“Over time, things change meaning. I am reminded how one of my children took a rare book I loved and innocently used a few pages of it for a coloring book. At the time, I was furious. But now, as I reflect on those scribblings, they bring not only nostalgia but tenderness. What was once a source of anger is now a source of great love.” –Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder
…the present can change the past. Teshuva (Hebrew word for “repent), the act of returning to whom you were meant to be, can change who we were. It cannot change what we did, but it can change the meaning of what we did. In so doing, it can change the future. Don’t make teshuva because it will make the pain go away. Make teshuva because it will send you back to who you were, change it into who you meant to be, and in so doing change you into whom you still might become.
Obviously we cannot undo the past. What is done is done. But what we do now about what we did then, while not altering the past deed itself, can place it into a new context of meaning. By our present actions we can effectively reach back through the otherwise impermeable membrane that seals the past and reshape it…now we not only acknowledge, regret, and repudiate what we did, we devote ourselves to repairing the damage.
By doing so we have placed the initial damage into a larger constellation of meaning. Isolated, the past evil deed is only a great shame. But seen from the present, as the commencement of this new turning, the meaning of the original deed has been transformed and the past is rewritten.”
Notice Genesis 45:5. Joseph had been betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers, and subsequently rose to power in Egypt. When Joseph and his brothers come face to face again Joseph says, “And now, do not be sad or reproach yourselves because you sold me down here; for it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you (Gen 45:5).”
The rabbis taught that when the one who sins makes teshuva from love, every sin is actually transformed into merit. As the text says, “So now it was not you who sent me here, but God (Gen 45:8).” The teshuva has transformed (and revealed) everything to be just the way God intended it. And all because you made teshuva out of love. So whatever you do, don’t be sad.
In other words, through the act of teshuva, we can literally transform past sins into present merits.