As we approach Yom Kippur, I would like to share one of my favorite stories. The narrative encapsulates the spirit of the day and our anticipation for forgiveness.
The story is recorded in a little book, The Language of Faith by Robert Dewey. A man and a boy, in a lonely vigil, share a seat on a train ride to Smithville.
The man first notices the boy when he is coming down the aisle and, when the train gives a great lurch, he finds himself flung into an unoccupied aisle seat next to the boy. Surprise cannot hide the anxiety on the boy’s face.
“How old is the boy?” the man asks himself. ‘Is he seventeen or eighteen? What could worry someone so young?”
The man is thinking, “The look on the boy’s face is not easy to explain. Is it shame or guilt? Whatever it is, the boy’s tension is obvious. He pays no attention to any passerby.”
The man wonders if the boy is looking outside but he peers out the window and sees nothing. The man tries to forget the boy by opening up a magazine, but looks up to see the boy’s head drop dejectedly against the window. He notices that the hand against the window is clenched into a fist. The man feels sure the boy is fighting from crying.
The man begins to read and the boy sits quietly. Every now and then the boy steals a look at the man instead of peering out the window. Finally, the boy asks the man if he knows what times it is and when the trains will get to Smithville. The man gives him the time, but he does not know the arrival time in Smithville. “That’s where you’re headed?” he asks the boy. “Yes,” the boy replies.
“It’s a very small town, isn’t it,” replies the man. “I didn’t realize the train stopped there.”
“It doesn’t usually, but they said they would stop for me,” says the boy. “You live there do you?” said the man. “Yes, that is, I used to.” “Going back then?” “Yes, that is, I think so…maybe?” The questions turn the boy back to the window. It is quite a while before he speaks again. When he does, it is to tell the story of his life.
Four years ago, he had done something so wrong that he ran away from home. He couldn’t face his father, and he had left without telling anyone. Since then, he had worked here and there, but never for long in one place. He had learned about the pain in life and he had often been without money. Sometimes he was very sick, usually very lonely, and once in a while very close to real trouble.
Finally, he had decided to go home to his father’s house. For a while that is all the boy says. The man doesn’t press him with questions, but finally he asked just one. “Does your father know you’re coming?” “Yes!” replies the boy. “Then he will be there to meet you, I imagine.”
“Maybe, I don’t know.” Silence again…and a long look out the window…then the rest of the story. “I don’t know if he wants me back after what I did. I’m not sure he can ever forgive me. He has never known where I was all this time, and I’ve never written to him, except for a letter I wrote three days ago in which I said I would be coming home. I know how much I hurt him…he must have been very hurt.”
“In the letter I said I would be coming home if he wanted me to. There’s a tree a few hundred feet beside the little station in Smithville. We used to climb it all of the time…my older brother and me. In the letter, I told my dad to put a sign on the tree if he wanted me to get off the train and come home. I told him I’d look for a white ribbon on one of the branches that hangs over the fence where the train passes. So, if there’s a ribbon on the tree, I’ll get off. If there isn’t, I’ll ride to somewhere else. I don’t know where.”
The train rushes on through the night and once again the conversation wanes. A kind of silent companionship has developed between the man and boy; both are now waiting for Smithville. Suddenly, the boy turns from the window and speaks with such intensity that it takes the man by surprise. “Will you look for me? I’m sort of scared! All of a sudden I don’t know what to expect.” “Sure. I’ll be glad to,” the man replies.
They change seats. Shortly after the man had begun to peer into the darkness, the conductor comes through announcing, “Smithville! Next Stop!” The boy makes no move. He says nothing. He merely drops his head into his hands waiting. The man peers into the darkness. Then he sees it. He shouts so loudly that everyone in the car can hear him. “Son! The tree is covered with white ribbons!”
Whatever distance you may feel from G-d this year, Yom Kippur offers a once-a-year opportunity to come home.
May you and your loved ones be sealed in the book of life for the coming year.
With blessings for your white ribbons this Yom Kippur,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen