Our birthdays are special days for us, whether you are Jewish or not. Growing up, people celebrated their actual birthdays, but there’s a new practice of people celebrating birthday weeks! I don’t advocate for the practice of birthday weeks. Health writer Katie Heaney quipped: “You get one day. Every year, once a year, you may celebrate your birthday however annoyingly you want, but you must confine those celebrations to one day. If I hear one more person over the age of 17 refer to their “birthday week,” I’m going to throw up. That is not how this works.”
Judaism looks at our birthdays not as days of self-worship, but as days of reaching certain accomplishments and milestones. For example, in Pirkei Avot 5:21, we read about different ages and the milestones that we should strive for. Written over a thousand years ago, the mishnah states that 13 is the age of mitzvoth, 15 the study of Talmud, 18 for marriage, 20 for finding a career, 30 for power, 40 for understanding, 50 for giving advice, and the list goes on until 100. In other words, our birthdays are times for reflection to see what we have accomplished, and what we seek to attain in the coming year or decade.
Interestingly enough, in Judaism, our birthdays are also tied to another day: the day we die. In the book of Ecclesiastes (7:1-2), we read the following:
טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ׃
A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.
טוֹב לָלֶכֶת אֶל־בֵּית־אֵבֶל מִלֶּכֶת אֶל־בֵּית מִשְׁתֶּה בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא סוֹף כׇּל־הָאָדָם וְהַחַי יִתֵּן אֶל־לִבּוֹ׃
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting; for that is the end of every man, and a living one should take it to heart.
How could this possibly be true? Rashi offers an interesting commentary:
“A fine reputation for a person is better than precious oil, and on the day of [his] death that reputation is better than [it was] on the day he was born. For this reason, a good name is compared to oil in preference to other liquids, for [if] you put water into oil, it rises and floats, and is distinguishable, but other liquids, [if] you put water into them, it becomes absorbed.”
This idea is built on another mishnah from Pirkei Avot (4:13) which states that there are three crowns, the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name [כתר שם טוב], (good reputation), surpasses them all. In the age of the internet, our reputations are arguably our greatest attributes and assets. Having a good name has an effect beyond ourselves. A Jewish scholar from the late 1700’s, the Metsudat David, commenting on this line: “The fragrance of good oil dissipates but a good name grows constantly stronger.”
This is where I return to the day of our beginnings, and our endings, and how our endings can lead to new beginnings.
This week, I had the honor of taking part in an annual event that is held on the birthday of Josef Pessah of blessed memory (or as we called him at Shaarei Kodesh, Yossi), the son of Amy and Aryeh, the brother of Eitan and Bat-Ella Pessah. Every year, on August 23, Yossi’s family and friends gather to engage in an act of Gemilut-Hasadim/loving-kindness, and collect tzedakah in his name for the Josef L. Pessah Tikkun Olam Fund. This year, we gathered to clean up the beach near one of Yossi’s favorite places to play with his band. Yossi, who grew up at Shaarei Kodesh, becoming a bar mitzvah in front of our community, tragically passed away after a courageous and difficult battle with brain cancer in February of 2019. He was a gifted musician (specifically guitar) who cared for many others during his impactful life.
This Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh Elul, which is also Yossi’s Hebrew birthday, the formal beginning of the High Holiday season. On Rosh Hashanah, we recall the creation of the world by God, and God’s first creation was light. Jewish mystics believed that supernal light was placed inside each one of us, and it is never extinguished, even after we die. That light returns to God who gave it, but it also remains here in this world. Guitars are delicate – like a human being. A crack in a guitar may never be able to be fixed, and when it breaks, we may fall into a trap that the music it made is lost. This is where Tzedakah and acts of loving-kindness in the name of our loved ones who have passed plays a significant role. When we gather and act to help repair the world in their names, the ‘music’ that they made in their lives is never lost, but remains with us forever.
As I mark my birthday today, I also mark my birthday without my grandfather Frank who was also born on this day. For the first time in memory, I will not be speaking to him on the phone as we wish each other a happy birthday, but I can still hear his voice, and feel his presence in my work as a rabbi, and as a husband and father.
Rosh Hashanah is both a celebration of the possibilities of a new year, but also an acknowledgment of the past year. Rosh Hashanah is bittersweet, just like our birthdays. We look forward with hope, and we look back on our victories and regrets. Our challenge every year is to build on our ‘Keter Shem Tov’ our good reputations, not just for our own well-being and happiness, but for our futures where we may not be physically present, but spiritually in the lives of our family, friends, community, and people.