Question:

…among other things, I keep on asking myself, "Why did I have to go through all that?" I wasted the first 30 years of my life learning destructive habits…

Response:

…One of the things that bugs me the most about your letter is your line about wasting the first 30 years of your life. I don't get what compels you to write things you yourself do not believe. The only way you could have achieved what you have right now is with those 30 years, exactly as they were. If it weren't so, they would never have happened.

So you're a late starter. So was the first Jew. Let me tell you something about Abraham. When Abraham was old, it says he was "come into days." No, that's not a typo. The Rebbe explains those words very simply, that they mean he entered into every day of his life with his entire being and got everything he could out of it.1 So he lived for 175 years, and all of them were perfect, all were complete.2

Now think for a minute: Abraham was born into a family that worshipped spirits, demons, carvings of wood and figures of stone; in a city filled with temples of the sun, the moon, the stars and a host of other gods; in a world where anyone who knew the truth of the one G‑d was hiding in a cave. As Maimonides writes,3 he too worshipped along with them. For how long? One Midrash says, "At three years old, Abraham recognized his Creator."4 Another says he was forty. Yet another says forty-eight.5 Most likely, he started young and took forty or so years to piece together the entire puzzle.

What matters is that for a significant chunk of Abraham's life, he was in darkness. And yet, those years as well were complete and perfect.

When I put this before people, they like to explain that Abraham must have felt great remorse for all that, and so his teshuvah transformed the ugliness of those days into good.

I don't think so. I think if you asked Abraham if he regretted any of those days, if he thought he had wasted his life back then, if he felt bitter remorse, I think Abraham would have shot back, "Are you kidding? That's how I came to know G‑d!"

You see, this is how Abraham was: A small child nudniking his parents and any other adult around with questions like, "Why do some worship these and others those? Why do they need temples? Which one made the most stuff? Which one is the biggest god? If this one would hit that one, what would that one do?"6

There are many traditions about Abraham's youth. Many say that when he was very small, at one point he was certain that the sun had to be the biggest god. I imagine him sitting up the whole night, then climbing up a hill to await the dawn. He sees the first rays of the morning sun as they begin to soften the thick darkness. Sitting still, eyes wide, he observes the creatures of night returning to their lairs and the creatures of day awakening from their sleep. And then it happens, the drama of dawn in its full glory, a fiery ball rising from behind a rocky cliff on the horizon, transforming the entire landscape, filling all space with its light and nurturing all life with its warmth. A being so intensely bright, no eye can gaze upon it; so powerful, nothing by its rays can stay the same.

The dew rises from the ground in steamy mist, the desert flowers begin to open their petals, the trees nod in elegant acknowledgment, and the birds fly overhead in ecstatic joy, crying out to one another their song. To Abraham it seems as though the entire symphony of life is praising this great being called the sun—and he sings and dances along with them.

He stands riveted there in gaping wonder for every hour of the day, carefully marking the path of the sun in its course across the sky. To him, it is the ultimate lord of heavens surveying its kingdom, the beneficent master bestowing life upon all that lies beneath it. Little Abe cannot eat, he cannot lie down. He has found truth and his awe cannot be contained.

And then the sun sets. Abe watches in utter anguish. Nobody else is bothered by sunset. It set yesterday, and so it set today as well. Not so little Abe. Another child's pet dog could have died and it would have far less import. But Abraham's god has abandoned him, and all his world is again plummeted into darkness.

Why did no one else suffer such disillusion? Didn't they also worship the sun?

No, they did not. It was a myth. And as myths go, no one had ever truly believed in it. Myths are useful, fanciful, traditional, essential elements in the social fabric. Worship was ritual, and where would man be without ritual? But myths are not facts and no thinking person ever believed they were. No one but Abraham. And so only he came to realize it was a lie.

So why should Abraham express remorse for his worship of the sun? It was that worship that brought him to the truth.7 It was his only path to the truth. If he had not taken that path, he could never have become Abraham, our father, the man who took on the entire world and turned it upside down. There was no one to teach him, no mentor, no guide, nothing but his own path of discovery, trial and error, and more error and more...until finally, Truth itself appears knocking at his door.

