A Story of Three Worms: Preparing for the Season of Earth

Isaiah, in a discourse on humility, calls Israel a worm. Yet the worm teaches us many kinds of wisdom, now only lowliness. This essay on Jewish sacred texts about worms prepares us for autumn, the season of earth, by considering what we can all learn from creatures who use the earth as nourishment.

“Each person should consider himself as a worm, and other creatures his friends in the world.”
Baal Shem Tov

This is a story about three worms: the earthworm, the silkworm and the shamir worm. The earthworm is one of the humblest of all creatures. Its home is beneath the earth where it scavengers in every direction, consuming lifeless organic matter and expelling nutritious binding material. Earthworms have five hearts, breathe through their skin, and have no teeth.

As we prepare for Tishrei, the season of the earth, let us take a moment to ponder the lowly worm, “less than human and despised by people.” (Psa. 22:7) Seemingly insignificant and usually unseen, this tiny creature plays a crucial role in tilling the soil to make room for air, water, and roots. As it crawls through the earth, devouring every bite in its path, passing it through its tubular body, it makes its thankless path, with all its strength. Its castings allow the soil to stick together, helping plants grow.

What would our lives be like if we used all of our being to fulfill our purpose? What if each ounce of sweat we as humans produced served as nourishment for another of God's creations? When we begin to understand the worm as a simple being that is able to humbly fulfill its God-given mission on, and under, earth, we begin to see that this is a character we may want to emulate, rather than despise.

Shiflut, or humility, an ethical-spiritual value of Hasidism, stems from recognizing the great imminence of the Divine in this world. By recognizing this simple creature’s ability to complete its task, we can be empowered toward completing our own.

The Zohar paints a picture of a silkworm creating a cocoon out of its own being, just the creation of the universe emanated from God. So, in fact, just as a silkworm’s cocoon is made completely of silk worm material, so is everything around us made of God-material: Ein od milvado—there is nothing besides the Infinite One.

Which brings us to the shamir worm, a hero of peace and diligence. Related to the Latin root smiris corundum, the hardest stone besides diamond, shamir was the name given to the worm that was last seen at the time of building the first Temple. Based on God’s commandment, Solomon required that no stone be cut with metal tools, since metal instruments symbolized war and death. Solomon was able to find this miraculous worm, who was also purported to have inscribed Moses’ tablets, in order to carry out the task of cutting the stones that made up the Temple. Pirket Avot includes the shamir worm as one of the ten things created at twilight on the last day of creation.

As the days grow shorter at the end of the summer, the earthworms will descend deeper into the ground for warmth and protection from the cold. As you enjoy our last month of warmth, before you take your fall coat out of the closet, find a moment to step off the wooden floors and concrete. Touch the earth with your feet, hands, body, and explore between the blades of grass a metropolis of God’s creatures.

Sarah Chandler is a Jewish educator and nature activist. She has taught at the Teva Learning Center, North America's foremost Jewish Environmental Institute.

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