I never cease to get chills when recounting the following story I heard from a psychologist friend.

This woman has a patient she’s been treating for nearly three decades. Over the course of many sessions, they successfully traced his deep insecurities to a particularly traumatic childhood episode.

It was the evening of New Year’s Eve, when he was a boy of six or seven years old. His parents were going out for the night to celebrate with friends. They were leaving him and his sister in the care of a babysitter. Just before leaving, in an ill-fated attempt at humor, the boy’s father crouched down, looked him in the eye, and in a serious tone of voice said, “See you next year!”

How was the young boy to know the meaning of his father’s unfortunate quip? That entire night he tossed and turned, agonizing over the thought that he wouldn’t see his parents for an entire year.

Slaves to the Past

There is a school of thought that maintains that we are all slaves to the events and circumstances of our childhood, as well as to our genetic dispositions. All future behavior, tendencies and attitudes can be linked to one thing or another that happened to us as children.

According to this view, all of life is one long consequence, a reward or punishment: a lifelong benefit from, or the undoing of, words, actions and influences of the people and events that made up our early life. Our present and future happiness, inner peace, and even life skills depend largely on our past.

It would not be unreasonable to conclude, based on this view, that one must simply come to terms with, or ignore, the person he or she is made out to be by family, friends and therapists.

Take this joke, for example.

A fellow enters a bar for drink. After downing a shot of whiskey, he hurls the empty glass at the wall behind the serving counter, smashing it into a thousand pieces. The frustrated bartender says to him: “Frankly, sir, you need to see a therapist.” With that, the man leaves.

Six months later he returns. After gulping down some whiskey, he flings the shot glass at the wall. “Sir,” the bartender said sharply, “didn’t I tell you to see a shrink?”

“I took your advice and went to therapy,” the fellow responded, “and I’m pleased to say that I’m no longer ashamed of myself and my issues.”

Here’s a man (and a therapist) who has subscribed to the notion that happiness can be achieved only when we resign ourselves to our fate by recognizing that “this is who I am.”

Masters of the Present

Thankfully, however, there’s a second, more optimistic, school of thought. While it’s true that we are not masters over our past, we are still not its slaves. While we cannot change what was, we can influence what is.

With the proper mentality and discipline, we can create new attitudes and patterns of behavior, and even thought, helping us to gain mastery over negative inclinations and predispositions.

In the language of Jewish mysticism,1 “The mind controls the heart”—meaning that we have the potential to exercise “mind over matter.”

Consider the following humorous text message I received from a heavy smoker acquaintance: “I just read an article on the dangers of heavy smoking. It scared the daylights out of me. So that’s it: after today . . . no more reading!”

And then there’s the story of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, who would sometimes chain smoke—this was in the ’40s, before the dangers of smoking were common knowledge—until he had a fateful talk with his doctor, who described those dangers. Towards the end of their conversation, without batting an eye, the physician pulled out a pack of smokes and offered one to his patient. “But I don’t smoke!” the rebbe said. “Did I hear you correctly?” the incredulous doctor responded. “I used to smoke,” the rebbe explained, “but that changed a few minutes ago when you outlined the dangers of smoking.”

Real change can occur only when there is a desire for change, and the desire for change can exist only with the belief that change is possible. Thus, to one who possesses that belief, the “cigarettes” of life—addictions, pitfalls and bad habits—will go; to one who does not believe in the ability to change, reading about the dangers in our lifestyle is dangerous.

Put differently, this philosophy of “mind over matter” maintains that our attitudes, not our circumstances, define us. It’s not the situations we encounter in life, but the way we choose to react to them, that dictate the script of our lives.

Thankfully, of late, this philosophy has gained traction over the former one, helping to give rise to the so-called self-help era with its boom of empowering literature informing people how to take control of their lives and proactively shape their own destiny.

Masters of the Past

There is, however, a third school of thought—the unique position of Judaism—that extends man’s reach not only forwards, but even backwards in time.

We have the ability to revisit and redeem our previous negatives, and transform them into positive forces. In some cases, we can even retroactively redefine or recast our previous bad deeds into good ones. In the words of the sages, “Even intentional sins can be transformed into merits.”2

In fact, the word for “repentance” in Judaism is teshuvah, which means “return,” and mystically describes not only the homecoming of the returnee to sanctity, but also the return of the negative energy he created through sin.

One way of explaining this phenomenon is that it is based on the notion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Thus, the further a sinner strays from G‑d—like a rubber band’s release after being pulled back tightly—the more powerful and energized is his rebound towards G‑d.

In other words, true repentance is not just about retracing one’s steps. It’s about sprinting beyond the normal gait of religious worship. It’s about the added burst of passion and fervor that is not readily available under normal circumstances.

This is one way of explaining the Talmudic teaching that “in the place that the baal teshuvah (penitent) stands, the perfect tzaddik (saint) cannot stand.”3 Having strayed further from G‑d than the saint, the penitent’s return can bring him closer and into a deeper relationship with G‑d. And, in the event of true repentance, every step away from faith was revealed to be a step closer.

There’s a deeper way of explaining this process of transforming the past. Not only is there something valuable in the result of sin (an otherwise unattainable closeness to G‑d), there is something redeemable about the sin itself, which is why a penitent’s sin can be transformed into not just a merit, but a mitzvah.

Consider those who stray beyond the pale of honesty and morality, and come back to lead a life guiding those still struggling with similar issues. Here, the intimate knowledge of certain behaviors garnered through personal experience itself serves a positive purpose, and is therefore considered a mitzvah.

This is the power and gift of teshuvah—the ability to defy the properties of time by editing or rewriting a “wasted,” or worse, “destructive,” piece of our life, thought to be beyond our control and reform.

Out of Order

This understanding of teshuvah sheds light on a textual anomaly associated with the biblical story of the Second Passover, recounted in the book of Numbers.4 The story in brief: A group of Israelites were banned by G‑d’s law from offering the Paschal lamb, as a result of their ritual impurity. They beseeched G‑d for a way to make good their loss, which led to their being allowed a second chance to bring the sacrifice, one month later. A new law was then written into Torah, with the same allowance for those who would find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.

Now, this story took place in the first month of the second year from the great exodus from Egypt. What’s puzzling is that the opening passage of the Book of Numbers, which is recorded before this story, takes place in the second month of that year, a full month after the story of the Second Pesach. Why, ask the commentators? Their answer falls back on a common principle of Bible exegesis:5 “There is no before or after in the Torah.” That is: not all of Torah was written chronologically, and this is just one example.

The obvious question, though, is why the Torah chooses to place specifically this story out of order.

Come to think of it, however, there is no more appropriate place than this story of teshuvah to record events non-chronologically. For is not the unique capacity of teshuvah its ability to transcend the boundaries of time?

The words of the rabbis, “There is no before or after in the Torah,” now take on new meaning: through the Torah, we are given the ability to master all of time.