Parshas Bo (5774)
I remember each year as I was growing up, coming to my parents right before my birthday on April 14th, and asking them for a birthday present. My father would always jokingly respond by saying, "We don't celebrate birthdays - that's not a Jewish thing". When I would ask him why it's not Jewish, he would say to me that the only time we find a birthday mentioned in the Torah is in Parshas Vayeishev (Genesis 40:20) - and the guy celebrating it is none other than Pharaoh, a non-Jew! And then, of course, he would give me a present anyway.
Well, a few years ago, I purchased for myself what's known as a Concordance - a huge book in which one can find all the Hebrew words in the Tanach (Bible), as well as where they can be found. So I looked up the Hebrew word for "birthday" - yom huledes - and, truth be told, I found out that my father had been mistaken all these years! There is actually one other yom huledes mentioned in the Bible - and that is in the Book of Ezekiel where the prophet talks of another birthday - the birthday of you and me and the entire Jewish nation!
The prophet Ezekiel uses the parable of a newborn baby, who was abandoned until a compassionate benefactor came along and took care of her and raised her, to describe the birth of our nation in Egypt and how we were saved from our misery by our loving Father in Heaven.
Ezekiel writes in the name of G-d: "And as for your birth, on the day that you were born (b'yom huledes osach), your navel was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing .... No eye pitied you to do for you any of these, to have compassion on you ....Then I passed by you and saw you downtrodden in your blood. And I said to you: 'In your blood, live'.... to thrive like the plants of the field did I cause you, and you increased and grew .... And I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness, swore to you and entered a covenant with you .... and you became Mine …" (Ezekiel 16:4-9).
The commentaries explain this passage to mean that the Exodus from Egypt - which we retell and relive each year at the Passover Seder - is actually the celebration of our Jewish nation's birthday.
So there you have it, folks. Two birthdays in the Bible - one that Pharaoh celebrated, and one that all of us celebrate on Passover.
SO YOU WERE BORN TODAY.... WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?
Did you ever stop to think about birthday celebrations? Aren't they kind of strange? I mean, you turn 16, or 60, or whatever, and a bunch of your friends and family members get together and bake you a cake and give you lots of presents. Now, think for a second, what exactly did you do to deserve all this?! It's not like you just graduated Harvard with a PhD, or you donated a million dollars to the local hospital, or something like that.... all you did was to become one year older!! That's it!
And - don't tell your friends - but it happens automatically, even if you're sleeping! You have to do absolutely nothing to become a year older. So why are you getting all those presents? Your mother "shleps" you around for nine months, then diapers you and burps you and carpools you and puts up with you so that you should get to this point where you are now..... and YOU get the presents? I say, give them to your MOTHER!!!!
And how about Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties? Those are really great! I remember being the center of attention as all my cute great aunts came over to me after I spoke at my Bar-Mitzvah party and kissed me and pinched me on the cheeks. And the best part was when these people whom I had never met before (but whom, thank G-d, my parents had invited anyway!) came over to me and slipped me envelopes full of money! And I'll never forget that Viennese Table with all those candy apples and chocolate eclairs.
But you know what's so funny about all that? You become a Bar-Mitzvah (a Hebrew word meaning "one who is of age to be obligated in the Torah commandments") when you become 13 no matter what!!! (Or 12, if you're a girl). All you have to do is to turn one year older and, all of a sudden, you're being given all these gifts as if you just found a cure for cancer, or something! Amazing!
[I can't tell you how many adults I have met over the past few years who have sadly confided to me that they had never been "Bar-Mitzvahed". What they really meant, of course, is that this particular milestone in their lives was never publicly celebrated. But I wanted to tell them that, in fact, they were bar-mitzvahed since becoming "Bar-Mitzvahed" happens automatically!]
So why should we celebrate birthdays if we don't do a whole lot to deserve them, other than just to grow a little older, which happens by itself?
I think that we can gain some insight into the proper celebration of the Bar/Bat-Mitzvah and other birthdays from a closer look at the two birthdays mentioned in the Torah.
[The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, used to celebrate his birthday with great joy and merriment, using the following rationale. When a person is in great danger one day and is saved miraculously, he is obligated to thank G-d for performing that miracle for him each year as that day comes around, and to make what is known as a seudas hoda'ah, a party of thanks. And, said the Rebbe, what greater miracle is there than the miracle of childbirth. So each year, as that day comes around, he would make a big birthday party to thank G-d for the miracle of his own birth!]
PHARAOH'S WILD BIRTHDAY PARTY
If we examine Pharaoh's birthday party and how he celebrated it, as recorded in the Torah, we will find that he took birthday parties to a whole new level! I mean, I'm not talking themed Disney parties or a day of rock-climbing, or something tame like that.
The Torah says that at Pharaoh's party, he took an accounting of the deeds and misdeeds of his trusted servants, the Butler and the Baker, and the one he restored to his original position and the other he hanged on the gallows! Talk about a wild party!!!
Now I'm not suggesting that we should try this ourselves or with our kids. But isn't it strange that Pharaoh was killing people on his birthday? And if he was just some kind of weirdo sadist, why does the Torah feel the need to share that information with us?
