BIRTHDAYS AND YAHRZEITS
“From Beeroth-bene-jaakan. the Israelites marched to Moserah. Aaron died there and was buried there; and his son Eleazar became priest in his stead.” (Deuteronomy 10:6)
This is an important week for me, both for happy and sad reasons. Ekev was my bar mitzvah portion (59 years ago), so I always chant the haftarah (prophetic portion) this week. My birthday usually falls this week, and my wife’s birthday falls 11 days earlier. As I grew up, a mid-summer birthday was never fun as most my friends were at camp or out of town. Still, a birthday is always a time to celebrate.
This week I also have three yahrzeits (anniversaries of deaths by the Jewish calendar) within a few days, my brother, my mother, and my wife’s father. I admit that I do not observe anything special on my late mother’s birthday. But on her yahrzeit I light a candle, go to synagogue to say special prayers in her memory, and if possible, try to lead services. In Judaism, after someone has left this world, it is far more customary to remember the day they died than the day they were born. For example, in our secular calendar, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (January 15). We do not know Moses’ birthday, but we remember his yahrzeit (7 Adar.)
Jewish tradition has not put great importance on birthdays. In fact, the only birthday mentioned in the Bible was Pharaoh, a man whose life was laid out for him from the moment of birth. Chabad writes on its website regarding birthdays, “This is the day God said to you, you are unique and irreplaceable.” Of course, Chabad recommends celebrating the day you were born on the Hebrew calendar. I believe a birthday is worth celebrating, because God has gifted you another year of life.
If birthdays are worth celebrating, why do Jews remember yahrzeits rather than birthdays when someone has passed on. Perhaps the best explanation is a rabbinic parable which I have often used when conducting a funeral. Imagine two boats, one leaving the harbor on a long journey and one returning to the harbor after a long journey. People are frightened regarding the boat leaving, will it be a safe and successful journey? People celebrate the boat returning to the harbor, it has completed a safe and successful journey. But in life it is the other way around. A baby is born and we feel such joy, yet we do not know if that baby will live a full and successful life. A life ends and we feel sad, yet if it has been a successful life, that is worth celebrating. It is fascinating that when someone dies, families have begun using the phrase “celebration of life” rather than the gloomy word “funeral.”
But how can we move past the sadness when someone we love has died? There is a hint in this week’s Torah reading. Moses recounts the journeys of the people Israel to a new generation, about to enter the Promised Land. In the middle of recounting the journey, Moses says, “Aaron died there and was buried there; and his son Eleazar became priest in his stead.” Then Moses continues with the journeys. Earlier in the Torah, when Aaron dies, there is a thirty-day mourning period. But the mourning ends and the journey begins once again. So it is with life. Someone dies, we mourn, but then we begin our journey once again. The death of a loved one hurts, but it is not the end. Our journey of life, which began with our birthday, must continue.
Our tradition teaches that both birth and death are in the hands of God. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). On our birthday, whether we celebrate by the English or Hebrew calendar or both, we ought to celebrate the gift of life and the opportunity to do God’s work in this world for another year. And on a loved one’s yahrzeit, we ought to remember the work they did in this world, and how we can build on their work. It was Isaac Newton who famously said, “We may not be giants. But we are sitting on the shoulders of giants.”