Leave The Past, Live the Present

By Yehoshua Herzfeld, Clifton, NJ
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


Time is in constant movement, yet sometimes people choose not to move on with it. They refuse to let go of past mistakes they might have made, or negative/traumatic experiences they have fallen victim to. Rather than being happy in the present, their past is ultimately dictating their immediate situation. While it is true that one’s past molds their present state of living, it’s the actions one takes in the present that will ultimately form their future. Chassidus comes to teach that it is of very little importance where one has come from ­­because each person is capable of making a complete transformation and achieve the level of Beinoni . A [1]Beinoni is an individual who is in complete control of his thought, speech, and action. Although he is in constant battle with his evil inclination, he overcomes it every time. The Alter Rebbe stated  that the rank of Beinoni is attainable by each and every person , with no regard to how [2] low they may have fallen in the past. The only thing that matters for one to reach this lofty level is to take control of his current situation. In this composition, we will further examine fundamental chassidic concepts such as ishafcha (transformation) and bittul (self­nullification) in[3] the context of a Chassidic discourse by the Alter Rebbe entitled Chayav Inash Livsumei. Once we gain a better understanding of these concepts, we will be able to apply them to alleviate one’s overall failure to move on from past traumatic experiences.

Post­traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that sometimes develops in people who have lived through an extremely negative, scary, or dangerous event. Although it’s natural for one to have a great sense of fear as the event takes place, sometimes the symptoms persist even after the event has long passed­­this is referred to as PTSD. One who is suffering from PTSD might have symptoms where they re­live the experience in their mind over and over (a.k.a flashbacks). Such an individual might also have avoidant symptoms, in which they keep away from places or situations that remind them of the traumatic experience. Further issues that might occur are: angry outbursts, negative thoughts towards one’s self, and people around them, and loss of interest in enjoyable activities. It is evident that one who suffers from PTSD didn’t just go through a negative singular experience, but is struggling constantly in their present mental state.They may have physically walked away from the experience, but the experience has not left them. They find themselves in the midst of a psychological battle­ground.

Although PTSD is a vicious opponent, it is not impossible for one to overcome and vanquish it. The first chassidic concept that will help achieve this goal is becoming bittul. Bittul, in literal terms, means self-­nullification. One of the highest levels a person can achieve in connection to G­-d is to not feel a sense of themselves at all. This occurs when one recognizes and contemplates on how G­-d is the only true existence, and that being a human means that one is not self-­sufficient. On the contrary, one is totally dependent on G-­d for his vitality and existence. This will arouse a feeling of humility and humbleness in a person and will help one come to establish a sense of complete dependency upon G-­d. When fully internalized, one will recognize that everything is ultimately in G-­d’s hands, and whatever he has gone through in his past was divinely orchestrated. The second concept, as stated above, is known as ishafcha.  Ishafcha, in literal terms, means transformation. It is commonly used in Chassidus to explain a personal transformation of evil to good, and on a greater scale, a transformation in the world from darkness to light. As described by the Frierdiker Rebbe, one must perform ishafcha with his inner self (and reveal the G-­dliness within him), in order to create an ishafcha in the world at [4] large­­ making this world a place where G-­d feels comfortable to dwell and reveal Himself .

In Chayav Inash Livsumei, the Alter Rebbe investigates why Mordechai (the leader of [5] the Jewish people during the Purim story), was given the title “Ish Yehudi” ­­ “The Jewish man.” It couldn’t have been that he was from the tribe of Yehudah, because it is known that he was of the tribe of Binyamin. Rather, the conclusion is that yehudi comes from the word hoda’ah which means “acknowledgement” or “thanks.” A Jew (Yehudi) , at his core essence, is bittul. He acknowledges that everything truly comes from G-­d, and that everything in this world is nothing in comparison to Him. Mordechai was the epitome and source of bittul for the entire Jewish [6] people. In relation to this, the allusion to Mordechai in the Torah is mor dror (pure mor) , which the Aramaic translator, Onkelos, renders it meira dachya    (crushed mor). Mor was a spice in the sacrificial incense used in the Sanctuary. The fascinating thing about mor was that it originated as congealed blood in the wind­pipe of an animal. It is widely known that blood is prohibited to be eaten according to Jewish law. In accordance with this, there are Rabbis who stated that it could be used as a spice, but still forbade it to be eaten. Interestingly enough, there are opinions (Rabbeinu Yonah) that would even permit mor to be eaten.This would represent a complete ishafcha! Based on this, we can see a direct relationship between bittul and ishafcha. The mor was crushed­­ which represents it losing it’s identity. However, this allowed it to evolve and reach a level that it never could have attained before, in its former state. So too, when an individual allows himself to be “crushed” (gives up his ego and sense of self), he can achieve a true level of bittul. Now that he places zero focus on himself, and recognizes G­-d as his true essence and existence, he can overcome all his limitations. The more he takes himself out of the equation, the more G-­d will elevate him to reach new heights.

