Earth Etude for Elul 17: Butterflies

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

I live on the prairie, in the Prairie State of Illinois. Not a “Little House on the Prairie,” a big house, but there are vistas that remind me of that show. In a county that is known for its dairy farming. Borden Milk came from here. The library is the Gail Borden Public Library. That Borden. The house across from the synagogue is known as the “Butterman’s House” because the prices for butter as a commodity were set there. There was even a documentary called “From Dairies to Prairies.”

Once, before it was farmland, it was mostly prairie. Now there are only 6 square miles of prairie in all of Kane County. This past year in the Jewish liturgical calendar was a shmita year, a year the land lies fallow. Our congregation tends a community garden which feeds into the soup kettle’s nightly meal, wrestled with what to do. Should we not plant anything? Do we still need to continue to feed the hungry? What could we do for Tu B’shevat, the new year of the trees, where traditionally we start the seeds for the community garden.

A compromise was reached. For every household, in the congregation, we sent seed paper in the shape of butterflies, enough seeds to plant a pollinator garden, a small butterfly garden, in the hopes that we could help restore the prairie to its natural state.

We thought this would be important in terms of the long term health of the environment. We envisioned increased wildflowers including milkweed, the only host plant for monarchs. Monarchs need milkweed for fuel as they migrate long distances between Mexico and southern Canada. We thought we’d see a return of bees and butterflies.

It was a small way to begin to heal the earth. To be partners with G-d in taking care of creation.

We didn’t know just how important it might be. Especially this year. This is the year that the International Union for Conservation has put the monarch butterfly on the endangered species list.

In Elgin, there are groups that actually raise monarchs and release them. This year has been especially difficult for those groups. Christ the Lord Lutheran Church, who we partner with, sponsors The Monarch Ministry which reported very low survival numbers during the first generation. While milkweed is plentiful, pesticides make it unusable. When the chrysalises are formed and the Monarchs finally emerge, the caregivers rejoice and send them on their way. 

One Rosh Hashanah when my daughter was a restless three year old, three generations traveled to Point Pelee National Park, the southernmost tip of Canada to see the migrating monarchs. We camped. We enjoyed apples, challah and honey. We blew shofar at dawn. It may have been my favorite Rosh Hashanah and the last we spent together with my dad, one of the first to use the term ecologist.

As I began to write I heard an old poem in my head, “The Last Butterfly” written by Pavel Friedman before his death in Terezin, collected in a book, I never saw another butterfly, and turned into a cantata as well. ”Butterflies don’t grow here in the ghetto.” were his haunting last words.

When I returned home from my hike in the Kame Prairie, I spied it. Milkweed that I had planted from the butterfly seed paper. Will it enable a monarch to return? I hope. We owe it to our children and children. We owe it to Pavel.

What can you do?

  • Plant more butterfly gardens including milkweed.
  • Use less pesticides and never on or near milkweed.
  • Join others who are raising and releasing monarchs.

In this season of teshuvah, return, help us heal the earth and return the prairie to its natural state.

The Single Monarch

White cotton candy clouds fluttering

Deep blue sky

Bright yellow native sunflower

And there, just about the milkweed

I spy it.

A monarch

Just one


Floating on air

Riding the currents

Darting back and forth

From one milkweed pod to the next

Black and orange

Painted patterns

Making me smile


Hints of summer days long gone

I wonder

Are they carefree?

How could they be?

What have we done?

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi at Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She enjoys hiking through our local forest preserves, reveling in the beauty of creation and finding ways to preserve and conserve this earth in an age of climate change. She blogs as the Energizer

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