Back and Forth

Chana Lazar, London, England
Depression & Sadness / Essays 2019 / Personal Growth

A dark shadow may be clouding one’s day. The shadow cast by the guilt of one’s past. One is jammed in place because of past memories of bad choices, the mistakes made, the words that shouldn’t have been said, and actions of embarrassment. Toying with one’s mind the past rears its ugly head repeating old losses, nagging guilt and regrets….

It’s easy to get stuck in the darkness of bad memories. They are like emotional quicksand exerting a strong downward pull on one’s psyche. One can think: today all depends on past yesterdays. To move forward wisely, one therefore may urge themselves to look back. But there’s a point where appreciation and analysis of the past become like gum on one’s psychological shoe, sticking one in place and impeding forward motion[1].

Delving in the past can cause one to feel: depression, low self-worth/self-esteem, excessive guilt and regret, the inability to do daily activities and fear of being accepted by others as a result of past actions. It can take a radical reboot to get past, the past!

Scraping off that psychological gum takes work and shift of mindset. Yet through delving into the authentic and eternal works of Chassidus: namely Tanya, Hayom yom, letters from the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe and excerpts from Sichot, one can find life changing solutions and messages that will uplift one from the negative regretful mindset and aid in dealing with it. Additionally to guide one when it’s appropriate to focus on the past and have feelings of remorse.

Self-worth/self esteem

The fundamental issue of “being stuck in the past” is that it can lead one to view himself with low self-esteem/self-worth. Once one strongly identifies who he essentially is and what his value is, can he now be confident in his worth, forgive himself, and move on.

Every Jew is not only a letter in G‑d’s Torah, but a letter engraved in stone. At times, the dust and dirt may accumulate and distort—or even completely conceal—the letter’s true form; but underneath it all, the letter remains whole. We need only sweep away the surface grime, and the letter, in all its perfection and beauty, will come to light[2].”

Now that one has established what his intrinsic value is: dear, precious and inherently beautiful, one has to reemphasis to himself what he is doing in this world.

“It is imperative that every Jew know that he is an emissary of the Master of all, charged with the mission – wherever he may be of bringing into reality G‑d’s will and intention in creating the universe, namely, to illuminate the world with the light of Torah and avoda. This is done through performing practical mitzvot and implanting in oneself fine character traits”[3].

One is here to fulfil a purpose a mission, and G-D needs you on His team! Is excessively delving on the past going to aid in that mission?

Psychological “chewing gum”

“Two people are wrestling with each other, each are striving to win. If one of them however, is lazy and sluggish he will be defeated and fall even if he is physically stronger than the other. It is impossible to conquer the evil nature with laziness and sluggishness which stems from sadness and a stone-like-dull heart”[4]. (Tanya)

According to the Tanya (by the Alter Rebbe) we can clearly see that if one lets past grievances pull him down into depression and like “gum” stick and drag him down, then the evil inclination has the space to kick in and stop one from doing his daily activities. Also, providing one with the inability to move on and have the strength to go on with day- to – day life. Therefore the evil inclination’s best weapon to achieve defeat, is depression and dullness of the heart. Once one feels depressed, one is sapped of power and the evil inclination has the control.


“It is explained that alien or evil thoughts are caused by “emptiness of the head.” For when the mind is occupied, the thought has something to serve, and there is no room for stupid and vain thoughts devoid of substance”[5].

When the Torah (Genesis 37:24) describes the pit into which Joseph was thrown, it states that it was an “empty pit, with no water.” The obvious question is: why the double expression? Is it not obvious that if the pit was empty, it therefore had no water? Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, cites the Talmud: “It was empty of water, but full of snakes and scorpions”.

The spiritual parallel of snake and scorpion venom is explained in Chassidic teachings as follows. There are two attitudes that threaten the spiritual vitality of the Jew: 1) enthusiasm for that which is wrong; 2) indifference to that which is right. What can be done to get rid of one’s own personal snakes and scorpions? Battling them is not the best option, as they will soon be replaced by others… The best method is to fill the pit with water .Water represents Torah study and knowledge. The best way to protect yourself against spiritual snakes and scorpions is by filling your mind with the living waters of Torah. Water fills every crevice, leaving no room for harmful feelings of guilt and other such negative thoughts that only serve to destroy the one who harbors them[6].