The truth is that we are being taught here a lesson in how to celebrate our own Jewish birthdays. Allow me to explain. You see, each and every one of us was given by G-d at birth certain talents and abilities - you might call them our "trusted servants" - with which we can mold ourselves and the people around us, and make a positive impact on our communities and even the world. Well, who is going to check up on us to see if we are utilizing those gifts and talents in a proper way - sharing them with others - if not ourselves?
That's where birthdays come in. On our birthday we should try to make an accounting of all the "servants" in our employ to see if we are doing what G-d wants from us with what He gave us to work with - much the same way an investment banker might review his stocks once a year (or more) to see how they're doing and to make changes if necessary.
The only difference is that Pharaoh was a wicked, egotistical individual, who could never conceive that he might not be using his own "servants" and talents properly. So, instead, he made an accounting of the Butler's and Baker's work. And when he found that the Baker hadn't been using his talents properly in the service of the King, he got rid of him. But we who know better and who aren't so self-centered, can at least take a cue from Pharaoh and use the occasion of our birthday as a time to think about what we did over the past year, and to see if the many gifts and special qualities that G-d gave us are being put to good use, or are, G-d forbid, just being wasted – in which case, we need to improve in those areas.
THE FESTIVAL OF GRATITUDE
And now to the only other birthday mentioned in the Torah - the yom huledes of our nation in Egypt, as described by the prophet Ezekiel.
As the prophet points out, the Jewish people when they were "born" were abandoned and practically left for dead. Our people suffered under Egyptian persecution for over 200 years. And we were almost entirely assimilated into the prevailing decadent and immoral Egyptian culture that surrounded us. Without G-d's Divine intervention and all those amazing miracles that He wrought for us against the evil Egyptians, we would never have gotten out of that pit of human misery, much the same way an abandoned baby lying on the street has little hope of survival.
On Passover we celebrate our birthday by reliving that experience so that we can express our utmost gratitude to G-d for all that He did to get us to where we are today. We raise a cup of wine in the middle of the Seder and we say: "And this [Divine] promise is what has sustained and kept us all these years ... For in each and every generation, they have tried to destroy us, and G-d has saved us from their hands."
So, you see, the Festival of Passover is really a national "themed" birthday party - and the theme is GRATITUDE. And I think that's the other lesson in celebrating birthdays. A birthday is a time when we remember all of those who helped us get to where we are today - our parents who literally raised us and did so much for us, and who have such a large part in who we are today, our wonderful friends and extended families who were always there for us when we needed them, and, of course, the most important contributor in our lives, our Father in Heaven.
Now, I'm not advocating that we should stop giving presents to people on the occasion of their birthday (G-d knows, Hallmark would probably send a hit-man after me! And, frankly, I myself like getting free things!). But I think that the Torah lesson here is that when we do shower our loved ones with all those Wiis and Orlando trips after they blow out the candles just for turning one year older, we might also take the time to impress upon them both the responsibility that comes with being a year older, given all the talents and qualities that they have with which to help others, as well as the gratitude and thanks they should feel towards all those who got them to where they are.
COUNTDOWN TO OUR NATIONAL BAR-MITZVAH
As you may know, we Jews have a special commandment starting from the second night of Passover and continuing for 49 days until Shavuos, the Festival of Weeks, called Sefiras Ha'omer, the Counting of the Omer.
The commentaries explain the rationale for this commandment as follows: Just as we celebrated our birth as a nation in Egypt on the Festival of Passover, we had our "bar-mitzvah" celebration just 49 days later at Mount Sinai, when we "came of age" and became obligated in the Torah and its commandments. And, much the same way our ancestors eagerly awaited their Bar-Mitzvah party at Mount Sinai with great anticipation and excitement, counting down the days till they would finally receive the Torah, we, too, are commanded to count the 49 days from Passover, when we left Egypt, till Shavuos, when we received the Torah. And this countdown is known as Sefiras Ha'omer (the Omer was a sacrifice brought on the second day of Passover, which served to "kick-off" the countdown to Shavuos.)
This "countdown connection" between Passover, the Festival of Gratitude, and Shavuos, our national Bar-Mitzvah party, underscores the intrinsic connection between the two aspects of a Jewish birthday celebration mentioned earlier. Just as Passover is linked to Shavuos, so, too, must the gratitude we have on our birthday connect with the sense of responsibility that we must have to utilize properly the many gifts and talents that G-d gave us.
When the Jews left Egypt, they didn't just celebrate their "birthday" by taking a trip down to the Red Sea, they immediately started counting toward the time when they would be able to put their newfound freedom to use in the service of G-d. The Jewish people realized that there was a purpose for their being free. They knew that they had a destiny to fulfill. So they eagerly awaited the time when they would receive the Torah and thus be able to maximize their spiritual potential to the fullest.
So, in reality, the true Jewish birthday celebration combines two different elements that are really one - we express gratitude for getting to this point, and we recognize that, as a result of that gratitude, we have a responsibility to make an accounting of our G-d-given gifts to make sure that we now utilize them to their fullest potential. In this way, we can hope to have truly "happy" and "meaningful" birthdays as well.
[This Z-mail is partially based on the writings of Rabbi Chaim Friedlander ZT”L in Sifsei Chayim (Moadim Vol. 1).]