This week, as most of you know, I will celebrate my 67th birthday. 67 is neither terribly old nor particularly young, but I can’t help but be somewhat reflective, if not a little maudlin, today, as I mark this occasion.
There’s an old joke about a man who was celebrating his 60th birthday. One of the gifts he received was an ancient lamp. He admired the lamp and rubbed the smooth contours of its base. Suddenly a genie appeared out of the lamp and said to the man, “I can grant you one wish. What would you like?”
The man turned and looked at his wife and said, “What I would like is a wife 30 years younger than me.”
The Genie said, “Your wish is granted.”
And then the 60-year-old birthday boy turned into a 90-year-old man!
I remember that as I approached 30, I found birthdays to be dreadful, even ominous. After all, I’m part of the generation that said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” By age 35 I learned to appropriately adjust my judgment of all those people over 30. Old became anyone 5 years older than me. As I grow older, however, I’ve learned to accept and rejoice in what I have now.
It’s not at all like the story of the mother who was living in Miami Beach. She was a widow and her son lived in NY and was. He worried about Mom being lonely. So for her birthday, he purchased a rare parrot, trained to speak 7 languages. He had a courier deliver the bird to his dear mother. A few days later, he called.
“Ma, what do you think of the bird?”
“The bird was good, but a little tough. I should have cooked it longer.”
“You ate the bird? Ma, the bird was very expensive. It spoke 7 languages!”
“Oh, excuse me. But, if the bird was so smart, why didn’t it say something when I put it into the oven?”
It’s clear that the mother just didn’t know what to do with the gifts that she received. As I get older, my heart bursts with joy at the blessings I have received with my family and this wonderful congregation. Some of my colleagues have assessed my professional situation over the past few years and have said sympathetically, “Boy you’ve come down from such a large congregation to a startup at your age and at your stage in life.” I stop them, and by the time I tell them about how wonderful this congregation is and that I don’t need 1,000 families—I don’t even want that—to be happy and fulfilled, I think many of them become jealous. Where else can you find a congregation where everyone is happy with their rabbi—at least I hope so?
What does Judaism have to say about birthdays? Not much! We don’t celebrate the birthdays of any of our great spiritual heroes. We do, however, mark their Yahrzeits—the anniversary of their deaths. While Christianity begins with the birth of Jesus, how many of us know what day Moses was born? We light a candle for the Yahrzeit of a parent, sibling or spouse, but we don’t do much for their birthdays. In fact, in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe most Jews couldn’t even tell you what year, let alone the day they were born.
The Midrash (Tanchuma Vayakeyl 1) explains that this tendency to emphasize Yahrtzeits over birthdays is a reflection of a verse that appears in the book of Ecclesiastes: Tov sheym mishemen tov, v’yom hamavet miyom hivaldo, “A good name is better than precious oil and the day of death is better than the day of birth.” That’s pretty depressing isn’t it? How could Ecclesiastes say the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth? Don’t we value life above all else in Judaism?
The Midrash explains this verse with a beautiful parable which I have often shared in a eulogy:
“To what may this verse be compared?” said Rabbi Levy. “To 2 ships laden with merchandise sailing the ocean—one coming in and the other going out, and people praised the one going out,” a bon voyage of sorts.
An observer commented that these people had it all backwards. We should remain silent when a ship goes out to sea…after all who knows what dangers await this ship, and what mishaps will befall it. But when a ship returns home to port laden with goods we should cheer, ki halcha v’shalom uva v’shalom, because it has gone in peace and returned in peace.”
So it is with life, teaches Rabbi Levy. When a child is born, who knows what challenges and obstacles it will face. Yet we cheer the birthday of a child. But in the end when the soul has accomplished its mission and it has returned in peace we shed tears. Yet, teaches Rabbi Levy, this is the time to celebrate.
We come closer to a Jewish response to birthdays when we read a well-known statement from Pirke Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers” (5:25), suggesting that each period in life has its own blessings and its own challenges:
Rabbi Yehudah ben Tema once said: “5 years of age is the time for the study of Bible; at 10—the study of Mishnah; at 13—responsibility for the mitzvot; at 15—the study of Talmud; at 18—marriage; at 20—pursuit of a livelihood; at 30—the peak of ones power; at 40—the age of understanding; at 50—the age of advice; at 60—seniority; at 70—a white head; at 80—the age of strength; at 90—the bent back; and at 100—as one dead and out of this world.”
Rabbi Yehudah ben Tema believed that each age of life has its own special gift. A birthday, then, is a time to ask ourselves what it is we would like to be doing with our lives and its gifts. It’s fascinating—but with the exception of age 20—Rabbi Yehuda sees life as a pursuit of wisdom, beginning with the study of the Bible and Talmud and continuing with life experience.
I can’t resist one more birthday parrot story, and this one is about acquiring practical wisdom:
A guy named David received a parrot for his birthday. The parrot was fully-grown, with a bad attitude and a worse vocabulary. Every other word out of his mouth was a curse word or just plain rude. David tried hard to change the bird’s attitude and was constantly saying polite words, playing soft music—anything he could think of to try and set a good example.
Nothing worked. He yelled at the bird and the bird yelled back. He shook the bird and the bird just got angrier and ruder. Finally, in a moment of desperation, David threw the parrot into the freezer. For a few moments he heard the bird squawk, kick and scream. Then suddenly there was silence. Not a sound for half a minute. David was frightened that he might have hurt the bird and quickly opened the freezer door.
The parrot calmly stepped out onto David’s extended arm and said, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I will endeavor at once to correct my behavior. I really am truly sorry and beg your forgiveness.”
David was astonished at the bird’s change in attitude and was about to ask what had made such a dramatic change when the parrot continued, “May I ask what the chicken did?”
Practical wisdom gained from life experience is invaluable; it can even be a lifesaver. Perhaps the best wish one can make on his birthday is to repeat the verse in Psalm 90 that we recited earlier this morning, Limnot yameynu keyn hoda, v’navi l’vav chochma, “Teach us to number our days, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” What is important is the recognition, that as we become a year older, we should, at the same time, be a year wiser. Do we understand ourselves better than we did a year ago? Has our awareness of the world deepened?
There are people who deem it a great compliment to be told that they “haven’t changed a day in the last 20 years.” To me, it seems sad to say that one hasn’t changed in 20 years. Not to change is an affliction of the soul. Gd intended that we should grow more mature with our years, and that the experiences of life should provide us with wisdom that only years can bring.
So maybe birthdays really aren’t so bad. According to Pirke Avot, I’m in the decade of zikna, “seniority”—not a bad place to be. Of course Pirke Avot also tells me that I can look forward to a bent back at 90, and being out of this world as well as I reach 100—Gd willing—in another 33 years. But it also suggests that I can look forward to “a white head” at 70—if I still have any hair left—and, “at 80, the age of strength.” These are all terms of honor and great dignity.
And so as I celebrate my 67th birthday, I pray that I may be worthy to achieve 70, 80, 90 and even 100 and to celebrate it all with you. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis