Every year for the past 26 years I’ve shared a Yom Kippur Greeting. It tends to be built on lessons that I have learned in the year that has past. This year is no different. The greeting (which starts with a story) is below…
I felt the smile leap around my little group. There was no real cause for it. I just looked up and met the eyes of Auiya and I saw the joy there. And she, my oldest friend, saw the joy in my eyes. And then we looked at the others and we realized we were all sharing the same feeling. Pure joy. There was no exclusion, no back-biting, no clawing for status. Just joy. In that moment, we were together, as the elders had always wanted us to be.
That morning, a once great tree had been brought low by a mite. Like so much of the downwind forest, it had been infected long ago – by us. It had stood, dying, for years. And then, with stone axes and ropes and brute force, the men of the tribe had pulled it down. The crack of the great tree’s trunk was stunningly loud as it finally gave way under the pressure of our collective effort.
Then, the tree lay dead on the ground, ready to be put to its final use.
Our little cohort of young women had grown up together. We’d started with the basics. The first task I can remember us doing is carrying fruit. Our little team of girls gathered into pairs and lifted baskets of fruit, carrying them from the trees where others picked them to the darkened huts where they were protected and stored. Others directed us, telling us where to go and giving us advice on how to carry our loads. That was the beginning. But, slowly and surely, our challenges grew. Sometimes, we would gather fish from the ponds mankind had engineered alongside the river. Sometimes, we would grind the paste every person wore to ward off the insects that dominate our world. Gradually, we grew more and more independent. We were proud of our cohort. The fifteen of us were a capable team. In some ways, we were more advanced than any of the other groups of girls.
But despite all of that work, we had never been allowed to do something this important.
We didn’t know what to expect when the tree had been brought down. We didn’t know why we were there. We assumed, once again, that it was to watch our elders at work. To watch grown men and women do what had to come next. But then the elders had spoken. They had pointed at us. We knew then that we had been chosen. Then the elders did something extraordinary.
They asked everybody else to leave.
We were going to do this alone. There was an almost palpable energy then, as we realized what was going to come next. Once the men and the women and the boys were gone I gathered our little group together and we got to work. First, we moved around the fallen tree, piling the brush and broken branches near the center of the fallen mass. Everything had been infected by the mite we had killed the tree with. None of it could be allowed to come close to our orchards. None of it could be allowed to threaten the trees that gave us life. We did our job conscientiously and carefully. And proudly.
And then we moved on. A runner fetched a small flame from the flame-house and we encircled the tree and then lit the brush we had gathered. The job was simple: char the tree. We had to manage the fire carefully, ensuring that the tree was not turned to ash. We needed only to kill the mites and remove whatever life had taken hold in the already dead flesh of the tree itself.
It was a delicate job. A good result would be charcoal, uniform charcoal. No ash and no living flesh. So, here, we would add fuel to the fire to encourage more burning. And there, we would pull the fuel away and then smother the small fires with thick and coarsely woven blankets intended for that purpose. The entire time we watched the fire with careful eyes. We had to make sure the mites did not ride flaming embers into our orchards. We burned these trees downwind from the orchards, but sometimes the winds around fires are not entirely predictable. And so, we would watch the embers and we would chase any that dared blow towards our crops.
As we watched and acted, the fire spread steadily along the tree. We could watch it burn and we could see, with our own eyes, that we were doing our job perfectly. After us, men would come with stone hammers and smash the tree to pieces. Finally, boys would come and carry the charcoal back into our lands, mixing it with pottery and flesh and eating away at the nothingness of the jungle.
Ours was only one small part of this job. But it was important and we were doing it perfectly. As we watched, the joy spread from girl to girl. In that moment, we all saw our futures. We knew we’d be together for the rest of our lives, having babies and planting and working and enlarging our world. And then we would pass together and give our work to another generation.
That thought filled my mind. Then I felt myself pulled upwards – away from the fire. Suddenly, I was high above the forest, seeing it in a way no man has ever seen it. But when I looked down, I saw nothing.
Everything my people had created was gone.
I searched, but there was no trace of us, no trace of our world. No trace of our people could be seen. I came back down into the forest, but my world was gone. Everything was jungle.