Now I will tell you a halacha, one that may appear to have absolutely nothing to do with what we are talking about—but it has everything to do with it: Let's say you cleaned your house for Passover. There isn't a scrap of bread, cookie, pasta, whiskey, cheerio—nothing in the entire house. But then, in the middle of Passover, you discover some flour, wet flour and…disaster of disasters…it's fermented!

Every moment you leave that wet flour lying around, you have chametz in your house on Passover. And owning chametz on your premises on Passover is everything that you had sought to avoid with all those hours of cleaning, scrubbing and searching. Every second that ticks by from this point on, you are transgressing the warning of the Torah, "Chametz shall neither be seen nor found on your property on Passover!"

How long does it take you to get that chametz flushed down the toilet?Ten minutes? Five minutes? In a real panic, maybe two minutes? Doesn't matter. Every second spent, you're transgressing, big time.

Or are you? Well, actually, the halacha is that you are not transgressing. In fact, you're doing a mitzvah. Every moment it takes you to get rid of that chametz is considered a moment that the chametz does not exist. Because, simply put, there is no other way to remove chametz than with time.

Take another example: Joe Goldberg comes to his rabbi and says, "Rabbi, I want to be a good Jew. Show me how."

So does the rabbi say, "Well, first we have to make your entire kitchen kosher. Throw out all those dishes and trash everything in your pantry. At any rate, you'll have to buy a new house, since yours is too far to walk to shul on Shabbat. And talking about Shabbat, you are not allowed to move from your chair until you've learned all the rules. Most likely, you'll need to quit your job, which is too bad because you'll need big bucks to put your kids in a Jewish day school. Also, you'll need tefillin to wrap every morning and a big talit, along with tzitzit under your shirt. And there's a lot of prayers you're going to have to say tomorrow morning. As for your wife…"

Or does he say: "So start buying kosher meat and not mixing it with milk. Bring your family over to my house for a Shabbat meal and you'll get some of the basics. Right now, I'll show you how to wrap tefillin. Just takes five minutes every morning. And when she's ready, your wife can speak with my wife about the mikvah."

And if Joe protests, crying, "But rabbi, there's a lot more prayers in this book than five minutes worth! I gotta say the whole thing! And talit and tzitzit and kosher dishes and…Hey, I don't want to BE SINNING!!!"

Then the rabbi will explain, "It's okay, Joe, you're not sinning. As long as you're working your way up, it's like you're there already. If you run up to the top of the mountain, you'll roll right back down. But if you climb slowly, you'll keep a foothold. This is the path, and as long as you're on it, you're good."

What I'm getting at is that the same applies to all those "meaningless years" of yours when you learned "destructive habits." You didn't put yourself at the bottom of the mountain, your Maker did. And He gave you a path to get to the top of that mountain, and it happened to pass through a valley, a deep valley. Why did you need that valley? Because without plumbing its depths you could never get to the top of such a high mountain. If you could, He would never put you where He put you. You're His child, after all, and He wouldn't place His precious child in a deep pit unless He knew it was the only way to give that child the very best thing He could give.

Look, I also travelled along that road, searching without knowing for what, thirsting and grabbing all the wrong substances to quench that thirst. Not as many years as you, but long enough. Am I bitter about it? Perhaps I should be more bitter—it drives the soul to fly yet closer to the light. But remorse? Remorse is senseless. How could I have remorse for the path upon which He placed me?

Everything we learned on that path through the canyon has meaning. As life rolls on, the meanings will unfold and we will find some way that every experience will be a lesson to take us yet higher. Until, at the very last day, when the story of our life's mission is complete, then every day will have told its story. What's up to us is to juice out every moment that comes to us now, to enter each one with all our being and not to waste the now bemoaning what was. If we can do that, then every day of our lives, including those already behind us, will have been a complete day.