The Journey of Return

Yom Kippur 5779

There's a folkstory that many of us know. It appears in the 1001 Nights, but we also get it in a Chasidic telling from Rebbe Simcha Bunem of Pshichta. In that version, we meet a Rabbi Isaac of Krakow who dreams that there is a treasure waiting for him buried under a bridge in Prague. After having this dream numerous times, he sets out to find it. When he reaches Prague and is scoping out the site, he is approached by an official who asks him what he's doing. Rabbi Isaac tells him about the dream, and the official scoffs. “Well, I had a dream also, that there is a treasure under a tile in the kitchen of someone named Rabbi Isaac in Krakow. But you don't see me upping and leaving!” And sure enough Rabbi Isaac returns home, pries up the tile under his stove and finds treasure.


I thought about this story ten months ago as I found myself standing on a hilltop in southwestern Germany at the grave of my great-great-grandfather and namesake, Yitzchak Keller. Because I was there responding to an invitation issued to me in dreams over many years – recurring dreams, telling me to go to this corner of Germany, even though I didn't have any waking reason to do so. It was only after having the dream again, on the eve of my little sabbatical last November, that I decided to finally take it seriously and head for the state of Baden-Württemberg.

It was not meant to be a family history trip, because I didn't know my family was from there. My ancestors had left us almost no clues; at least none that I could find. In all the other branches of my family where my curiosity had reached, I had stories and data to go on.

But the Kellers were a persistent dead end. My Great-Grandfather Herman Keller (whose birthday is today) came to the US in the 1870s, and in his wake he left a discontinuity in the transmission of our history, a breach in memory. I don't think it was intentional, but transmission requires both a transmitter and a receiver; both have to be powered up, working and willing.

Whatever the case, by the time Great-Grandpa Herman was gone, his grandchildren – my dad and my uncle – had no clue where their grandfather had come from. Cousins' guesses ranged from Bavaria to Hamburg to the Black Forest; the last of these, sounding most like a fairy tale, being actually the closest to correct.

Only after I had made my plans and my tickets were bought did I have more dreams that led me to a series of rapid-fire internet discoveries, revealing that this was in fact where Herman Keller, born Gavriel Hirsch Keller (I discovered), came from, and that his father's grave – and his father's father's too – were intact, and standing on this hilltop.

This is the place I visited. No, let me rephrase that. This is the place I returned to. Because this was, or felt like, a journey of return.

Which makes this, I hope, a reasonable story for tonight. Because return is what we are trying to do here, in these Days of Awe. Trying to return. It is our overarching metaphor of teshuvah – of return – that dominates our personal and interpersonal and spiritual work of the week. We don't have a lot of precision around what we mean when we say teshuvah. But we sense it is in part reconciliation, in part apology, in part atonement, and in part cheshbon hanefesh – accounting for ourselves. All of these angles, these elements, that in Hebrew get swirled up together in the word teshuvah – return.

And even though we have varying ideas about what specifically we are returning to, we still know the feel of this work and we do it. We show up every year and do teshuvah as if the wolves of the Black Forest were at our heels. We do it because it matters; we do it because we know we need it; we do it because every year we fear that this year will be our last chance. We do it in anticipation of death.

Doing teshuvah in anticipation of death is not some dark fixation. Teshuvah is meant to be done in anticipation of death. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Eliezer says that one should repent on the day of one's death. And his students object, saying, "But you can't know when you're going to die." To which the sage responds, "Then do teshuvah today, lest you die tomorrow." And so we do teshuvah today, on Yom Kippur, in this reenactment – or pre-enactment – of our own deaths. Not eating, not drinking, wearing clothes that look like shrouds. We "die before we die" as the Sufis say, in order to impel out teshuvah.

But when we make teshuvah, what is it that we are returning to?

Standing on that hilltop in Waibstadt, Germany, I have to say that I indeed felt like I was returning, even though I had never been there. This great-great-grandfather whose grave I stood at shared his name with me – as I discovered he did with his own grandfather, and with his grandson, my Grandpa Irwin, whose birthday is tomorrow. This succession of Yitzchak Kellers made me feel a little bit like a cat with if not nine lives then at least four. Yes, his life was a blank slate to me but, oddly, chillingly, a slate with my name on it. And so when I found him there, with his name – my name – staring back at me in both Hebrew and German, it did not feel like I had reached a destination at the end of some onward quest, but rather that I had returned. The Consolidated Union of Yitzchak Kellers had launched, crossed the ocean, and boomeranged back.

The sensation of this being a return rather than a visit was reinforced by how I felt in the surroundings. Seeing the landscape, seeing the town the Kellers came from with its timber-framed Gothic houses – there was a kind of familiarity there for me. I don't know exactly the source of the familiarity. It could have been from childhood jaunts to excessively German Milwaukee; it could have been the porcelain miniatures of German houses in my grandmother's china cabinet; it could have been mystical or epigenetic or entirely born of my own overactive imagination. But whatever caused it, the surroundings felt familiar, as if I knew the language of the trees and hills and houses, even when I faltered at the language of the people.

So where do we return to on Yom Kippur? Where does our teshuvah lead us? To someplace we've been? To an earlier us? To an us we've never been but have only imagined? And what do we do when we get there? Reconciliation, the making of amends, seems in keeping with the project of teshuvah.

And certainly an American Jew in Germany could easily be a story about reconciliation. Of coming to terms with violence and trauma of the past. But the truth is I didn't have any specific reconciliation to do while there – at least none that I knew of consciously. My ancestors had not been routed out; they had not been rounded up. They had left for a better life in a New World, as far before Kristallnacht as we are after it. They had left for a better life which, I suppose, I am now living.