It seemed so real. So real that when I opened my eyes, I wasn’t sure I had re-entered my reality. I looked up and saw the other girls looking down at me.
Their faces were full of care and concern.
“The fire!” I blurted, “We must manage the fire.”
“The fire is out,” said Auiya, “It has been for a day now.”
I looked at her, confused.
“You’ve been away,” said Auiya, “Something happened at the fire.”
“Did you finish it?” I asked, “Did you finish our task.”
“Perfectly,” she said. And then she asked, “What happened?”
I thought about telling her and the other girls who were there. I thought about telling them what I’d seen. But would they mock me then? Would they force me out and exclude me?
What would I do to a girl who claimed to see visions of our world erased? Even if I believed her, fear would make me drive her away. Even if I loved her, I would only offer her false consolation.
I would not solve her fear. And I knew they would not solve mine.
“I think the heat must have gotten to me,” I said, “I don’t know what happened.”
In a way it was true.
I got up from that bed then, uninjured. And I talked to the girls about the fire and about our great success. They were worried about me, but I shared none of my own fear. I acted as if nothing at all had happened. But I knew I needed to talk to someone. Not to the girls and not to the elders. They did not like change or new things. Who could say how they would react? And not to my mother or to the men of our place. I needed to speak to somebody who could help me push back against the nightmare I had encountered.
Eventually, we stopped talking about the fire. The excitement was replaced by simple contentment and not a little worry for me. And then, as night came, the girls lay down to sleep. But I told them that I was not tired. I had slept for a day, after all. Instead, I began to walk through the world. I wanted others to see an aimless girl wandering at night. But I was not wandering. I was seeking a target. I was seeking Tekeo, the strangest man in the world.
Everyone in the world worked together. They built the sluices and berms that trapped fish – together. They planted trees – together. They pushed back the jungle – together. They harvested and built and carved and cooked – together.
But Tekeo did none of these things.
From when we were small children, Tekeo was different. He didn’t play with others. He would wander, fearlessly, stupidly, into the jungle. He would explore, by himself, beyond the edges of the world. The elders wanted to stop him. They wanted to make him useful. Then, they discovered that he was useful. He found new seeds, new insects, new parasites, new animals. He brought things back, things that the world could use. He was only 15, but we learned more because of him.
He made our world stronger.
I went to Tekeo because he alone knew about the world beyond the world. He alone might have had an answer to my nightmare. And because he alone was not truly a part of us, I knew he would not share what I told him with others.
In the middle of the night, I came to his small home. He did not live in the world, but on its edge. The elders feared diseases he might carry. His house was dark, without fire. I opened the door and snuck in, quietly.
I thought perhaps I would escape attention, but instead I heard a whisper, “Naia?”
He knew I was there.
“Yes,” I said.
I could almost hear a smile when he answered, “I am glad you have come.”
I skipped any formalities. I told him why I was there and what I had seen. And I asked him what I must do. He listened quietly and patiently. And then, when I was done, he spoke.
“Naia,” he asked, “Have you ever wondered what would remain should the jungle overcome our world?”
“No,” I said.
“Everything in our world will vanish,” he said, “Our trees are just trees, they will mix with the species that live in the wilds. The river will wash away our berms and sieves. Our thatch homes will be consumed by the jungle. And our bodies will be overwhelmed by insects and humidity and rot. We build with life, and with death everything we create will disappear. Nothing will remain.”
I stared at him, beginning to understand.
“Your vision,” he said, “Is of what will be left when we stop planting and harvesting and clearing.”
I just stared at him. Everything would vanish. And I knew it would vanish. I had seen through the eyes of those who would never know we had existed.
“What do we do?” I asked.
He sat there, thinking for a long while. He did it like it was the most natural thing in the world. Just to think, without speaking to those around him.
Eventually, a smile crossed his face and he said, “I have an idea.”
We stepped outside his hut. And under the cover of darkness, we began to dig. We dug and dug, an enormous hole in the ground. And when the sun came up, we were still digging. The people began to come and watch us and wonder what we were doing. But Tekeo did not explain it.
He said only that it was something he had learned from his explorations.
