For the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about birthdays. Firstly, on February 10, 28 of Shevat, I celebrated my fortieth birthday and it was quite a reflective experience of what I would like the next forty years to look like. In addition, we are approaching the holiday of Pesach. While the focus of Pesach is the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, our sages tell us that it is considered the birthday of the Jewish nation.
While there were Jews before the exodus, they had not yet received nation-status as they had yet to receive the Torah. The Torah is the divine instruction-manual of how G-d Almighty wants us to act in the world that he created. Before the giving of the Torah, we were a people and right after the exodus we became a nation. We received an eternal gift that comes along with a tremendous responsibility: To be a light of holiness and morality to the entire world. As G-d Almighty says (Exodus 19:4-5):” You shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”
We also just finished celebrating the holiday of Purim. The merit that helped cause the miraculous salvation in ancient Persia, was also in the merit of the birthday of a very holy person: Moshe Rabbeinu. Our sages tell us the following thought-process of the evil Haman when — casting his lots to decide which date to destroy the Jewish people — it fell in the month of Adar: “Haman was delighted and said: Adar has no merit, its sign has no merit, and what is more, in Adar Moshe their master died. He however did not know that during Adar he was born. The birth of Moshe forgives for the death of Moshe.”
While excitedly telling a friend about my upcoming birthday, and the planned (Covid-permitting) celebration, he gave a shrug with his shoulders and said: “Celebrating birthdays is not a Jewish thing. As a matter of fact, the only birthday-party mentioned in the Torah is one that was being celebrated by Pharoah (as detailed in Genesis chapter 40)!
This comment made me stop and think about the Jewish approach to birthdays, as seemingly it would be more appropriate to celebrate the day of an actual accomplishment, than the day of our birth when nothing has yet to be accomplished in this world. Yet, our sages tell us that there is a special merit that every human receives on their birthday. The Talmud (Yerushalmi) tells us about the famous war against Amalek - who Haman was a descendent: “ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Amalek was a sorcerer. What would he do? He would send to battle those whose birthday fell out on that day, saying that a person does not fall quickly on his birthday. What did Moshe do? He mixed up the mazalos [Zodiac] thus taking away the strength of the Amaleki fighters”.
In truth, your birthday commemorates the day on which G-d said to you: "You, as an individual, are unique and irreplaceable. No person alive, no person who has ever lived, and no person who shall ever live, can fulfill the specific role in My creation I have entrusted to you." It is a time of reflection on the direction of your life, and the fulfillment of the purpose of your creation. On one’s birthday, one should spend some time in seclusion, bringing to mind recollections from the past and pondering over them. As to those of his bygone actions that call for rectification or repentance, one should repent and rectify them.
It is also a day of gratitude and thanks to G-d Almighty for your existence and your friends and loved ones for being part of, and enriching, your life. Birthday parties are not just for children; they are also for adults. They are not just big milestones like Bar-Mitzvah or forty, but every single year of life is worth celebrating and expressing gratitude. When your Hebrew birthday arrives, take some time to say some extra Psalms, give extra charity and try to add in your learning of the Torah. So, L’chaim - to life, health and eternal gratitude to our creator!
You can email Rabbi Gerson Avtzon at firstname.lastname@example.org.