage was almost total. Most of the season was lost. Only the melon crop was spared, and the carrots, turnips, and potatoes which had been in the ground. But at least they had gotten rid of the enemy.
Or so they thought until they took a closer look at the earth and discovered thousands and thousands of eggs!
That night, Tevye slept restlessly. The clamor of the pots and the pans continued to ring in his head. He dreamed of bondage in Egypt and the plagues God had sent to humble Pharaoh.
“Let my people go!” Tevye yelled out in his sleep.
The locust storm lasted a week. After a long, solemn Sabbath, the troublesome eggs had to be gathered. Myriads upon myriads remained in the fields. Workers and settlers alike got down on their hands and knees to pick them out of the soil. Like the pioneers had done in clearing the swamps, ditches were dug and the eggs were dumped inside. After pouring arsenic into the pits, the locust graveyards were sealed. The Jews all prayed that the clean-up would put an end to the enemy, but, as Elisha pointed out, if neighboring settlements didn’t take the same precautions, a new invasion was sure to erupt. Messengers galloped off to coordinate the campaign with the other Jewish colonies along the coast, but no one was certain that Bedouin villages would agree to join in the battle against the eggs to prevent them from hatching. When the clean up was finished, the settlers set to work plowing and planting, as if they were starting anew. Besides the loss of their produce, the poisons used in destroying the eggs cost large sums of money. And five cows were lost when they lapped up a trough-full of groats which had been inadvertently sprinkled with the arsenic used in destroying the eggs.
Shimon was crushed. Here, they had almost proven that a colony could survive without the massive bureaucratic machine of the Baron, and then, as if overnight, the locusts had wiped out their gains.
“It isn’t as bad as all that,” Tevye said, trying to cheer him. “After all, in the beginning we started out with nothing at all. This time, we are starting out with houses, and barns, plus dry, workable farmland, and fields that have already been plowed.”
For all of Tevye’s optimism, the always energetic Shimon was a crestfallen man when he rode off to Zichron Yaacov to put in a request for emergency JCA aid.
Once again, Tevye returned to work in the fields.
“Don’t despair,” he said to himself over and over until the famous Talmudic teaching turned into a song. “Even if a sword is poised to slit a man’s neck, it is forbidden to fall into despair.”
As he walked along scattering seeds into a dry sandy wind, he glanced up at the horizon. At first, he thought that the advancing black cloud was rain. Then he reasoned that it must be a dust storm. But as he stood shielding his eyes from the increasing gusts, his fears were soon proven true. Once again, coming out of the north, locusts flew out of the sky like flashes of angry lightening. A vast cloud spread over the colony as if covering the face of the earth. Like in the days of the Flood, the sun disappeared in the face of God’s wrath. Locusts hopped, jumped, and flew over everything. Wings slashed at Tevye’s face like daggers. Within minutes, whatever vegetation remained in the fields was totally consumed.
Holding his arms over his head, Tevye staggered through unending swarms toward the shelter of his house. Animals cried out in panic as settlers herded them toward the barns.
“How much, O Lord?” he asked. “How much suffering does a man have to bear to prove his devotion to You?”
When he barged open the door to his house, tears were streaming down Carmel’s face. She had been in the field with Moishe and Hannei when the new storm appeared in the sky. Before they could return to the house, the locusts engulfed them. Carmel had lost a hold of the children. They were still wandering somewhere outside in the tempest.
“Where were you?!” Tevye demanded.
“We had just reached the orange grove,” she answered.
In an instant, Tevye was out of the house. Locusts smashed at his face. He couldn’t see two steps ahead of him. Looking down at his shoes, he forged his way through the storm in the direction of the orange grove. Locusts battered him fiercely, darting into his eyes and catching a hold of his beard. Blindly, he staggered forward, shouting out the names of the children. When he reached the orange grove, he heard Moishe calling. The grove was no longer a grove, but a cemetery of leafless trees. Calling to one another, Tevye made his way toward the boy’s voice. Hannei was sobbing hysterically. Her brother lay over her, protecting her from the hurricane of ravaging insects.
“It’s all right,” Tevye said, snatching her up in his arms.
Her face was bleeding from scratches, but otherwise she seemed all right.
“Can you run?” he asked Moishe.
“Sure,” the boy said.
“Grab a hold of my pants,” Tevye told him.
Carrying the girl, Tevye headed back toward the house. Moishe ran alongside him. Once, he slipped, but Tevye held him up by the collar. Battered and bleeding, they made it safely back to the house. With a groan of relief, Tevye collapsed into a chair. His little son, Tzvi, looked up from the floor. Seeing his bloodied father, the child started to holler and cry.
“Wash the blood off of your face,” Carmel told her husband as she rocked Hannei back and forth in her arms. “You’re frightening the child.”