We worked for weeks, our hole getting deeper and wider and longer. For those weeks, I did not work with my cohort. No one criticized me. Bit by bit, though, I knew I was growing apart from the women who had defined me.
Then, after weeks of labor, Tekeo turned to me and asked, “What do you see now?”
I stared back at him, confused.
“Close your eyes,” he said, “And think of the future. And tell me what you see.”
I closed my eyes and thought of the future. And once again, I was pulled away from myself. Up into the sky above. But then my vision changed. The green trees turned to colors: red and oranges. And then, in an instant, they were gone. And I saw the grey earth below. And there, drawn on the canvas of the land was a dot. Our hole. I opened my eyes. Tekeo was there, waiting.
“I saw it,” I said, “Our hole has survived, below the overwhelming foliage of the jungle.”
He just smiled. Then he said, “I think that is what our people need.”
Tekeo became my prophet. He told the people then of what we were doing and why. He told them of the future. He told them of the messages we would create, to tell the people who came from above that we had once been here.
The elders were angry. Our world was perfect. All were fed. All were happy. Why did we need to think of the future? But we kept digging, and slowly others joined us. They too wanted some part of themselves to survive.
Bit by bit, we built greater and more complex designs. I would check them, viewing them from on high, knowing how others would see them. And Tekeo testified to the truth of my visions. We became leaders of our people. But we were no longer a part of them. We were priests, separate from mankind.
The separation was worth the cost. Our people acquired something new, meaning. We began not only to live – eating the fruit of our garden – but to leave our footprint on the world. We would no longer simply vanish, leaving no trace of our existance.
And I began to love Tekeo. It was he who had made my nightmare become a dream. It was his wisdom that had reshaped the reality only I could see. Before long, Tekeo and I were married.
It was then that he told me there were other worlds, other places mankind had carved out of the jungle. He had traveled between them before, sharing wisdom between peoples. He knew we must do it again. So, together with another and separate from all others, we traveled across worlds. We brought the people who lived within those worlds’ knowledge of the future.
We shared the idea of the future with them.
Everywhere we went, Tekeo lovingly guided the creation of designs only I could see. Slowly, bit by bit, I watched the jungle fill with the stamp of the people who lived within it.
In time, we had a daughter. Like us, she belonged to no world. She was dedicated only to the future. In time I discovered that she too could see what I saw.
Decades passed. We grew old together, honored by the peoples of the jungle as we hobbled between their worlds. They saw wisdom and meaning within us.
And then, while we were travelling between worlds, Tekeo fell ill. He had never been ill before. Somehow, he knew his end was coming. That is why we took one final voyage together. We traveled back to our world, the place where we had been born.
We stopped on the edge of that place, surrounded by the dead trees that marked where our orchards would next expand. There, on the edge of our world, Tekeo grew sicker. There, he died.
The villagers came then. They wanted to help bury the great man. They wanted to take part in his final chapter. But I knew I alone must honor him. It was the greatest honor I could give and the greatest honor he could receive. I prepared his final resting place. It was a bed of coals and pottery; materials that would lock in the nutrients of his body. As with all our other people, he would be made a part of the pottery and coals; so that he could be reborn within the fruit that feed our people. In that moment, though, it did not seem like enough. It seemed like he deserved more.
I knelt there, our daughter beside me. I knelt before the body of the man I loved. The moisture of the jungle filled my lungs and the buzzing of insects filled my ears. I looked at Tekeo’s body, trying to find a hint of the wisdom that had once filled his eyes and the strength that had once filled his arms.
But his eyes had been made hollow and his arms had been eviscerated by death. All I could see was the present.
I closed my eyes then. I willed myself to dream. I begged for a vision. I wanted to know what would become of his memory. But nothing came to me. For the first time in many years, there was no vision. There was only me, my daughter and the shell of the man I had loved.
It was in that instant that I understood. Those who will see the jungle from above will know we were here. We had told them that. But they will never who Tekeo was. They will never know who any of us were. Tekeo’s reality belongs only to us. Humanity is not in monuments, but in the undefinable reality of a people’s soul.
So, I knelt before Tekeo, and honored him as only I could. I carved one little pattern in the soil before him. It was a pattern that will wash away in the next rain. No one would remember it, but all would remember that I had drawn it – an ephemeral reflection of a life of wisdom and action.
