A positive attitude and optimism regarding the future is integral to spiritual growth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the process of self-refinement and the pursuit of a meaningful existence is an ongoing struggle:

“Just as it is with a victory over a physical opponent, for instance, two people who wrestle with each other, each striving to fell the other. If one of them is lazy and sluggish, he will easily be defeated and will fall, even if he be stronger than the other. Similarly with the conquest of one’s evil nature. It is impossible to conquer the evil nature with laziness and sluggishness, which stem from sadness and a stone-like dullness of the heart, but rather with alacrity, which derives from joy and an open heart that is unblemished by any trace of worry and sadness in the world.”1

While this is theoretically correct, what about the person—and I believe we all know one or two people of this sort . . .—whose past includes serious errors of judgment and missed opportunities? Won’t the memories of past indiscretions impede the person’s ability to be happy? Is such a person meant to pretend that the past mistakes don’t exist?

Is a person meant to pretend that past mistakes don’t exist?

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, answers these questions. The Parshah begins with G‑d directing Moses to take a census of the Israelites by charging every Israelite one half of a shekel, and then counting the collected money to arrive at the census result. The name of the Torah portion is derived from the terminology used to describe the census; ki tisa means “when you count”—but can also be translated to mean “when you will uplift.” Although ostensibly this name pertains only to the mitzvah of giving a half-shekel, it nevertheless is the name of the entire Torah portion.

And indeed, this uplifting name is appropriate for many of the episodes recounted in this portion: Moses receives the first tablets, tablets which were sculpted and engraved by G‑d’s hand; G‑d reveals to Moses His thirteen attributes of mercy; Moses beholds G‑d’s glory; etc. However, this portion also recounts one of the lowest points of our nation’s history, the golden calf catastrophe. Why is this sin, a collective betrayal of G‑d with such devastating consequences, described in the Torah portion titled “when you will uplift”? How can sin be viewed as constructive, and how can this idea be applied to personal life?

Our sages tell us that “the station of the baal teshuvah (penitent person) is beyond the reach of the tzaddik (one who has always been righteous).” The person who has resided in darkness appreciates the sun more than one who has never experienced life devoid of daylight. When a husband and wife are reunited after a period of separation, their relationship is much more passionate than it was beforehand—as the saying goes, “absence makes the heart fonder.” So, too, the person who lived a life bereft of spirituality and then discovers G‑d is so much more excited about the newfound relationship, and every fiber of his or her being is now dedicated to enhancing it.

On a deeper level, penitent people accomplish an incredible feat: they prove that even the negative components of life—and even those which are the result of their own free choice—are created for a purpose. They are meant to add intensity to their relationship with G‑d. The tzaddik rises above evil; the baal teshuvah is propelled upward by it. In hindsight, it can be said that the sins of the baal teshuvah lift him to a level unachievable otherwise.

“G‑d told Moses: ‘Don’t be distraught over [the shattering of] the first tablets, which contained only the Ten Commandments. With the second tablets I will give you [many more] laws and Midrash . . . the wisdom is manifold.”2 Never be discouraged over opportunities that have been wasted or used counter-productively. Instead, allow the challenges of life to raise you to a new dimension in your relationship with the Almighty.