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Celebrating Birthdays

November 13, 2014 | by Emuna Braverman

They are a powerful time for reflection.

A teacher once taught me that the only person whose birthday is mentioned in the Torah is Pharaoh. I’m not really sure what to make of that. Should we ignore our birthdays? Should we forgo the cake, the ice cream, the presents?

Another teacher suggested that the present giving is all backwards. We shouldn’t receive presents on our birthdays; rather we should give them – to all of those who helped us reach this day. That was a beautiful idea that certainly resonated with me and that I try to fulfill (somewhat imperfectly) on the big ones – my 40th, my 50th etc.

I’m not sure if or why birthdays are disdained by the Torah; I think they can be a powerful time for reflection.

As I approach another one, I am grateful for the opportunity – to celebrate, to appreciate, to figure out how to go forward and make the most of the rest of my life. At this point, no matter how many years I am blessed with, my life is more than half over. (Boy, it was a little sobering putting that on paper!) While that doesn’t impel me to reach for the party hats and whistles, it does provoke some important thoughts. What do I want to do with the remaining time granted to me? Am I on a path that gives meaningful pleasure to myself and others? Am I making the most of the gifts and opportunities the Almighty has granted me? (How I miss the days when all that was required was the ability to blow out the candles on my cake!)

These are, of course, ideas that I should be grappling with every day. There is nothing holy or sacred about the day I was born – but if I use it as a catalyst to deepen myself, my relationship with those I love and with my Creator, then I have certainly imbued it with the transcendent.

It’s tempting to just ignore the day altogether but those Hallmark images are just too powerful. So I need to figure out how to make the most of it, to treat it as a mini Rosh Hashanah and think about how to capitalize on the year to come and reflect on the year passed.

The Almighty has certainly granted me many blessings and some comparable challenges – both of these are out of my control. How I react to these, whether I maintain my equanimity or lose it, whether I rise to the occasion or fall, whether I access my better self or cede the ground to my lower one – these are the choices within my power, these are the definition of who I am.

A birthday is certainly therefore a time for gratitude and a time to focus on the accomplishments and, yes, failures of the past as well as the goals for the future. As such, I don’t think it should be ignored (and I’m not above receiving a gift or two!) but rather we should take advantage of the opportunity for reflection and growth. I’m sure that’s not how Pharaoh spent his day!

Pass the cake please…

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