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When Backward Becomes Forward

A friend of mine who works very hard on himself recently told me that after a period of sustained growth, he suddenly experienced a painful spiritual failure that set him back in his personal development. “But I guess it’s two steps forward, one step back,” he said. 

It’s a well-known expression. But is it true?

We know that growth isn’t always linear. That’s obvious to anyone who has lived life. But is that best described as “two steps forward, one step back”? The phrase means that even when setbacks follow a period of progress, there may still be a net gain. In other words,  although I may have lost some ground, I’m still coming out ahead of where I started. Yet it almost implies that my initial progress was too ambitious and unsustainable; therefore, it was only a matter of time before I would lose some of that progress, like a “correction” in the stock market. 

But is that the only kind of non-linear growth? I don’t think so. Rather than “two steps forward, one step back,” I believe that life is often “one step back, two steps forward.” Do you catch the difference?

It also describes a net gain where I come out ahead in the end. Still, it’s different because it represents a growth period that actually begins with loss. As odd as it sounds, the first step in my journey is actually away from my destination.

Of course, if you want a single word encapsulating this idea, that would be the Hebrew word teshuvah. It literally means “return,” but it also means so much more than that. To return somewhere implies that you left it. So to return, we need to first leave. And in fact, our leaving allows us to come back even closer than we were when we started.

To be clear, the step back is not an end in itself. Indeed, it cannot be done on purpose, as our sages tell us, “anyone who says I will sin and then repent will not manage to repent” (Yuma 85b.) However, after the fact, once it has already happened, there is no denying that the step back can actually make it possible to come even closer to Hashem than before. As our sages said: “In the place where baalei teshuva stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand” (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 7:4, citing Berachos 34b.) 

In psychological terms, it is sometimes through temporarily losing our feeling of closeness with Hashem that we can become more sensitive to the relationship than we were before. This is what Dovid HaMelech describes as “thirsting” for Hashem in “a parched desert” (Tehillim 63.) When somebody finds himself in a desert, he suddenly gains a whole new appreciation for water that he would not otherwise have had. Therefore, try as we must to avoid it, whenever we do experience a setback in our spiritual growth we need to view it as a valuable part of the process.

A young man from a secular background once came to study in the central Lubavitch yeshiva in Crown Heights during the early years of the Rebbe’s leadership. For three months, the newcomer experienced a period of incredible spiritual growth. And then, one day he received his draft notice for the Korean War. He told his friends in yeshiva, “When I was not observant, I had all the time in the world, and I misused it. Now, when I finally understand how life is meant to be lived, I am torn away from it. Why would Hashem do this?”

The young man went to the Rebbe and told him in a private audience that he was afraid of how going into the army would affect his newfound Torah observance. The Rebbe responded, “Sometimes one must take a step backward in order to be able to go forward.” The young man did not understand and therefore did not respond. The Rebbe then got up from behind his desk and explained the point more clearly. Standing, the Rebbe pointed to his chair. “If I wanted to jump over this chair, I couldn’t do it because I’m standing right next to it. But if I would take a few steps away from it, I could get a running start and easily jump over it.” With the Rebbe’s blessing, the young man reported to the army. He did two years of service, during which he found himself spiritually influencing other soldiers.

If you are experiencing a setback right now, don’t let it go to waste. Spring forward and reach new levels that you could never have before!

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