Eating Earthworms: The Challenge and Call of Rosh Hashana (Rosh Hashanah Eve 5777)

“Earthworms taste of slime and the land.  They are the ultimate local food and each has a very distinctive quality.  Worms from Chablis have a long, mineral finish.  Worms from Picardy are musty, tasting of decay and splintered wood. Worms from the Somerset Levels have a stolid, unfashionable taste of leather and stout. . . .  The tastes vary with the seasons but not as much as you’d expect – it’s more that they change the tone.”

I pass along this gastronomic information not because I am, myself, an earthworm connoisseur.  I am quoting British naturalist and veterinarian Dr. Charles Foster who in his book, Being a Beast, describes his quest to deeply understand the experience of a range of animals by living like them for a period of time.  The intimate knowledge of worms’ taste and mouth feel come from his time living as a badger – an animal whose diet is 85% earthworms.

His fascination for animals began in childhood when he would look blackbirds in the eye and feel a strong desire to know their inner experience.  Young Charles did everything he could to know about the inner life of the blackbird.  He sat for hours in the local library, reading every paragraph that mentioned blackbirds and taking painstaking notes.  He mapped out the bird nests around his neighborhood and visited them every day with the help of a stool he carried around.  He had a drawer in his bedroom full of blackbird egg fragments, sniffing them every morning to try to enter the head of a nestling.  Yet for all his efforts, his reading, his research, his collecting . . .  the blackbird remained as mysterious as ever.

As an adult, Charles sought to do better to understand the experience of non-human creatures.  He spent time immersed in the actual physical daily lifeof a fox, an otter, a red deer, a swift and a badger.  He caught fish with his teeth, overcame his fear and claustrophobia to sleep in a dark underground tunnel crawling with ants, smelled his way around a meadow, and, yes – learned to eat earthworms.  And for sparing you many graphic detailsof that particular experience – “You’re welcome.”

Particularly noteworthy about Charles Foster’s quest is the lesson he learned early in life: that simply accumulating facts about another –reading, watching, collecting – is a superficial kind of knowing.  It is not a real understanding.  His effort to form a true connection with the animal kingdom had to take a much deeper form.  He had to set aside his own human assumptions about how one is to experience the world – many of his lifelong habits, his human reliance on his sense of sight, his viewpoint from 6 feet above the ground – and step inside the animal’s existence.

If he wanted to know what it is to be a badger, if he wanted to bridge the gap between him and the badger — he couldn’t just study a badger from a distance.  He had to – as best he could given his human biology – be a badger.

This evening, we joinJews around the world as we usher in Rosh Ha-Shana, the start of the new Jewish year, a day when our tradition teaches that the world is created anew, as each of us is created anew. As you may know, Rosh Hashana is literally translated as Head of the year:  Rosh is head and Shana is year. But Shana does not simply mean ‘year:’ the Hebrew word, Shana, also means change.

So Rosh Ha-shana – the name our early rabbis gave to this day – does not simply mean, “head of the year.”

It means head-changing – mind-changing.  We are not truly observing Rosh Hashana unless we push ourselves to undergo a change of head, of mind,  of assumptions onto which we cling about the world and about others in the world.

Charles Foster knew he could never understand wildlife when he was locked into his own viewpoint, his own perspective, but instead needed to immerse himself in another way of being in the world.

So must we understand that we cannot connect or understand other human beings without letting go of our sense that our truth is the whole truth.  Each of us has a life narrative formed from our personal background, our family and culture of origin, our personality and temperament, and a lot of luck of the draw.  And there are also many other people with different narratives based on their own circumstances and backgrounds and interpretations.

Why is it crucial that we embrace this reality?  That we acknowledge that there are many human truths to which we need to be open?

On an individual level, each of us cannot truly thrive if we are trapped within our own narrow experience, defining this world only by our own personal narrative.  There is no room here for intellectual or spiritual growth: the purpose of this Jewish season.

And because on this Rosh Hashana / our world lies in the balance.  If we do not push ourselves, at times uncomfortably, to reach out – to bridge gaps of understanding between and among people of differing backgrounds, social strata, cultures, religions, races, abilities, identities, orientations / then we will crumble – a humanity too fractured and broken to move forward.  Much is riding on our ability to lead the call to change our heads at this head of the year.

So how do we take steps in that direction?

Compared to spending our days as a badger, it may seem like we could handle connecting with another human being pretty darn easily.

Yet as anyone here who has immersed yourself in a culture or country different from the one you grew up in knows – whether you started in the States and went elsewhere or started elsewhere and ended up in the States – it can be scary and disorienting to live an unfamiliar life with customs and mores and assumptions you may not have previously encountered.  And even within our own country, there is such a wide array of cultures, languages, socio-economic positions, family configurations, life circumstances.

Our natural inclination is to surround ourselves with people whose experience is just like ours – to listen only to voices saying exactly what is comfortable and familiar for us to hear.  Honestly, the act of opening one’s self to a different perspective can sometimes feel as personally discomforting as biting into an earthworm.

Yet anyone who has taken that bite – metaphorically, of course – knows that often when you do immerse yourself in another culture or community  – and you approach the experience with openness and the right intention – your understanding of life, of the world, and of yourself is expanded.  What may start as feeling unpleasant may end up bringing you unexpected gifts.

But this isn’t terribly practical.  Immersing ourselves in a long-term cultural exchange either within or outside of the United States is not something most of us are able to do.  So our question on this Rosh Hashana is:  “Is there still a way for us to bridge cultural or religious or racial or social gaps – to work toward real understanding and connection?”  I believe there is. And we learn how to move toward that goal through the teachings of this ancient holy day.

