Turning Over an Old Leaf

Around the time my daughter began studying the book of Genesis in preschool, my toddler son became obsessed with The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He goes through phases with books, and right now, this is the only book he wants to read, all day long – by the light of the moon or the light of the sun, when hungry or after a snack of two pears, when wrapped up in the cocoon of his favorite blanket at bedtime or when spreading his wings to flit about the park. “Hung-ee catapilla, hung-ee catapilla,” he insists, his appetite for the book insatiable.

Meanwhile, his sister is learning about the creation of the world – how God began with the earth unformed and void, and then filled the world with the sun, the moon, the trees and grasses, the fish and birds and cattle and human beings, before finally God rested. Shalvi wants me to read it all to her from the illustrated children’s Bible we have on our shelf. She takes down the book and thrusts it into my lap, on top of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in its board book version. “Hung-ee, hung-ee,” Yitzvi insists, dropping the illustrated Bible to the floor. He doesn’t know how to win out over his sister, but he delights in shutting her book and witnessing her frustration.

I look at Shalvi sympathetically. She’s going to have to read her book to herself, or wait patiently for one more Hungry Caterpillar rendition. She sighs with visible annoyance as I begin with the egg on the leaf on the book’s opening page. I am reading the book to my son – he is the one who points to all the pictures and determines the pace at which I turn the pages. But I’m trying, this time, to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar through my daughter’s eyes, as she holds the illustrated Bible in her lap and waits patiently for her world to begin.

At first the world is just darkness and potentiality – a tiny egg in a dark world illuminated only by moonlight. This is the darkness of the start of creation, when the world is still unformed and God creates light, but life has not yet emerged. And then there is a sun, and the first creepy crawly things appear, and “pop” – the caterpillar emerges. On each subsequent day, the caterpillar eats more than the day before, and the pages unfold as a series of flaps that grow wider and wider – one apple, two pears, three plums… Each day follows the same formula: The caterpillar eats, but he is still—I draw out the final “l,” then pause and look at Yitzvi. “Hung-ee,” he concludes. In the book of Genesis, each day of creation is narrated with the same repetitive formula: “God said ‘Let there be’… And it was so… God saw it was good… And there was evening and morning.” I can imagine a children’s Bible in which each day of creation appears as an increasingly wider flap: Narrow for the light and darkness, a bit wider for the firmament, wider for the creepy-crawly things, still wider for the sun and moon, nearly a whole page for all the animals. Each day, God creates more and more, but the world is still incomplete. The caterpillar is still hungry.

On the sixth day of the caterpillar’s life, his appetite peaks. Over the course of a full-color two-page spread, the caterpillar eats every kind of food – cake, ice cream, cheese, salami, candy, pie. This explosion of bounty has its parallel on the sixth day of creation, when God makes “every kind of living creature, cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of every kind,” as well as man, created in God’s image. God charges the man and woman to be fertile and multiply and to fill the earth. But the tiny caterpillar in the bottom right-hand corner of the page is full already. He has a stomachache, and can’t possibly eat another bite.

Then comes a period of waiting, of dormancy, of sitting still and holding tight. God sees all that He has made, and finds it very good. And the heaven and earth are completed, in all their array. What is left for the seventh day of the week? The caterpillar builds his cocoon and remains inside for two weeks. It seems as if nothing is happening. The cocoon is large and brown and it fills the whole page – for the first time, we don’t see the caterpillar anymore, with his smile and big green eyes. This is a period of resting, of desisting from labor, of not doing anything at all. This is Shabbat, the day of rest, when we are supposed to imitate God and desist from the work of creation.

We think on Shabbat that nothing is happening. We think that when we stop creating, nothing new will emerge. What could possibly come of resting and staying put, holed up in the cocoons of our homes? Quite a lot, apparently. At the end of the book, when the caterpillar emerges from that cocoon, he is a beautiful butterfly, his dazzling multi-colored wings spread across two facing pages. All that time he was in that cocoon, when it seemed like nothing was happening, new cells were forming rapidly, increasingly and multiplying so that the butterfly might spread its wings and fill the earth.

“Again, again,” Yitzvi insists when we turn the final page, and I know he’s going to give me trouble if I try to read his sister’s book. “Yitzvi,” I say to him calmly, in my most assertive voice. “It’s Shalvi’s turn now. You can listen to her story, and then we’ll read the Hungry Caterpillar again.” He lowers himself to the floor and jumps up and down, preparing for a tantrum. But then Shalvi surprises me.

