Can we really change the past?

Wednesday, 13 September, 2023 - 6:57 pm

This is the final countdown to the High Holidays where we attempt to elicit a good year filled with health, happiness, success, and serenity from the heavenly powers. During these 10 awesome days beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating with Yom Kippur, we attempt to reconcile our past year’s failings and inadequacies, promising to be more even-tempered and compassionate and patient with others. We also take a quick pick at our spiritual shortcomings.

The elephant in the room that no one asks is the following: While we can attempt to reconcile the past all we want, we can never erase what we have done in the past. At this moment in time, scientists have not been able to crack the code which allows us to turn back time and repair the damage we have caused ourselves, our loved ones, and others. In fact, the past is very much a part of who we are. Ask any therapist and they will tell you that we are all a product of our upbringings. Luminaries such as Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein and Jean Piaget all staked their careers on one’s childhood traumas. So, while we are able to tell ourselves that the past is in the past, is it really in the past or is it embedded deep in our psyche and a part of our very current DNA?

Judaism’s answer is so powerful that it is life altering.

In short, no one wants or expects you to change your past. Aside from being impossible as we just mentioned, it is also a disservice to mankind to alter what happened.

While it is obvious that we need to regret and take ownership of all our misdeeds and make amends if needed, this is elementary. What we really need to do is to learn from our mistakes and failures.

While success breeds success and momentum, it is nowhere near as powerful as the lessons gleaned from failure. You see, a mistake can be so powerful that it can create a dramatic shift in our behavior. It allows us to say to ourselves, “I cannot believe that I did this,” or “I never would have believed that I could have sunk so low. I need a reality check as I do not want to be this type of person.”

I read recently that when the stock market tumbles, the analysts do not call it a catastrophe as I do. Rather, they call it a correction. What an interesting choice of words. What is a correction? If you look at Webster’s, one of the definitions is improvement. How about that? Sure, a down market can be viewed as something terrible, but it also can be viewed as a chance to make some money. The same is true with a mistake. It can be seen as a horrific lapse of judgment, and it may be so. Or it can be viewed as a chance for improvement.

The Kabbalah explains it this way. When someone wishes to jump into the air, they bend their knees and crouch lower than their regular height and then they jump high. The descent is solely for the sake of the ascent. I usually think of an Olympic diver whose diving board bends down low which then propels them much higher. A mistake, if handled correctly, can be treated the same way, namely, a descent for the sake of an ascent. No one consciously makes a mistake. If they did so, it would not be called a mistake but rather premeditated.

Bottom line, once the mistake happens, we can respond in one of a few ways.

1.     Berate yourself and beat yourself up. I believe that this accomplishes nothing other than low self-esteem, which we all know is super toxic to oneself.       

2.     Laugh it off and move on without the slightest care. This is arrogance and is also super toxic to others. Arrogance leads to so many more problems.

3.     The last response is one that is healthy for all. This would be the path of introspection. A person should ask themselves how this happened and more importantly, how they can ensure that this does not happen again. Of course, apologies should be offered. This mindful approach has no downside as self-awareness is the best path to enlightenment and improvement.

There is a fascinating Talmud that discusses when a person processes their misdeeds and regrets them. Even ones committed on purpose with malice will not only be forgiven but will also be converted into merits. While it seems that conversion to merits is a bit too far, it makes perfect sense. If the misdeed ultimately leads the person to positive change, then the transgression was actually a catalyst for change. So, while we do rue the actual negative act, we eventually come to applaud the transformation that it brought about.   

Coming full circle…. Don’t forget the past and try to bury it as it should not be buried. Rather, learn from the past and be a better person because of it. Celebrate the past and make changes because of it and not despite it.

Remember to err is human. To completely screw up takes a politician.

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