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Murmuration and Transformation: The Power of a Swarm

December 24, 2021

Murmuration and Transformation: The Power of a Swarm

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Shemot.

This week, I had the opportunity to study with Rabbi Adina Allen at the Jewish Studio Project. She called our attention to the Hebrew word sheretz, which means “swarm.” In this week’s parashaShemot, the new Pharaoh in Egypt uses sheretz to describe the exponential growth of the Israelites in Goshen. Pru vayish’r’tzu vayirbu: they were fertile and they swarmed and they increased. Pharaoh’s decision to impose hard labor on the Israelites is based on his fear pen-yirbeh, “lest they increase.”

So for Pharaoh, swarming is a bad thing, something to prevent. But another place we see the word sheretz is back in Genesis 1, when God is creating the world and filling it with living things. Exponential growth is exactly what God wants. Yishr’tzu hamayim sheretz nefesh chayah, “let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). Humans too, are commanded, pru ur’vu, be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:22).

Whether a swarm is a good thing or a bad thing likely depends on who’s asking. For God, of course, swarming is not only permissible. It’s the goal. It’s a biological imperative. But for this new Pharaoh, watching this foreign people grow and flourish in his country feels like a threat to his sovereignty, something that must be stopped. He can only see this people as a swarm, and not as individuals or groups who might be a valuable part of society.

In order to better understand this word, we took some time to explore different ways that animals swarm. I learned the magnificent word “murmuration,” which refers to a group of birds, typically starlings, coming together to fly in unison. There are a few theories as to why they do this: to protect themselves from predators, to share information about where to feed, and to keep themselves warm at night.

How they do this is a bit more of a mystery. There is no leader in a murmuration of starlings. Somehow, the birds are able to attune themselves to one another, and pay such close attention to each other’s movements, that they can change direction at the same time.

Laura Weber, associate director and retreat coordinator for Prairiewoods, writes: “A little biomimicry might go a long, long way for what ails the human family. For many decades, humanity has been suffering the deleterious effects of rampant individualism, static hierarchies, and toxic power-grabs for natural resources that are perceived as commodities to be plundered and exhausted at will. For an Earth in peril, what we need now is a murmuration, an intense connection with mini-pods of collaborators who fly so closely attuned they can sense subtle shifts of the interconnected whole, the wider “We.” … We have to become quieter. We have to pay attention. We have to find a fixed point of reference, like the common good, or our rooting place, Earth, to keep us all together. We have to go with the flow, only shifting when a critical mass is shifting, separating when necessary, avoiding collision by separation, and aligning with the nearest neighbors to maintain appropriate speed and distance.”

Another swarming creature we talked about was the locust, and this part really blew my mind. Apparently, locusts don’t start out as locusts. They start out as a particular species of grasshopper, and they might live much of their lives that way. But in times of scarcity, author Sophie Strand writes, these grasshoppers “suddenly start to “bump” into other grasshoppers. Something about these interactions triggers the formation of a chaotic, yet coordinated group called a swarm. This group activity actually transforms their very bodies, turning the grasshoppers into larger, stranger creatures called locusts.”

These different models of swarming can provide us with two different ways of thinking about our own understanding of individuality and community.

The murmuration of starlings raises one set of questions: How do we better tune into one another? How do we pay more attention to the shifting winds around us, to the movement and direction of our neighbor? Is it possible for us to be so aligned that we can move forward together in a harmonious, almost instinctual way, without the direction of a leader? And when is that the right way to move?

And this molting of grasshoppers into locusts actually raises the opposite question. It is rare that group dynamics are as peaceful as a murmuration of starlings. I was struck by this idea that grasshoppers coming together, even in a chaotic way, can lead to transformation. That we need to bump into each other, to clash with one another, to experience friction with one another, in order to become who we are meant to be. And when we experience this friction, we might ask ourselves: how are we going to let this chaos change us?

We aren’t going to answer these questions tonight. But I thought they were worth considering, as we move through another season of tumult and change. And as we move deeper into the winter season, I thought I’d share this poem by Mary Oliver:

Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.