The word עבר (past) possesses two other combinations of words. One isבער which means a fool. Another is רעב which is hunger. When one realizes that he has been going down the wrong path he could easily fall into despair and say to himself I will not be able to change myself into being better. I am already established in my lifestyle, my friends, my habits etc. it just isn’t going to happen. This individual tragically takes his fallen past and recklessly carries it into his present and future, not only remaining without tikkun but also allowing for further deterioration. What a shame!
A healthier approach and reaction to being alerted of one’s error in his conduct or hashkafah, is to take one’s past and use it to enhance and correct one’s present and future. This is in essence what the Torah means when it commands to serve Hashem with all of one’s heart בכל לבבך upon which Chazal interpret בשני יצריך with both the yetzer tov and yetzer harah. For instance, if you have used the middah of alacrity for evil up until now, turn around and use it for fulfillment of mitzvos. If you were jealous of somebody else’s high plush standard of living, then utilize this same middah of jealousy to envy your neighbor’s righteousness and chesed. Use the past to uplift the present and future, to be רעב hungry for avodas Hashem in a deeper and intimate fashion.
One example of such an individual whose past was idolatry worship and who later used it to spiritually perfect his present and future was Yisro. Yisro became great not despite his past but because of it. His past name was Yeser. When he came from Midyan to Moshe to convert the letter vov was added to his name. This additional letter is troubling. Chazal tell us that when a gentile converts he is considered a new born child. It would then be appropriate to call him by a new name. Why did a mere letter vov be added to his past name? Secondly the Torah calls him by the name of Poteiail upon which Chazal explain it to mean (Sota 43) that he fattened calves for avodah zarah. The question is why would the Torah embarrass him with such a negative name after he became a convert and after he added a parsha to the Torah?
The Shem Mishmuel explains that Yisro was a gilgul of Kayin whose name is derived from the lashon of Kinyan an acquisition something significant. This indicated that he was conceited. This theme is repeated in the name of יתר which is from the lashon of extra special. It was this middah of gaavah and feelings of superiority that enabled him to rise above the social pressures of his community and convert to be a Yid. It was this middah that strengthened him to remain a non idolater worshiper even under the stress and pressure of becoming rejected and an outcast from his environment. It was this same haughtiness now directed to kedusha that gave him, a convert, the stamina enabling him to approach Moshe, the Gadol Hador, and tell him to change the judging procedure of Am Yisrael which Moshe himself instituted. In essence Yisro rose to greatness because of his past.
Avraham is another such example. He was called Ivri (Bereishis 14,13) from the lashon of עבר past. The Medrash tells us that after Avraham recognized Hashem as the creator of the universe, he asked Hashem what will be with the years that I worshiped avodah zara before I found You. Hashem responded לך טל ילדותך youryouth will be like the dew that that goes up and disappears in the morning. The Shem Mishmuel explains that the dew awakens the natural moisture that is in the plant stirring it to grow and then disappears. It is likened to teshuvah out of love that the aveiros awaken the inner nekudah of the Yid and brings out the koach of teshuvahtransforming aveiros into mitzvos making the Yid grow in ruchniyus. According to this explanation the past of Avraham was the catalyst in his attaining a close relationship with Hashem even though by itself his past was of a negative nature.
When Moshiach will arrive he too will cause Yisrael to do teshuvah from love in that their negative pasts will motivate them to forge a closer bond and relationship with Hashem. At his coming, all the events that seemed to us as bad when they happened, and upon which we recited the beracha of Dayan Haemes, we will then recite on those same episodes a new beracha Hatov Vehamaitiv. The reason for this is explained by the Tzlach. When Moshiach wiil arrive we will retroactively view them as good and beneficial. So too, the aveiros which were in the past looked upon as bad, will take on a new character through teshuvah from love and they too, will be transformed before our eyes into a Hatov Vehamaitiv. It is for this reason that we find that the only time Avraham was called Ivri was when he was recruited by Og to chase after the four kings in order to free Lot from captivity. The Chazal tell us that the neshama of Moshiach was hidden in Lot and emerged through his two daughters and his two children Moav and Amon whom he fathered. Just as Dovid taught the process of teshuvah to Klal Yisrael (Moed Katan 15b) so too his descendant Moshiach will do the same. Through the power of teshuvah, one’s ugly pasts can shine and inspire others to reach higher levels.
Everyone has pasts and their shortcomings. Both Yisro and Avraham taught us that a past of demerit can be turned into a past of merits if one uses it for constructive purposes and to instruct others not to follow in his paths. The child who had abusive parents can become extra sensitive and loving to his children, motivated by the fear of repeating to them his damaging experience. It will take much toil to achieve this goal but it can be done. Infact he might even become a model from whom others can learn greater sensitivity. במקום בעלי תושבה עומדים צדיקים גמורים אינם יכולים לעמודdoes not only apply to self-inflicted short comings but also to those who were victims of the shortcomings of others.
Now is the time to introduce a fourth meaning to the word עבר. Fixing one’s past can change one’s עבר into בער which also means fire. A fire gives warmth and light not only to yourself but also to others who surround you. Don’t discard your past and mope about it. Don’t let it paralyze you from bringing out your great potential. Elevate the past by committing to become better, and transform yourself into a guiding light to make you and others into outstanding Ovdei Hashem. Just remember that when one wants to throw an object high in the air, the lower one brings his hand down to earth in the wind up, the higher it will rise and soar towards heaven. May our עבר become our Uber to transport us to a higher station and meaning in our lives.