It’s Elul, and I’ve begun molting. That’s a seasonal process whereby critters shed their protective outer-layers to form new, more expansive ones. Someething like trading in for this year’s new model. So I also shed my exoskeleton of old habits and personality traits as I form a new self for the coming year. I know, it sounds scary, but I’ve been doing it for years now and it works fine for me, thank you.

But then I was thinking, hey, this is a lot of work. It renders me super-vulnerable. It expends energy and accelerates entropy. In fact, I just saw a report that says that molting is like ripping out your lungs. It seems bugs are incapable of breathing for the 45 minutes or so that it takes to replace that old shell.

So, I thought, what if I just skip this year and keep my old persona and comfy shell? Who says you can’t gain the wisdom of life while staying consistent in your habits?

That’s when the termite inspector came by. While he was strolling about, inspecting the capsules anchored in the ground around the perimeter of our house, I asked him to describe just how this bait kills off a colony. After all, it’s on my property. What if the neighbor’s dog eats some of it? What if one of my kids finds some?

No problem, he said. It only affects bugs, and maybe other critters that molt their shells.

That got my ears perked. I needed to know: What exactly does this bait do to molters?

Turns out that termites, like most bugs, molt many times in a single lifetime. (Hey, some bugs do it once every 24 hours!) When they molt, they can even replace broken limbs and other apparatus. At certain points, they even get to shift their role and become big, tough guards or flying swarmers, or reproducers.

But the poison in this bait inhibits the production of chitin, a substance much like the keratin that your fingernails are made of. No chitin, no molting.

So what happens to a termite that doesn’t molt?

“Well,” answered the termite guy, “It doesn’t stop growing. But there’s no room for it to grow.”

“So it just blows up?”

“Right. Explodes. Real ugly.”

“All of them?”

“One by one.”

The apparition of my neighbor’s cat theoretically exploding all over my daffodils after imbuing a whiff of termite bait suddenly shook my conscience. Tell me this can’t be so. I have enough nightmares of insect cousins returning for vengeance after having destroyed the hornet metropolis-nest in the backyard last month.

So I searched for some real laboratory research on the web. But it seems nobody has actually observed a single termite under the influence of noviflumuron, the active ingredient in this anti-termite mix. Nobody’s really interested in individual termites. The colony is annihilated within a year and that’s all that matters.

What I did read, however, was enough to shake me up a little:

…The active ingredient, noviflumuron, gets shared within the colony and prevents termites from maturing through molting.

…The insect growth regulator noviflumuron controls subterranean termite colonies by preventing juveniles from developing into adults after they ingest the product.

…It interrupts the termites' necessary ability to molt, which means they are unable to grow and, therefore, die.

Let me summarize:

  • If I don’t molt, I don’t mature.

  • If I don’t mature, I stay forever a juvenile.

  • Actually, I won’t stay forever a juvenile, because not growing is, well, let’s just say the opposite of life—no matter how much wisdom you think you’ve gained.

The point is, that was just what I needed to hear. There’s no way I’m going to stop growing. Every day you learn something new, gain new insight or wisdom. But there’s this shell, this self made of habits and well, just my old, comfy modality of being. Gain all the wisdom you can, but if you don’t shed your old exoskeleton-habits for a new set, what good could come of that wisdom?

Like Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says in the Mishnah:

Someone whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, what’s he like? A tree with lots of branches and few roots, ready to be uprooted and tossed on its face by the first wind.

But someone whose deeds outnumber his wisdom? He’s a tree with a lesser branch-to-root ratio. Let all the winds in the world come and blow—this guy’s not budging. [Green, resilient, serene, fruitful… read the rest in Avot 3:17.]

Roots, shells—different metaphors, same idea. Right now, I’m working on a new shell-root-habit of studying halachah with a friend for half an hour every morning before breakfast.

I’ve also started giving a dollar to tzedakah twice a day on a new app built for that purpose.

Then there’s my new habit of smiling to people when I see them. Totally against the grain. Yes! Go for it, Freeman!

And I switched the kind of socks I wear. Just for the sake of changing habits.

If I work hard at it, I figure maybe I can grow some antennae, or a proboscis. Well, at least I could change my role in the colony.

As to the unsavory question of what happens to individual termites if they never change that shell—better not to think about it. I’ll continue molting, thank you.

So what’s your new shell all about? Share with us and we’ll share with you.