“It’s OK,” she says, and I can’t believe I’ve heard her correctly. “You can keep reading to Yitzvi. I can look at the pictures of my book for now, and then you can read to me later.” I have never known Shalvi to cede so graciously to her younger brother – usually she competes with him fiercely for my attention. Whence this newfound maturity? How did I miss this transformation? I notice that her brightly colored sweater is getting too small — this might be the last time she wears it. She flies off the couch and alights on the armchair beside me as her squirmy brother crawls back into my lap to hear his story again.
Sometimes I think I can’t bear it anymore. How many times can I read the same story over and over again? I know The Very Hungry Caterpillar by heart, and Yitzvi can complete every line, so we read the book responsively. I chant the book in a tune that has become familiar to us both, pausing each time in the same places: “By the light of the—.” I pause, and Yitzvi bobs his head excitedly: “Moon!” I go on: “A little egg lay on a—.” Again, I pause, and Yitzvi immediately chimes in: “Leaf!” We read through the entire book as a call-and-response, as if I am the prayer leader and he is the congregation’s most vocal member.

Prayer has never come easy for me, and when I read the same picture books again and again, I begin to understand why. The traditional Jewish liturgy is largely fixed and unvarying, with the same prayers recited every day of the week, and additional prayers for the Sabbath. The challenge of prayer is to find meaning in reciting the same words day after day. Our prayers are not supposed to be rote; we are supposed to pray to God from the fullness of our hearts, bringing our fears and hopes to bear. How is this possible when each day we open to the same page and begin with the very same words thanking God for the gift of waking up in the morning: “I am grateful to You, O living and sustaining King, for restoring my soul to my body.”

I try to pay attention to how the words speak to me differently today, in this time, in this place. Why am I especially grateful to have woken up today of all days? Was there reason to think I might not have woken up on this particular morning? Ideally the liturgy becomes a script we act out, each time infusing the words with new resonance, new significance, a new emotional valence. “Lord, guard my lips from evil and my tongue from lies. Help me ignore those who slander me.” What are the evil lies I am concerned about speaking on this particular day? Who might wish to slander me, and why? The liturgy prompts the same questions in me day after day, but my responses are rarely the same.

And yet the purpose of prayer is not to arrive at the answers to these questions; our responses are just a means of forging a deeper connection with the One to whom we are praying. The rabbis of the Talmud (Berachot 26b) credit the forefathers in the book of Genesis –Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—with the establishment of the daily prayer services. Abraham instituted the morning prayer when he prayed on behalf of Sodom; Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer when he went out to the field in the late afternoon; and Jacob instituted the evening prayer when he dreamt of a ladder of angels. None of these individuals was reciting a of fixed liturgy; they were talking to God. In its most fundamental sense, prayer was, and is, a means of communication. The point is not the words spoken or the text recited, but the connection forged.

When I re-read the same board books and struggle not to get too bored, I challenge myself to view the fixed, unvarying text as a springboard for connection. I look into my son’s animated eyes as we come to his favorite page, on which the caterpillar eats the cake and the ice cream and the pickle, etc., and each time, unfailingly, “He was still hungry.” Yitzvi never gets bored. He is delighted each time anew. The phrase “His graciousness endures forever” repeats twenty-five times in Psalm 136, which is recited every morning. I marvel to think that God’s patience could be as enduring as God’s graciousness. Does God never tire of our prayers? Is God still hungry for more?

The Talmudic rabbis note that although grass was created on the third day of creation, it did not emerge from the earth until the sixth day, when we are told, at least initially, that “no shrub of the field was yet on the earth” (2:5). The rabbis explain that for three days, the grass stood poised beneath the surface of the earth, waiting to grow until Adam came and prayed for it to emerge. According to the Talmud, “God desires the prayers of the righteous” (Hullin 60b), and thus aspects of the creation of the world were contingent upon human prayer. Likewise, albeit more problematically, the Talmud teaches that the reason the patriarchs and matriarchs were infertile is because, again, “God desires the prayer of the righteous” (Yevamot 64a). God created an imperfect world so that human beings would have reason to reach out to God in prayer.

If only we could recite our prayers with the same eagerness and devotion with which God receives them. If only I could read to my child with the same excitement the words seem to awaken within him. “Again, again!” Yitzvi insists each time we turn the final page. No sooner has the caterpillar become a beautiful butterfly than Yitzvi wants to turn back time, starting all over with the egg on the leaf. I summon my patience and endurance and return to the first page, to the beginning of Genesis, creating the world anew.

4 thoughts on “Turning Over an Old Leaf

  1. yblubin says:

    Stuff you read my Shabbat email? I don’t do anything I’ve eddies maisl acoustic good(is feeding reainb). Tzvi had green haulrdut9tan

    Dur donton Hubble Tot hours today as well


  2. yblubin says:

    Hi Ilana,

    I don’t know if you even saw my comment from last week – if you did, please ignore (and delete) it. I was obviously responding using autocomplete in my sleep. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

    Loved the piece on the Hungry Caterpillar and Creation. I’m jealous that you still have kids to read to, but I agree that the repetitive of board books can get a bit boring.

    Shavua tov, Yedida


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