Our secular New Year’s resolutions often focus on creating a new future. People want to “travel,” “exercise more,” or “lose weight.” We tend to think more about who we want to be and where we want to go in the future, instead of who we are and where we have been in the past. Often people think of teshuva, repentance, in the same way. Thinking about our past mistakes is simply seen as the first step, on our way to creating a new and better self. But there is another approach to repentance, that suggests the key to change lies less in thinking about who we want to become and on reimagining our past.
The Talmud in Masechet Yoma highlights the importance of repentance, and suggests that “repentance is so great, even premeditated sins are accounted as though they were merits.” According, the Talmud the process of repentance transforms past actions. Mistakes and shortcomings no longer count against a person, instead they are counted to a person’s credit. But in what sense does this change occur?
According to the late 19th century Hassidic think Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin, this transformation occurs within oneself. He writes, “The essence of repentance is that one’s eyes will be illuminated, and they will see that their sins are counted as merits. That is to say, a person will recognize and understand that all his sins were also the will of God… And this is understood according to the explanation of choice and knowledge. There are two truths, yet each one can exist only on its own. In a place of choice there is no knowledge and in a place of knowledge there is no choice.” Rabbi Tzadok was a determinist, he believed that our future was completely planned out and known to God. As a result, all of our actions are in some way a result of God’s will. At the same time, this is not an excuse to sin. From our normal perspective, freewill is very real, we face choices and decisions that we must make. However, according to Rabbi Tzadok, repentance offers us the unusual opportunity to try to reflect on our past mistakes from God’s perspective and see how they made us into who we are today. Repentance is not simply about regretting the past, but also understanding how our previous shortcomings may have revealed hidden inner strengths or placed us in a situation to succeed in the future.
Rabbi Tzadok’s approach shares much in common with contemporary Narrative Psychology. According to this school of psychology, we are a product of the stories we tell about ourselves. Some people tell stories in which even ostensibly good memories are undermined by a hint of disappointment or shortcoming. However, those people whom researchers describe as “generative adults” for their civic-mindedness and high energy levels exhibit the opposite trait. “Generative adults” tell stories colored by themes of redemption, in which every past challenge was eventually overcome, and failures paved the way for future successes. It is our ability to reinterpret our past, that ultimately, enables us to build a better future.