Birthdays. Some hate them, while others love them. Growing up, I loved celebrating my birthday, not only because of the presents, but because within Chabad, as per the instructions of the Rebbe, of blessed memory, it was a special experience. We would make a public hachlatah (resolution) in the realm of Torah and mitzvos growth for the upcoming year, we would go get a dollar and berachah from the Rebbe on the Sunday before, we’d give extra tzedakah on the day, and we’d end the day with a party, and when we grew older a farbrengen, where we celebrated with friends and were on the receiving end of many berachos and l’chaims.
The Rebbe taught us that a birthday is a personal Rosh Hashanah, a personal rebirth, as new Divine energies are showered upon us from on high on this auspicious day. It’s the day that Hashem put us on earth, it’s the day that our mission as an independent creation commenced, and it’s an annual day when the Yerushalmi in Rosh Hashanah says that “mazlo gover,” our personal energetic powers come alive and are strengthened. The Rebbe would celebrate his birthday on the 11th of Nissan with a nightlong farbrengen, and there’s no better education than role modeling.
Birthday celebrations In the Jewish world are common now, but it wasn’t always this way. My Zayde told me that in Poland they would scoff at the gentiles for celebrating birthdays and that the only explicit mention of a yom holedes, a birthday, in the Torah was that of Pharaoh. Yes, we knew that Moshe Rabbeinu was born and passed away on the 7th of Adar, but the actual celebration of birthdays was not a thing. Today, it is, baruch Hashem, and in no small part thanks to the Rebbe’s emphasis on this issue and campaign to see it come to fruition. Furthermore, in a world where so many Jews don’t even know about their Jewish birthday and the Jewish calendar, it’s an opportunity to teach them about the lunar calendar and its connection to Am Yisrael.
Sure, the Ben Ish Chai, the Chatam Sofer, the Arizal, the Chofetz Chaim, and others discussed the importance of a birthday and some even celebrated it, but it didn’t hit the masses as something vital for each and every Jew, man and woman, adult and child, and everyone in between. Like many of the Rebbe’s revolutions, he didn’t invent the wheel; he simply brought authentic Jewish tradition back to life, ideas that, in many cases, were lost to the majority of Jewry.
This week, I celebrate two important birthdays. One week into Elul (7th of Elul) is the birthday of my maternal grandmother, Esther Goldman, a’h. She was a Crown Heights matriarch who, with dignity and class, raised a family and uplifted a community with the values and “hartz” of Yiddishkeit. She loved the birthday cards, enjoyed the parties, and cherished the flower deliveries. One day later, 8 Elul, Chavie and I celebrate the 11th birthday of our daughter Chaya. Though Chaya isn’t our oldest, she is our first. In November 2009, when we adopted Chaya, she made me an Abba and Chavie a Mommy.
We had been married for almost four years with no children at that point, and holding Chaya in our arms for the very first time at the New Jersey adoption agency that Tuesday morning shifted the trajectory of our life, the creation of our unconventional family began, and we were gifted with parenthood, an unparalleled title entrusted to us by Hashem.
In this week’s parashah, Ki Seitzei, we read about keeping our word: “When you make a vow to the L-rd, your God, you shall not delay in paying it, for the L-rd, your G-d, will demand it of you, and it will be counted as a sin for you … Observe and do what is emitted from your lips just as you have pledged to the L-rd, your G-d, as a donation, which you have spoken with your mouth.”
The Gemara in Niddah (30b) says that before a child is born it is administered an oath, “And what is the oath that the angels administer to the fetus? Be righteous and do not be wicked. And even if the entire world says to you: You are righteous, consider yourself wicked. And know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pure, and His ministers are pure, and the soul that He gave you is pure. If you preserve it in a state of purity, all is well, but if you do not keep it pure, I, the angel, shall take it from you.”
This Talmudic declaration is the opening of the Tanya, the magnum opus of Chabad Chassidism.
Simply put, we made a vow to Hashem before birth to live righteously, to be in control of our behavior, to make a difference in the world as a beacon of Hashem’s light, and we are supposed to keep our word. On a birthday we are reminded that we are here for a reason, not just to live like Ivan, but to accomplish, as Hashem’s shliach, his emissary to the world, so very much.
The two oldest sons of the fourth Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Maharash (Reb Shmuel), were the Raza (Reb Zalman Aaron) and the Rashab (Reb Sholom Dovber). One day, when they were playing outside, they had an argument about the difference between Jews and gentiles. The Raza said that Jews are more special because of all of the Torah that they learn and the kavanah (concentration) they have when they pray. But the Rebbe Rashab said that couldn’t be. Because many Jews couldn’t learn Torah or have kavanah in prayer, but they still had to be different than gentiles.
When the Rebbe Maharash heard about their argument, he called them over. He told them to bring Bentzion, a simple Yid who helped in their house. The Rebbe Maharash asked Bentzion a few questions: “Bentzion, did you eat?”
“Yes,” Ben-Tzion answered.
“Did you eat well?”
Bentzion shrugged. “Well? I ate enough, baruch Hashem.”
The Rebbe Maharash asked further: “Why do you eat?”
“So I can live,” Bentzion said.
“And why do you need to live?”
“To be a Jew and do what Hashem wants,” Bentzion answered.
Then the Rebbe Maharash asked that the coachman, Ivan, come. The Maharash asked Ivan the same questions: “Ivan, did you eat?”
“Yes!” Ivan answered.
“Did you eat well?”
Ivan smiled. “Yes, I did!”
“And why do you eat?”
“I need to eat so I can live,” Ivan said.
“And why do you need to live?”
“To enjoy a good drink of vodka and something good to eat!” Ivan answered.
The Rebbe Maharash thanked Ivan. Now his sons were able to see for themselves the unique role each Jew is given. Celebrating our birthday brings this mission-oriented living to life. A birthday reminds us that we are to emulate Bentzion, not Ivan.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.