What are the major customs we associate with Rosh Hashana?  There is the festive meal at which we eat honey or apples or raisin challah for a sweet new year.  We give tzedakah. We light and say a blessing over the festival candles. We gather in synagogue for special high holy day prayers: Avinu Malkeinu, Unetaneh tokef.

But the central mitzvah – the primary and unique religious obligation of Rosh Hashana is – oddly – nothing that we actually do. Unlike many mitzvot, it is not an action at all.

It is the opposite of an action:  it is the mitzvah of listening.  Of hearing.  The mitzvah of Rosh Hashana is – as we say in the centuries-old blessing – “Lishmoah kol shofar.” To hear the sound – literally, the voice – of the shofar.

Our central Rosh Hashana mitzvah is to silence ourselves so as to welcome the sound – the voice – of something from the outside.

Our teacher, Maimonides, taught that we fulfill this Mitzvah of the shofar only when we carry it out in two distinct steps:

One: We must hear the shofar.

Two: We must be internally moved by hearing its sound.

Hearing without having the shofar’s voice affect us, move us, change us is not an authentic Rosh Hashana experience, teaches Maimonides. He writes, “[the shofar’s call says,] “Look to your souls. Improve your ways. Abandon, each one of you, your mistaken path!”

We learn on Rosh Hashana – the day of changing one’s head and mindset – that the primary route to making that happen is:

·       to be quiet

·       to listen

·       to take what we hear into our minds and hearts and souls

·       to welcome the change that our hearing creates in us

On Rosh Hashana day, we are to hear the voice of the shofar and be moved by it.

The day after Rosh Hashana, when we go out into the world, we are to hear the voices and perspectives of others and be moved by them.  Not to hear in order to argue or to defend – to hear for understanding. To hear so that our world can take a step toward healing.

I’ve been blessed in my life to have had the opportunity to dialogue with other faiths and cultures – to do non-profit work and refugee resettlement work where I had the opportunity to hear and be changed by stories of people whose life journeys are so different from mine.

For ten years I worked as a hospital chaplain, and it was my professional responsibility to listen – with openness and without judgment — to people’s stories and their personal interpretations of their lives and the state of the world.  A hospital chaplain’s training involves learning to create a respectful space for patients and families to speak their minds and hearts.  My job was, in part, to hold my tongue.  And it wasn’t always easy – my Boise hospital drew heavily from the outer reaches of rural Idaho where opinions about religion and society-at-large didn’t necessarily align with my own.  I sometimes had to quite literally bite my own lip to keep myself quiet.

But that training and discipline – at first emotionally uncomfortable – brought gifts of human connection that not only brought healing to patients but spiritual and emotional growth to myself.

When I was thinking about a personal story I could share about the power of listening, one from my hospital chaplaincy experience jumped out at me.  It’s not a particularly dramatic one, but merely a simple encounter that nevertheless really touched my heart.

I enter the room of an older woman and introduce myself as the hospital chaplain.  About a minute into our conversation she begins to quote New Testament teachings about God and who the Bible teaches is really saved.  She asserts her views about the many Christians who do not understand the proper Bible verses in the right way and the dire consequences that will result.  Her tone is angry and defensive and she tries to feel out whether or not I am on the same theological page.  But she also speaks about her hospitalization and some current circumstances of her life and I am able to hear beyond her strict interpretation of Christian Scripture and hear the vulnerability – the understanding of her mortality – her worries for her children and grandchildren. I listen attentively and her words stir compassion in me for her concerns.  After a time I have my hand on her arm.  My openness and her openness bring a spiritual presence into the room. We immerse ourselves in our shared experience.  But she keeps coming back to the correct interpretation of Scripture and, truthfully, I am feeling pretty anxious that she is going to spring a New Testament test on me which I would clearly fail.  I figure, at that point I’ll be kicked out of her room.

But I stay present with her, focusing on the human, universal emotions she shares.

Finally she asks me directly, “Do you accept the literal meaning of this verse from the book of John?”

I am quiet.  But inside I am panicking.  I am found out.  I get very still.

After a pause, I respond: “I think that my view of God is not the same as yours.”

She looks at me, her expression unchanging. I hold my breath.

Finally, she responds:  “Well.  That’s okay.”

That’s okay?  Moments ago she made it very clear that God would be sending me to hell.   Yet the simple act of listening had built a human bridge between us.

And the power of that improbable connection – a connection made purely by the power of respectful hearing – makes me emotional to this day.  I ended up having a very sweet and extended visit with her again before she was discharged.  She did not bring up the Bible verses.  Her theology was most likely unchanged but the encounter helped heal and expand her.  As it healed and expanded me.  We each had a preconceived notion of the other, which could have made it easy to dismiss each other’s humanity.  And now that was all changed.

It is easy to connect with people who are the same as us.

Our responsibility in this new year is to find a way to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of connecting with people who are not the same as us. Of immersing ourselves in the stories and truths of people who have lived different lives. Doing this as a volunteer, as a participant in a community activity, as a member of an interfaith dialogue, as someone who reaches out in friendship to someone new and unfamiliar.

As Charles Foster learned in his lifelong quest to connect with the non-human world, we don’t connect by reading about others from afar.  We build connections through the more uncomfortable but ultimately fruitful act of laying aside our own assumptions in order to open ourselves to the humanity of others.

As Rabbi Gamliel taught 2000 years ago: “If you lay aside your own will for universal good, God will help others to set aside their own will for you.”  In other words, if we make the first step to become open to hearing the stories and concerns of others – we help create an environment where others are encouraged and moved to do the same.

We know this doesn’t always work.  Certainly, so did Rabbi Gamliel who lived during the tragic time of war when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed.

But it works more often than you might think.

On this day that Torah calls, “Yom Teruah” – the day of hearing the call – may we hear the call to open our hearts, change our heads and change the world.

At least you don’t have to eat any earthworms.

Shana tova.