I asked the rabbi if it was wrong to kill a praying mantis. The day before, I had scooped up a giant praying mantis – a truly amazing specimen – into a zippable plastic bag so that it would die slowly of suffocation. I thought its carcass might make a fine decoration laid diagonally across a bible or sitting on the keys of a rusty typewriter, so I hunted it down and captured it. I figured people swat mosquitoes all the time – no problem. Is one insect higher than another?
Mosquitoes bite, but what about butterflies? Is killing a butterfly for sport a sin? What about an ugly moth that merely annoys you? Do Jews believe in sin? I told the rabbi it was a moot point, because when I saw the small beads of perspiration around the face of the praying mantis collecting as condensation on the inside of the bag, it looked like a person in a cage and I decided to set it free. But would it have been so wrong to kill this common insect to use as my elegant ornament? The rabbi answered my question with a question. Why does this question trouble you?
I remembered the time I accidentally trampled a fallen songbird’s egg. The baby bird inside had already died, but when my sneaker met the sidewalk and slid on it, the violence of the cracking accused me. I remembered the time I caught a butterfly and put it in a jar with a cottonball of alcohol. I wasn’t prepared for the frantic reaction. By the time the butterfly expired, its wings were chipped and broken and the color was shaken off in blotches, powdering the tops of the cottonballs.
Emerson once said that when you give something away, a part of it always stays with you, that even as the arrow leaves you, the tail of the arrow remains, that a bond eternally connects the giver and the receiver, that the fragrance of gardenia lingers, that gunpowder stains your fingers.