Annie Dillard writes:
The more nearly spherical is a grain of sand, the older it is. “The average river requires a million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles,” [the American physicist] James Trefil tells us. As a sand grain tumbles along the riverbed—as it saltates, then lies still, then saltates for those millions of years—it smooths some of its rough edges. Then, sooner or later, it blows into a desert. In the desert, no water buoys its weight. When it leaps, it lands hard. In the desert, it knaps itself round. Most of the round sand grains in the world, wherever you find them, have spent some part of their histories blowing around a desert. Wind bangs sand grains into one another on dunes and beaches, and into rocks. Rocks and other sands blast the surfaces, so windblown sands don’t sparkle like young river sands. “We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion,” [the French paleontologist] Teilhard said. (For the Time Being)
The beach, with its waves, never ceases to stir my heart. I did not know the sand beneath my feet, and crushed between my toes, had traveled so far. I did not recall that it once began with such sharp, hard edges.
Yom Kippur reminds us that we have at best a mere 120 years to smooth out our edges. We are but imperfect specks of sand.
The Unetanah Tokef prayer concurs:
Our origin is dust,
and dust is our end.
Each of us is a shattered urn,
grass that must whither
a flower that will fade,
a shadow moving on,
a cloud passing by,
a particle of dust floating on the wind,
a dream soon forgotten.
And yet we are buoyed by each other. Taken together and standing as one community we can become like a magnificent beach. We are held together by the we of Ashamnu. We say, “For the sin we have sinned…” We are strengthened by “we.” We are weakened by “I.”
Yom Kippur reminds us of our imperfections. It shouts about our potential insignificance. And yet Yom Kippur also affords us the opportunity to smooth out our mistakes and errors. We are carried by the recitation of “we.” We are sustained by community. We are carried by the breath of others. In their “we” I am strengthened.
Only when carried by time can the grain of sand become smooth. Only by standing with others can this grain become significant.