And in my awareness of that, I felt a need not to reconcile with some trauma of the past, but rather simply to report in. I stood at these graves and announced myself in German. I recited the lineage that connected us. And I reported on the state of their family in America 140 years later.

And so while reconciliation is a reasonable element of our teshuvah, teshuvah does not always need to be that dire. Doing teshuvah simply to report in – without judgment, without pressure – this has value. After all, we are so busy living our lives. We are trapped inside the events and the responsibilities and the crises. When do we take the chance to just collect our thoughts and check in? But it's Yom Kippur, so let's do it now. Take a moment to close your eyes and breathe. Greet yourself and then report in a little. Here's where my life is at right now. Here's what brought me here. Here's where I suspect I'm headed. Here are the people and the things that are important to me.

Just sitting with these questions, with this stocktaking, I feel my body relaxing, easing, lightening and deepening at once. You can keep having this conversation tonight or tomorrow or whenever you want. Be sure to thank yourself for the honesty, and tell yourself how much you're looking forward to the next update!

Meanwhile, back in the cemetery, after I was done with my report-back, it became very quiet. I began to feel the vastness and loneliness of this place and a different purpose rose up in my heart: I had returned so that I could witness.

These people had erected stone markers facing not toward Jerusalem but toward the future. The stones stood like sentinels waiting for the future to look back and see them. And in the meantime we forgot. Forgot where we came from. Until German academics surveyed the stones and posted an index on the web just in time for some shlub in California, with nagging dreams and a plane ticket, to discover his ancestors' names and the addresses of their graves.

These people wanted to be witnessed. If there was a dramatic reconciliation, it was not with Germany or the Shoah but with failure of memory itself. My return was a return from amnesia.

And I think this is true in our teshuvah as well. We are not returning in order to become who we were when we were younger and more idealistic or more innocent or pained or hopeful. We are returning not to be those people but to remember those people. To witness them again. To notice how valuable they were to bringing us here. Our younger selves erected stones and markers in our psyches. These are the pieces of us that asked to be remembered but whose locations we forgot. On Yom Kippur, in our teshuvah, we have the chance relinquish our amnesia. We can look back and remember and witness.

Take a moment now just to imagine your younger self at any point, whatever age, whatever you presents itself, and remember something about that you that you've forgotten. Something that didn't end up in the story you regularly tell. Now hold what you remembered like a treasure, like an heirloom you inherited from yourself.

So okay, besides reporting back and witnessing, I'd like to suggest one more element of teshuvah that arose for me from my journey.

But first – about this hilltop in Waibstadt. Did I tell you that it's a forest? Locals now call it the Waldfriedhof – the Woodland Cemetery. When the Jews began burying their dead there at the end of the 17th Century, it was a sunny, open field. It remained a sunny, open field until the last burial, in 1938. But now? Now European sycamore maples push right up out of graves, covering the whole place in a leafy canopy. Untended, undisturbed, this bit of Jewish land gave birth to something beyond its intention. A natural forestland emerged – dark, lush, full of the trilling of birds and the shushing of leaves. A deep, shaded place beloved by hikers.

The founders of the cemetery had not signed up for a reforestation project. That was not their intent. But the future was Unknown and they, like all of us, surrendered to it.

I know that in our teshuvah we have a tendency to beat ourselves up about the ways we have not turned out as we'd wanted and intended. But that is a lot of responsibility, having to be accountable to who we wanted to be when we were 11 and 18 and 25 and 39 and 58 and 72. We are always moving into the Unknown. Our dreams and intentions for ourselves are a suggested route. But only suggested. We will never end up exactly who we thought we would be at any given age, no matter how much teshuvah we do.

But our teshuvah, our revisiting of ourselves, can give us perspective in order to see what has grown in our lives, what has pushed right out of the ground for each of us, beyond any expectations of the past. Because what has grown is beautiful even if what has grown is unplanned.

So we return to our past selves, or to some idea of who we thought we'd be, not to judge, but to get perspective. In other words, we make this journey and it bounces us right back to the What Is of our actual lives – our internal and external lives. We look back in order to notice and appreciate how we have emerged.

Sort of like that Rabbi Isaac folk story. Sometimes we have to make that journey in order to have the perspective to see our own treasure. We look back and see ourselves looking forward. As I stood in the forest cemetery, I looked at the gravestones and what I saw were people looking forward into the future. All I had to do was follow their gaze in order to rediscover myself.

Tomorrow we will read in Torah about Jacob's return to his land and his birthplace after 20 years. His feared reunion with his brother Esau. We will notice that the first thing Jacob does is send malakhim – send angels ahead. When I walked into the cemetery, hearing the metal gate clang shut behind me, I was a malakh. I was an angel from another land, from another time. And those people – the grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and neighbors whose graves I saw and whose graves I couldn't find – they have become angels for me, to help me notice where I've come to, who I am. I still hear their voices full of curiosity – not judgment but curiosity – in my dreams at night.

So let us dream ourselves. Let us take up our teshuvah with joy and curiosity, becoming the angels, the messengers, to all the selves we've been; becoming the angels, the messengers, from all the selves we've been, to the self that is still emerging. Let us report in, remember the forgotten places, witness, and admire. Even if our instinct is to judge or dismiss, just pry up a tile from the floor. You will find treasure.

I’m grateful to Lisa Rüth and Hans-Peter Gruber and many Heidelberg academics for making these discoveries possible. And to Roxana Dann for her insights about the self-reforestation of German cemeteries. Some earlier reflections on this trip to the Kraichgau region of Baden-Württemberg can be read or listened to here.