Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - Birthdays
A Simple Jew asks:
In Rabbi Moshe Weinberger's teshuva drasha from last Tishrei he quoted an amazing thought from Rav Kook. Commenting on the words עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי in the Machzor, Rav Kook commented that these words should not simply be translated as "Before I was created I was not worthy." Rav Kook interpreted these words to mean that before the time that a person was born, there was not yet a need for that person since the whole purpose of his existence began precisely on the date of his birth.
There are people who believe that the whole world should stop, revolve around them, and their every wish and desire should be catered to on their birthday. And then there are people like you and I who tend to take the position diametrically opposed to this for ourselves; believing that that if anyone should celebrate on our birthdays it should be our mothers.
While there are certainly plenty of sources that support the view that one should celebrate on one's birthday, given Rav Kook's teaching it would seem to me that a person's birthday should be observed with soul searching - more like a Yom Kippur solely for that individual; a day to take on new commitments to improve one's avodas Hashem and not simply to eat cake and receive presents.
If you had to venture a guess how the Baal Shem Tov, Maggid of Mezeritch, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, or any of the other great chassidic rebbes observed their birthdays what do you think it entailed?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
I know that birthdays are a big deal to many people, and there are loads of quotes and statements for both the pro-birthday-celebrationists as well as the anti's. But I don't want to get into the specific pros and cons or the minhagim here; rather I'll just speak about my subjective feelings on the matter. Personally, I have always had a hard time relating to birthdays as anything other than simply another day – after all, what is a birthday celebrating? The fact that I'm still around? What accomplishment is there in that? Yes, we do, and we should, thank G-d every day that we're alive for granting us life and opportunity, but what is so special that a birthday should be celebrated? I always felt that the Bar-Mitzva celebration, when a boy becomes a man, should also be celebrating the end of birthday celebrations.
No doubt, part of my aversion to birthdays is that I don't like the limelight. Public speaking, or even davening at the amud, is a very stressful experience for me, and while I'm not a purely introverted person I am certainly not an extrovert by any stretch of the imagination; as such, celebrating my birthday and being the focus of attention is something that makes me a little queasy. But I think there is another reason why I don't like them. I think it's a less noble and somewhat irresponsible reason – bear with me a minute and I'll get to it.
I recently spent a night away from home, and I slept in a room with a grandfather clock – and while most clocks today are silent, this clock serenaded me with a relentless tick-tock throughout the night. I felt as if someone was pursuing me at top speed cracking his whip and steadily exclaiming, "Another second has passed! Another second has passed!" I felt guilty for each wasted second, something that in places where time passes silently I have seldom truly felt.
Now, hardly a couple weeks after my night with the grandfather clock, I now come upon yet another birthday and begin a new kapitel Tehilim. But the ticking of the clock made me realize what I think may have been my real reason for disliking birthdays: they notify me of wasted time that has passed and gone, and will never return. If nothing more, a birthday needs to be a reminder that we need to pay attention to the clock of the year and remember what we say in Pirkei Avos quoting Rabbi Tarfon:
"The day is short, the labor vast, the toilers slothful, the reward great, and the Master urgent" (Avos 2:20); "You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future" (Avos 2:21).
It is quite possible that it is my inner sloth expressing his displeasure at the rude awaking of a birthday – he takes it as a subtle personal attack on his laziness this year. If I take more advantage of my time, maybe then I'll be truly celebratory next year at this time!
But there's more than one way to celebrate. I would certainly agree that a birthday should be similar to a personal Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, but that doesn't mean that one must put on his kittel and spend the day in shul. For example, Yom Kippur has a counterpart – Purim – which seforim tell us, is even higher, but it sure looks different. So, I think that all Tzaddikim would agree that the merits of celebrating a birthday must be about introspection and growth, each individual in his or her own way, and each Tzaddik in his own way, based on his view and shoresh. As far as the specific Tzaddikim that you mentioned, I think that there may even be written accounts that answer your question – I simply don't know or don't remember them – the main thing though, without a doubt, was the emphasis on being a better Jew and accomplishing their task in this world.