Fighting back

The Lubavitcher Rebbe addresses the issue of depression, and a practical solution in the following excerpt of a letter:

“It is well known that many, Chassidic discourses instruct us to recoil from a state and sense of atzvus, (depression) and also discusses how such a [negative] state of mind tremendously hinders one’s efforts in combating the evil inclination. Accordingly, one must rid himself of this feeling at the earliest possible opportunity, as it does not stem from [the side of] goodness [and holiness, but from the opposite side]. [The manner of combating atzvus is] similar to combating all other negative manifestations: by increasing one’s efforts in the direction of goodness [and holiness].For even a small amount of light banishes much darkness, and how much more so when there is a great amount of light”[7].

Involving and investing oneself in positive action like: helping people, being involved in charity organizations, learning Torah and sharing its knowledge with others this brings one to banish that dark shadow of the past, leading to a way out of depression, and a way in to positive self-worth and feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. The more positive activities and giving one does, the better, for: “Even a small amount of light banishes much darkness, and how much more so when there is a great amount of light”.

Practically speaking when those negative depressing thoughts come one’s way and start to pull one down, use positive replacement. Be active, sit down and watch an online engaging Torah class, go visit the local nursing home and speak to the elders there, give your attention to them and brighten their day. One will see how much this uplift one’s day these are just some examples but the fact is that by giving and feeding oneself with positivity- you psychologically gain! Make sure that every day you did a little positive action, and remember it does not have to be revolutionary.

Shifting one’s mindset

Being stuck in the past and the inability to move on all stems from a person’s mindset. Carol Dweck’s research has allowed her to distinguish two perspectives that people hold about their abilities. People can have different mindsets towards different aspects of their lives, e.g. a fixed mindset towards their ability to do maths, but a growth mindset towards their ability to play tennis.

Fixed Mindsets verses Growth mindsets: A fixed mindset focuses on Intelligence where challenges are therefore avoided and to fail suggests that they ‘lack the intelligence’ required. Growth Mindsets however change the meaning of failure. Failure, even for individuals who have a growth mindset, can still be painful. However Failure doesn’t define you as a learner, but reveals problems that must be faced, dealt with and learnt from. Failure should provide feedback and a solution to be followed[8].

In connection to the issue at hand; if one trains oneself to have a growth mindset, where he can see that his past failures/discomforts can actually help him grow. (As opposed to a fixed mindset of:” this is where I’m at, I can never move forward”) then one’s whole perspective on the past changes completely.

“Among the advances of medical science in recent times was the discovery of certain vaccines. In order that the body should be able to resist certain aggressive diseases, G‑d forbid, it is injected with a similar and weaker specimen of the same disease; by this means, the body creates weapons and defenses against this disease, which prevent it from ever invading it. The same is true regarding spiritual medicine (as Maimonides, in his famed “Eight Chapters,” makes the correlation between physical and spiritual healing). By encountering a weak, so-called “hindrance,” the soul creates weapons and defenses with which to vanquish true hindrances and difficulties”[9].

A spiritual or physical challenge is termed as נסין- Nisayon also means a banner, since challenges and tests, like a banner- can raise a person to new heights he may have never reached[10]!

When one views his past experience or mistakes as a means to grow personally, gain skills and help others going through the same struggles, the negativity that the past holds is transformed into something useful and positive. Viewing the past with a “growth mindset” helps the negative memories dissipate.

How does one shift and control their mindset?

Chassidic teachings assure us that, by our very nature, we possess the quality of moach shalit al halev–“the mind rules the heart. The mind has the ability to transform our emotions and emotionally-driven thoughts from negative to positive[11].

When one feeds their emotions with the knowledge that yes I may have erred, but I’m still valued by   G-D, and I could take my experience to grow from it, in this way the negative “quicksand emotions” become void since one’s mindset towards the past has been shifted. This is a process that takes practice, to train the mind to deal with remorse this way, but the fact remains, that one has the power to control his mindset and thus emotions!

Sharing the burden

1)”Make for yourself a mentor and acquire for (yourself) a friend” (Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Perachya) [12]. It’s important to have someone to view one’s growth from a subjective view, to be one’s sole personal- spiritual mentor. Someone who can offer one a fresh and wise perspective, a person to guide one towards self-discovery, as well as, the right, healthy path to view the past and lead your life. Secondly, one should surround oneself with a supportive friend (or friends) that can empathize with one, over his challenges, and at the same time constantly remind one of his intrinsic value and good qualities.

2) Put pen to paper each month and inform our dear Rebbe of one’s progress, one’s feelings and wishes for the future. Just like a father the Rebbe wants to know what is going on in all aspects of one’s life .As a child, expressing one’s deepest feelings on paper, it will surely feel freeing and comforting. Once the letter is completed try to let go of all the issues expressed, the Rebbe is now informed- and now what’s to be done, is to believe that the blessings will come.