Furthermore, Chassidus connects this dispute (whether the mor can be eaten) to a disagreement in regards to repentance. One side claims that after repenting, one’s intentional sins are considered as if committed unintentionally. On the other hand, there is the opinion that after repenting, one’s intentional sins are actually turned into merits. This is a further example as to the possibility of someone/something making a complete transformation. It is of no significance how low one has fallen in the past. If one makes the right decisions in this very moment, they can see all the negativity they were involved with turn into complete good­­ darkness can truly turn into light. This is made evident by both the mor spice, and the individual who does a sincere repentance.

Based on the above, we can now return to our discussion of PTSD. It is no easy task in moving on from past traumatic experiences, and infusing the present with positivity. However, one now has the tools to make this a reality. Through achieving a level of bittul, one can effect a complete ishafcha in his life. It all starts with the recognition that one is not in control of the past. Everything that has happened, although very painful, was prescribed to happen through G­d’s divine providence. Once he internalizes that he is not in control, and that G­d (who knows what is best for him) is the One in control, he can break through his previous limitations. All that he can do is try to make the most of the present moment­­just like the Beinoni, and the penitent who has changed his ways to good. Every person has negative occurrences in the past and things that they wish they didn’t have to experience. But each person has also been gifted with the abilities to overcome whatever has been thrown at him.

To comprehend this in a practical situation, we can examine a teenager who has just gotten into their first car accident. It was their very first week with a license, and the accident was quite severe. Although he made it out without any physical wounds, he had become very shaken up from the whole experience. Over a month has passed, and he refuses to get back into a car and drive. Not only that, but he stops leaving the house to spend time with friends. He doesn’t feel comfortable getting into a vehicle unless he absolutely must (such as to get to school and come back home). He is extremely tense and apprehensive in the car even though he is only a passenger, and he reimagines the collision every time he sees another car in the lane next to his.

This person obviously represents someone struggling with a harsh case of PTSD. Just as the mor and the penitent were able to turn over their initial state of being, so too, this teenager can do the same. He is not obligated to rejoice in his hardship and he certainly doesn’t have to be happy with his predicament. But the truth of the matter is that this sequence of events can make him stronger ­­if he takes the right steps. He must first recognize the negative impact that this accident is having on his daily functioning. The experience has taken place over a month ago, and he is still letting it invade all the important aspects of his life. He is falling out of touch with his closest friends. They try to be there for him, and encourage him to overcome his reservations about traveling to hang out. But as time passes, they are becoming less and less interested in whether or not he is there. He also can’t go on being frightened of driving forever. Driving is an essential for someone to get a job, go shopping, or take care of other basic needs.

Once he establishes that the disorder is dragging down his present state of living, he can begin to implement bittul and perform a complete ishafcha . He will recognize that the accident was tragic, and that he was not in control of what took place. But the truth is that he’s not really in control of anything in his past. Everything is truly in the hands of G-­d, and G-­d is the one who put him through this negative experience. However, he can acknowledge that G-­d only puts him through challenges that he can overcome, and has blessed him with the abilities and skills to handle whatever is thrown at him. In fact, he is at his strongest (mentally and emotionally) when he admits that all strength comes from G-­d. This sense of bittul will allow him break through all those things that were limiting and confining him before. He now knows that G-­d only wants what is best for him. This brings him to an authentic state of ishafcha. He can now see how the accident should no longer bring him down, but in actuality, will lift him up to new heights. Having gone through this, he will now be a much more conscientious driver. He will be more aware of defensive driving skills, and will probably be more careful than the rest of his teenage friends. This seemingly “tragic” event may have really prevented a much worse accident that could have taken place in the future.

Ultimately, we should do our best to recognize that we don’t really have control of the occurrences in our life. We can’t change anything that has already happened to us. But we do have the capability and strength to overcome all negativity, as long as we are working towards this goal with the right mindset ­­knowing that everything is from G-­d and it’s only through G-­d that we can elevate the “bad” in our past to absolute good in the present. May G­-d bless us to know only revealed good at all times.



[1] The Beinoni is often referred to as “the hero of Chabad.” The sefer of Tanya is written for the Beinoni, and has guided countless individuals to fulfill their full potential.

[2] Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, Ch. 14

[3] Printed in Torah Or, pg. 195

[4] As transmitted in the Chassidic Discourse entitled Basi Legani, 5710 (1950)

[5] Megillas Esther 2:5

[6] Exodus 30:23