When our second day began, we took a short walk from our motel to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian across the street. After pausing for pictures outside, we ventured into the unassuming building and gathered in a small room where we saw a creation story animated before us. From there, the world opened up.
I’d like to think it’s not the only thing opening up today.
Today’s a special–in fact, for the Jewish people, today was more than just a special day, it was one of our holiest. Today was Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, when we ask for God’s forgiveness and strive to return wholly to God. This day signifies the end of our Days of Awe–the ten days from the Jewish new year on Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, when the gates of heaven are said to close for the year–and it’s a day of fasting and prayer.
Today I’ve been fasting, but I haven’t prayed. It’s hard to “pray” in the typical sense when I’ve been landlocked on campus. I’ve taken a few moments periodically to reflect between classes and conversations about skipping lunch, but it’s in this meager act of fasting I’ve had to find all of my meaning today.
Meanings, sometimes, are best shown through analogy.
I mentioned earlier the Cherokee creation story. It involves the Creator placing fire–which to me sounded synonymous with life–upon the earth, but it landed on an island where no one could reach. All of the animals tried to bring back this fire, but each was harmed by its flames or its smoke. Finally, the water spider wove a basket and carried back a single coal of the fire and the rest, as one might say, is history.
It took ingenuity, but also bravery in the face of many failed attempts, for the water spider to succeed.
On Yom Kippur, our slate is wiped clean. We have–at least, we hope we have–made amends and given forgiveness to those who asked, and in turn asked for forgiveness from those we have wronged. We begin the holiday with Kol Nidre, a prayer whose name means “all vows” and reminds us that all of the promises we have made to God in this last year, all of these promises we have failed to fulfill, are now forgiven. They have been purged from the records and our binding vows to God are now unbound–we are free from the promises we made in error, those promises we simply could not keep.
We are renewed.
We are new people now, not the person we were yesterday or a year ago, not even the person we were last night. We have returned to a pure state, a place of unbridled potential–a place not unlike the world after the water spider returned with fire.
After leaving the small theater, the museum begins with the very earliest ages of human history in the Americas and slowly winds its way from one era to the next, following early Native Americans and the Cherokee in particular, until suddenly you’re walking through a time not all that long ago–and although it feels as if you have exhausted all a museum could offer with every bit of knowledge you’ve now acquired, the journey is truly just beginning.
That’s how I feel on Yom Kippur. I feel as if I have done everything life has offered me; I have done my best and I have met failure and success and I have reached dead-ends and trails that have turned me around. But I have lived–and lived to this moment, this moment in which it sometimes feels like there is nowhere else to go, nothing new to venture toward, no end beyond the end we are staring at. Yet upon the other side of this day, there is new life, new beginnings, new roads to follow upon which we had never been before.
It’s hard to describe this sense of newness to someone who has perhaps never experienced it. It’s a reawakening of both mind and body, of heart and soul. All those places where I felt I fell short, suddenly I can rise above them. All those times I knew I acted against my better judgment, against my moral ideal, against my own logic and conscience, suddenly they are buried behind me and I am no longer held back by the chains of yesterday.
As the museum nears what appears should very well be the end, we find ourselves plunged into one of the darkest moments of all Native American history: The Trail of Tears, when tribes upon tribes were forcibly removed from their homelands and herded across the US after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Up until now, every part of the museum has been flowing forth with words and wisdom–facts you had never known before, or perhaps facts you had simply forgotten, each word placed perfectly upon plaques to guide you from one step to the next.
Now there is nothing.
No words. No plaques. Nothing to guide you deeper but the trail itself.
Without words to focus on, my eyes were forced to gaze at the murals and exhibits illustrating the Trail of Tears. There seems to be no end to the details and the care with which the curving trail was laid out, and certainly, with nothing logical to ground me in facts, my mind was filled only with the emotions before me: Being torn from all they had known, forced to flee to lands they had never seen before, the treacherous conditions they were forced to endure when so many, so many died along the way….
I did some math that evening and realized the Cherokee lost a greater percentage of its people at this time than the percentage of worldwide Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
It pained me to think I’ve been born into the culture that grew from their pain and suffering. It pained me to realize this country I call the land of the free is the same country that tore away these peoples’ freedoms and led to the loss of thousands of lives. Whatever could be done to atone for this?
For a moment it seemed as if the fabric of the universe had been torn in half and I was hanging somewhere on the threads that bounced in between. However, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling; lately, I’ve felt like I’ve been dangling a lot. Moving on campus, moving into an environment completely unlike anything I’d ever had before, it’s made me question many things–what I want to do with my life, what traits I desire in a man, what path I walk upon. I’ve comically told others my career goals are as undefined as division by zero, but somewhere deeper inside me, this statement goes deeper than my career goals: My entire life feels undefined. I feel undefined.
If this trip taught my one thing (and that’s a great if–since it taught me many more things than one), it’s that there is always something more you can learn about other people. It’s hard to think there was so much I didn’t know, and as I left the museum, I departed feeling somehow as if I knew even less than when I had entered it. No, I told myself, I do not know less–now I just know there’s more that I don’t know than I had known before.
This withdrawing of ignorance leaves a great many things desired: More knowledge, more awareness, more experience. They’re not easily come by, and they don’t heal the scars that ages of misinformation and cruelty have sown. Perhaps in sharing this, I can help make others more aware of the amount they don’t know–perhaps in sharing this, I can encourage others to seek out these opportunities to learn and experience. Perhaps, with enough time, these treacherous acts can be forgotten–no, not forgotten, but forgiven.
When I realized this, I saw the torn world begin to sew itself together again–however, these tears still persist in my own life. There are questions I don’t have answers for. There are doubts I have no certainty about. There are steps I must take in which I can only move blindly with no aim in sight. But today is Yom Kippur. Today is the day that life itself begins again. Yes, there are many things in my life that currently lack definition, but in the coming days, weeks, months, year I will have all these things to discover again.
I am a new person. I cannot allow myself to drown in self-doubt because what was true for me yesterday is no longer true today. I have changed–the world has changed–and instead of grasping for what was, I must make sense of what is–where I am and where I am going. I must be like the water spider: Ingenious, but also brave.