Look back- to look forth

There are certain and specific times when we should look back and reconsider the past, however there’s a method to doing this and correct specified times. This is the concept of cheshbon hanefesh –a soulful reckoning.

The first month of the year-Elul is a time to make a general review- spiritual accounting. For the rest of the year, we should pause briefly for short range assessments. For example: every night before going to sleep for a short period of time, one should look at their day and asses what went well and what could be improved on-creating a chart may help one in doing so . Thereafter one should resolve to improve in one small way for the next day[13].

“The hours must be ‘counted hours,’ then the days will be ‘counted days.’ When a day passes one should know what he has accomplished and what remains yet to be done… In general, one should always see to it that tomorrow should be much better than today[14].”

Take it step by step but remember to resolve, to in some way make tomorrow a rung better than today!

The Pause Method

“Take the time to think things through”. If we examine the Hebrew letter Hey we can learn the “pause method” in a very visual way – that will aid in preventing the guilt and grievance over the past. The right line of the Hey resembles thought, the top line speech, a gap and then a line resembling action. This teaches us, that even after thinking things through and discussing it verbally with another, one still has to take a pause before acting to reassess if this is the right thing to do. In this way we can preempt ourselves from acting in a way we could one day regret[15]. When one holds back from doing something contrary to the motive of for holiness, one causes G-D to have tremendous pleasure[16]!

A pillar of salt

In the pasha of: וירא (verse 17,26) when the city of Sedom is about to be destroyed Lot and his wife are instructed :”don’t look back”, yet she did and consequently turned into a pillar of salt. This episode teaches one something powerful on the subject at hand: the instruction was don’t look back, and a strange punishment of turning into salt was issued, let’s analyze the symbolism of Sedom and the concept of salt .

Sedom represents the self- centered and self- absorbed way of life. Salt is beneficial to a dish adding taste and flavor as long as it’s not the main element of the dish ,and if it’s there to accompany the meal. So too as long as remorse over the past is there to accompany the “food” –to help on your continuous journey to holiness, it’s fine, but the moment “salt”-guilt becomes an objective on its own and the primary narrative of one’s life, then “salt”-remorse over the past spoils the journey. When one cannot remove his gaze from Sedom, and wallow in the challenging past and primarily look back at the past, then like Lots wife, one becomes paralyzed unable to move on -like a pillar of salt. However when one looks forward away from Sedom and its mentality, then one can merit, to be called Avraham’s nephew-just like Lot[17].

Looking forward

“Who is wise – one who anticipates the future”[18] when one lives his life with forward thinking and focusses on a goal, the past barely holds relevance anymore .The Lubavicher Rebbe in numerous Chassidic gatherings mentions the future redemption and urges His followers to make the Messianic future a reality, as well as encouraging His followers to learn about Moshiach’s times and yearn for that bright future. May we merit this speedily in our days! [19]


In conclusion there are solutions to getting rid of the sticky gum of the past. Firstly one must recognize that he is a needed, valuable individual, charged with a divine mission. Next, one must evaluate where the depression over the past, stems from –depressing thoughts being negative or growth- oriented thoughts being positive. Use positive replacement when the past creeps up: be active and fill your mind and day with goodness. Now through the method of” the mind rules over the heart”, shift your mindset from a fixed one to one of growth. When it’s necessary to look back, one’s attention and time should be limited and remember that the purpose is for growth. Record one’s progress with one’s personal mentor and discuss one’s feelings with a supportive friend. Take the time to pause and think before acting, finally look ahead to a brighter future and goal, and simply let the past dissolve away.

[1] based on – phycology today :by Judith Sills Ph.D., published November 4, 2014

[2] Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch

[3] Hayom yom 7th Adar

[4] Likutei Emorim Tanya chapter 26

[5] Hayom yom Cheshvan 16

[6] – the art of forgiveness by: Eliezer shemtov 1619314

[7] Igros Kodesh, Vol. X, p. 33

[8] Mindset phycology by Carol Dweck

[9] Excerpt from a letter by the Rebbe, Igrot Kodesh, vol. XI, p.58.

[10] Explanation on The words of the Akedah- From the book : Living Emunah

[11] Tanya, Chapter 12 Pg. 33

[12] Pirkei avot chapter :1 mishna 6

[13] Based on :chapter 9 and 26 of Igeret hateshuvah tanya and likutei sichos vol 2

[14] Hayom yom 1st Iyar

[15] פרשת קרח תשמ”ד

[16] Chapter 27 Tanya Likutei Emorim

[17] avoidas halevi from Reb Aron strashele based on the Alter rebbe

[18] Pirkei avot: chapter 2 ,mishna 10

[19] Likutie sichos-The concluding paragraph in numerous sichos