Don’t Let Past Mistakes Define You

It was my youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah this past Saturday, and as is customary at our congregation, he prepared a brief sermon reflecting on what he learned from that day’s Torah reading. He centered his talk on the following question:

If you do something wrong, does that define who you are or what you can be forever?

I’m taking a break today from writing about supply chain and logistics to share with you his insights on not letting your past mistakes define you.

May we all work on doing better from this moment on.

What do you think of somebody who gets arrested for drunk driving, goes to too many parties, and gets suspended from their profession? Probably a bad person, right?

What if I told you this person was Michael Phelps? I bet you would be surprised!

If you are a swimmer, like me, you know him as the most decorated Olympic athlete ever, winning 28 medals in total — 23 of them gold. He holds 7 world records, 3 of them in individual events. Yet, even though he is one of the best swimmers of all time, Michael Phelps, like all people, went through tough times in his life.

Michael got arrested for the first time when he was 19 for under age drinking and drunk driving. He said he was sorry and vowed not to do it again. But a few years later, just after the Beijing olympics, he was caught smoking marijuana and was suspended from swimming competitions for 3 months.

In the years that followed, leading up to the London Olympics in 2012, Michael started to lose his passion for swimming. He started to skip practices, which hurt his relationship with his coach and affected his swimming performance. The low point came in 2014 when Michael was arrested again for speeding and drunk driving.

Michael Phelps’ life story raises an interesting question: If you do something wrong, does that define who you are or what you can be forever?

This morning’s Haftorah portion raises this question too. When the Israelites settled in a new kingdom, they thought it would be a good idea to have a king to rule over them. They asked Samuel to find a perfect king for them. Samuel did not like the idea and reminded the Israelites that God was their true ruler. But the Israelites insisted, so Saul was appointed king.

Samuel said “I will call unto the Lord that He may send thunder and rain; and you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the Lord, in asking for a king.”

The Israelites were terrified and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

Samuel then said to them “Fear not; you have indeed done all this evil; yet turn not aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart.”

God will not punish the Israelites but will forgive them, but only if they are truly sorry for their sins and are committed to doing the right thing moving forward. You can’t erase what you have done in the past, but you can control what you will do in the future.

This reminds me of the character Julian in the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. Have you read the book or seen the movie? Well, if you haven’t, I highly recommend them. The book is about a kid named Auggie who has a deformed face due to a medical condition and his experience going to a public school for the first time. When people take one glance at Auggie, they freak out and stay away from him. This includes Julian, the school bully. The second he sees Auggie, he starts making fun of him in front of his friends and classmates and says hurtful things like “I bet he wishes he had never been born.”

Julian’s comments and behavior make him a bully. But does that mean that Julian will always be a mean bully?

Well, in the sequel to Wonder, “Auggie and Me,” we learn that Julian truly feels sorry for his mistakes and he even ends up crying about it to his grandmother. His grandmother offers him the following advice:

“The things you did, you know they are not right. But that does not mean you are not capable of doing right. It only means that you chose to do wrong…But the good thing about life, Julian, is that we can fix our mistakes sometimes. We learn from them. We get better… One mistake does not define you, Julian. You must simply act better next time.”

And that’s exactly what Michael Phelps did.

After he messed up for the third time, he attended a 45-day rehab program to help him figure things out. It was there that he realized his mistakes and decided to dedicate himself to swimming again and compete in the Rio Olympics. It paid off: he won 6 medals at the olympics, 5 of them gold. But he made up for his past mistakes even more by starting the “Michael Phelps Foundation” that helps kids across the U.S learn to swim. Today, Michael Phelps is not known as a drunk driver who got arrested multiple times but as the greatest swimmer of all time because he did not let his past mistakes define him. Instead, he focused on doing the right thing in the future.

If we continue to make the same mistakes over and over, then that’s what we will always be known for. But if we recognize our mistakes and commit ourselves to doing the right thing moving forward — like Julian, Michael Phelps, and the Israelites in today’s Haftorah portion — then you will become a better person.

This is true not just for us but for others to. We all make mistakes, including me. Just like I wouldn’t want somebody to think bad of me for a past mistake, I have learned from this parashat that I shouldn’t judge somebody else based on something wrong they did in the past because maybe they have learned from their mistake and are working to become a better person today.

Although none of us can completely erase what we have done in the past, we can always control what we will do from this moment on.