There are no mistakes in life—only lessons learned.
With just one week left until the High Holidays, we’re supposed to be thinking about new beginnings and fresh starts. But what about those of us who can’t let go of our past because of the traumas we’ve experienced and the suffering that we’ve endured? The pain of our darkest moments is seared into our consciousness and manifests itself in nearly every conversation and encounter. For many of us, it’s pure hell—we’d love nothing more than a fresh start. But where do we even begin?
I found inspiration in the unlikeliest of places—at one of my favorite restaurants—Tapas 26 in Bal Harbor, near Miami. The art deco facade of this trendy establishment features an oddly placed, load-bearing pillar directly at the entrance of the restaurant. For the first few years of its existence, this delightful Peruvian eatery was scarred by the ugliness of its front door. But the last time I was there, I marveled at how they completely transformed the look, not by removing the hideous column, but by disguising it as a magnificent Cherry Blossom tree gracing the entranceway. The visage is now so delightful, that the photo of this pillar has now become the cover photo for Tapas 26 on Instagram!
Every person you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. We all have skeletons in our closets—an unsightly truth that we’d far prefer to keep hidden away. Every anguish holds the seeds from which the trees of the future sprout. Albert Einsteins said that “the only mistake in life is the lesson not learned.” It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself, that will determine how your life’s story will develop.
If we can muster the courage to face our demons and figure out a way to use them in a positive manner, creatively manipulating the deep crevice in the diamond into a beautiful etched rose, we will have succeeded in rewriting our narrative—reconstructing the pain of our past as the solid foundation upon which we build the rest of our lives.
In the stock market, a plummeting stock is never called a “collapse”—it’s called a “correction” because, on Wall Street, they know that failure is not the opposite of success—it’s part of success. Winners are not afraid of failure, but losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success. Our greatest glory is not in never falling; it’s in rising every time we fall. You’re not judged by the heights that you’ve reached but by the depths from which you’ve risen.
When a woman who had indulged in sexual deviance regretted her past ways, she wrote to the Rebbe expressing her sincere remorse, together with her hopelessness in overcoming the demons of her past. On Friday, December 23, 1960, the Rebbe (Igros Kodesh vol. 20 p. 97) encouraged her with a magnificent letter whose timeless wisdom inspires us all today as much as it touched her then. Due to the sensitive nature of this letter in its original Hebrew, I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing:
The tone of your question implies that correction is impossible, yet this runs contrary to the values of our Jewish faith, which insist that all the mistakes of the past can be fixed….
…the way to transform the darkness of your past is by using it as a catalyst to propel you to greater good. Allowing depression or sadness to overtake you will perpetuate the darkness within you. Using it as a catalyst to sensitize you and those around you to better living, will turn the demons of your past into the angels of your future.
Winston Churchill, the brilliant statesman who, by his own admission, struggled with a deep, dark depression, said that “success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Waves are inspiring, not because they rise and fall, but because each time they fall, they never fail to rise again!
The Jewish value of Teshuva—often mistranslated as “repentance”—actually means “return.” It challenges us deeply—to never allow the monsters of our past to be firmly lodged behind us, like frozen gargoyles haunting us from behind. All life is made up of fluid energy that is constantly in motion and applies not only to the present but to the past as well! “History is determined by the victor” means that the supposed objective reality is actually subjective. It’s as true about world wars as it’s true about your own personal history too where your past is molded by your choices in the present.
In this season of Teshuva, we’re called upon to turn the failures of the past into the motivators of today. Beyond a mere religious reinvention of self, Teshuva inspires us to experience a psychological metamorphosis. A mistake only becomes an error if we fail to learn its lessons. Then, the fault becomes the turning point for progress, instead of being stuck in failure! Like the arrows drawn back in the sling of the hunter, the backward motion is part of the forward projection—creating the momentum needed to hit the target. Indeed, Teshuva is a fresh new approach to redefining the past through the power of the present moment, thus transforming every failure into fortitude, every wound into a windfall, and every trauma into triumph!
A mistake can cost you millions, but a lesson learned can bring you back billions. You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.
Wishing you the strength to rewrite your story so that this Shana will be Tovah!
Rabbi Dovid Vigler
Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens
6100 PGA Blvd, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418
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