“Thank God the baby wasn’t outside in the fields with you,” Tevye replied. “The locusts might have carried him away.”
Tevye wasn’t joking. In the first plague of locusts, four lambs and a dog had disappeared. Whether they had run off, or been eaten by the locusts, nobody knew. This time, after another week-long invasion, three goats were missing. When God’s wrath abated, the settlers once again took up their pots and their pans and started chasing the locusts off of their devastated property. Once again, the settlers and the union workers got down on their knees to search for the eggs left behind. Ditches were dug and more arsenic was shipped in from Jaffa.
A feeling of hopelessness pervaded the settlement. At night, Tevye had nightmares of slugs hatching into locusts and bursting through the floor of his house. Sleep became a terror. In his weakness, he started drinking vodka again. At an emergency meeting, when Shilo suggested they abandon the area for some other part of the country, at first Tevye remained silent along with everyone else. Then he said no. One place was just like the rest. The Master of the Universe had many messengers, whether they be mosquitoes, marauders, locusts, or wars.
“Since I have stepped foot in Zion,” he said. “I have buried two daughters and a half-dozen friends. I have been shot at by Arabs, stricken with fever, nearly drowned in a swamp, and now I’ve watched hordes of locusts wipe out our crops. If things can get worse, I don’t know how. Therefore I vote that we stay.”
One after another, the other settlers agreed. Almost immediately, their perseverance was rewarded. Shimson returned with the news that the Baron Rothschild was giving them a loan – nothing astronomical, but enough to get the colony back on its feet.
The work of burying the locust eggs continued. Ditches were dug day and night. Everyone anxiously waited for the two-week gestation to end. If the eggs hatched, no one knew if the strength could be found to withstand another assault of the insatiable grasshoppers.
Blessedly, the devils didn’t come back to life. The harsh decree ended. No more black clouds appeared in the sky. But the settlers of Olat HaShachar could only tremble in awe as they gazed out at their fields. The locusts had transformed their property back into a desolate wasteland.
A few days later, the union workers abandoned the stricken yishuv. Once again, the settlers faced the task of rebuilding alone. A horticulturalist employed by the Baron visited the settlement and advised them to let their fields lay fallow for a year. Tevye received the news as if he had been hit on the head with a hammer. Not work for a year? It was out of the question. How would the settlers survive? Rallying the others, he said he was going back to his farming, even if he had to plow and plant his field all alone.
No one responded. No one agreed. Even Nachman and Shirnon were silent.
“Are we going to let a bunch of grasshoppers defeat us?” Tevye asked. “Is that all the mettle we have?”
“Why break our backs working if the Baron is willing to pay us to sit and do nothing?” Sharagi wanted to know.
“Because we came here to work,” Tevye said. “And not to take handouts like beggars.”
Alone, he strode off to the barn to fetch a mule and a plow. Shilo hurried to catch up to him.
“Where are you going?” he asked Tevye.
“Back to work. What about you?”
“I’ve decided to go to America,” the carpenter confessed.
Tevye stopped by the barn. He looked at his good friend sadly.
“America?” he asked.
“Yes. America. I’m fed up with this hell.”
“What do you think you will find in America?”
“I don’t know. But at least it won’t be locusts and swamps.”
“Locusts come in many sizes, and swamps come in many shapes,” Tevye said cryptically.
Whatever Tevye was implying, Shilo didn’t catch on.
“If you were smart, you’d leave this place too before the next disaster strikes.”
“If I were smart,” Tevye answered. “I would have been a rich man like the Baron, and not such a penniless fool.”
“With a smile, he left Shilo standing outside the barn. The mules looked up at him in surprise as he entered. They hadn’t worked in two weeks. Immediately, they brayed out in unison, letting him know they were hungry. Looking around, he spotted a sack of carrots which had miraculously escaped being devoured by locusts. He fed a handful to each beast and chomped on one himself. Selecting a mule from the pack, Tevye gave it a slap on its rump.
“Brains before beauty,” he said, following the brute out the barn door.
Elisha met Tevye on his way to the field.
“Tevye,” he cautioned. “If you plow up your field, you may uncover one of the ditches we dug.”
“So I’ll start a new field,” Tevye answered. “There’s plenty of land. This mule here has strength in its back, even if I don’t.”
He harnessed the creature and hooked it up to the plow.
“Anyway,” Tevye added. “The worst is over now.”
Instinctively, both men looked up at the horizon. The sky was blue and clear. A man had to believe with all of his heart that the Lord would bless his endeavor. For the moment, thank God, there was no sign of locusts. That in itself was a blessing.
Strapping the harness of the plow over his shoulders, Tevye headed back to the fields.
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon.
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