My little pattern complete, I covered Tekeo’s body. Then I rose from before him and turned towards my old village.
As I raised my eyes, I saw Auiya, my oldest friend. And I saw her son beside her, a strong young man.
Our eyes met and there was a moment of bittersweet joy.
We had once created charcoal, charcoal meant to preserve the nutrients of the earth. Charcoal meant to sustain our bodies. Now, we would create something more. Together, we would enrich and sustain the soul of our people until the day in which we vanish from the earth.
In the early years of European exploration, one small Spanish group navigated down the Amazon River. They reported seeing massive settlements along hundreds of kilometers next to the river. But when later explorers came, everything was gone. It was assumed the first explorer had heavily embellished his stories. Thus, for hundreds of years, we thought of the Amazon as the world’s only unspoiled wilderness. As clear-cutting spread, though, we began to uncover vast earthworks. They were seen first by people flying over them and recognizing the hand of mankind. We call them geoglyphs. And with every discovery, our assumptions have been undermined. We have learned that a population of as many as five million once inhabited this place, and they defined everything about it. From soils made of pottery, charcoal and blood, to trees cultivated so they could produce all the fruits a society could need, these people fashioned a vast reality in a harsh world.
These people had no metal and few stones. When European diseases came, everything they made, everything but the geoglyphs, was consumed by the jungle. In a world made up only of life, nothing survives death. In this world, one can imagine an existence without past or future. Nothing survives its own life. There is only the garden and the here and now. Everything we know speaks to this reality. Everything, that is, but the geoglyphs. Naia and Tekeo brought holiness – timelessness – to the jungle. Because of them, the people can dedicate their bounty to something beyond themselves.
In the end, though, that is not what mattered. In the end, Naia’s final little act of burial, washed away in the rain, changed those around her in ways that can never measured – but in ways that are more important and impactful than anything we can quantify.
Naia’s power is our power. Interaction by interaction, we can weave ourselves into the society around us. Interaction by interaction, we can contribute to that which truly endures – our societies and our cultures. But not every interaction is equal. The Torah says that evil only lasts a few generations, but that kindness can last for thousands.
This idea is captured in the the central ritual of Yom Kippur. In Biblical times, this was the ritual of Az-Azel. This ceremony involved two goats, proxies for the Jewish people. One goat is offered to Y-K-V-K, the name of G-d that integrates the past, present and future. The other is offered to Az-Azel, which literally means the “Goat of Disappearance”. The sins of the people, their acts of destruction, are placed on that goat.
The lesson of these offerings is simple: We all die, but that which is good and holy can endure forever so long as we cast our acts of destruction into nothingness.
This past year, we have faced many challenges. Those challenges have focused humankind on issues of the greatest scale. In the face of those challenges, we must remember that it is the little acts – the almost imperceptible acts of creation and kindness – that leave the most enduring of marks. We all die, but through our little acts of creation and kindness, we give meaning and light to those who have returned to the earth and to those who have not yet been born.
As with Az-Azel, those acts can use a little help.This is why, before Yom Kippur many Jews ask their fellows to forgive the sins they have committed against them. We cleanse our communities of the destructive bitterness that does not endure. Through this act we seek to strengthen the legacy of goodness and holiness.
As with Az-Azel, those acts of kindness can use a little help. This is why, before Yom Kippur many Jews ask their fellows to forgive the sins they have committed against them. We cleanse our communities of the destructive bitterness that does not endure. Through this act we seek to strengthen the legacy of goodness and holiness.
That is why I am writing this 26th Yom Kippur message.
Whoever is reading this, I want you to know that you are forgiven. Even if I am unaware of something you have done, you can go into the new year with a clean slate. Likewise, whoever is reading this, I am asking you for your forgiveness for any sins I may have committed against you – whether I am aware of them or not.
We can not stop death. Nonetheless, with a little help, our spiritual legacy can endure beyond our physical lives.
Shana Tova – may you be blessed with a good, healthy and fulfilling year,
p.s. this story was lightly adapted from my book Medicine. If you are interested in more of my writing, visit www.josephcox.com or (to be an advance reader) email me.
Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT.