Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Fireflies

Jul 21, 2019

At the close of July 4th, the sky darkened to its blackest point.  Sluggish from a filling Barbecue out in the hot sun earlier in the afternoon, I decided to take a walk into the quiet of my backyard, braving the nightly kamikaze pilot attacks of the mosquitos.  My motivation wasn’t to watch the fireworks being shot off downtown at the plaza; as it was, I couldn’t really see them, though their barrage of explosions was noisy enough.  I came outside for nature’s nightly month-of-July performance by the fireflies.

Like those tiny pen flashlights or cigarette lighters, the fireflies alternately glowed and darkened, glowed and darkened, in hundreds of seemingly random spots around the yard. That same sense of hope and mystery I feel when I see lights flash on and off in the darkness of other settings, I felt that night.  Like the intermittent flashing of a lighthouse on a river, a sound or an ocean, the fireflies seemed to magically materialize, typing out a visual Morse code which reminded me that nighttime darkness is neither impenetrable nor permanent.  However, unlike a lighthouse, these lovely lightning bugs were able to silently entertain me with a show of incomparable bioluminescent beauty. Honestly, were I and my insect repellent capable of keeping the mosquitos completely at bay, I could sit outside for hours, uttering not a sound, just watching, awed by their light.

Of course, my entertainment is hardly on the insects’ agenda. Fireflies instinctively light up at night in order to attract mates.  I don’t imagine that their brains are especially well developed.  They don’t do very much, except be born, mate, make more fireflies, and at some point in their lifecycle, die.  I doubt I will ever hear fireflies debating the artistic achievements of a new movie, remarking on their vacations to Hawaii, or arguing about the crowded field of democratic presidential candidates for 2020.  Reduced to their most basic evolutionary dimensions, fireflies are just a bunch of flying beetles with glow sticks attached to their stomachs, right?

Wrong.  I find I always have to take off the blinders of my arrogant, human-centered shortsightedness when thinking about other species. I should not be fooled by fireflies’ relatively low level of evolutionary complexity in comparison to human beings or other more evolved animals.  In some respects, when it comes to brilliance of design and function, they have us beat hands down.  It took us thousands of years to evolve our lighting technology from bonfires to oil lamps to incandescent lightbulbs run on electricity.  For all of our sophistication, we humans can’t light a bulb without an outside power source, and when that source fails, it has the capacity to plunge us into terrifying chaos, at times on a mass scale.  But the humble firefly is able to give off  light through tiny organs built into its abdomen, using an enzyme called luciferase that helps to create chemical compounds which glow.  And those lovely little flashes and persistent glows of light we encounter in a yard full of fireflies?  They are part of a messaging system that allows these creatures to find and mate with their own species. In a way, this is like having a dating app built into your body that results in successful matches one hundred percent of the time.

Yet most significantly, the brilliance of the lowly firefly lies in its ability to leave an overly self-assured human like me utterly speechless when encountering it at night. The sheer gorgeousness of a yard full of fireflies punctuating the darkness of a summer night mesmerizes me, bringing me back to that most childlike state of wonder and amazement at the world and its inhabitants. Why is this?  I don’t know and I don’t care.  All that matters to me is that, without the slightest awareness of their trance-like and transformative power, these tiny insect luminaries become for me an evening prayer:  My opportunity for gratitude to God for the miracles lodging just below the surface of the simplest and the smallest things on earth.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom, a writer living in Albany, and the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel:  A Jewish Courtroom Drama.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

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