Today is my birthday. 68 years ago, a 26-year-old woman gave birth to me.*
The Rebbi of Lubavitch was unique amongst Chassidic masters in that he encouraged his followers, and every Jew for that matter, to do something special to “celebrate” their birthdays. When the Rebbi זצ”ל said “celebrate,” he meant several things:
- First, he saw one’s birthday as a day of introspection. A day of very personal account taking. To contemplate on where one has been; Where they are at this moment; And where they want to be in the future. It also helps if you make a decision or two to commit yourself to actions that will move you toward that future.
- He also encouraged everyone to include others in a celebration of life! In a sense, to count one’s blessings publicly. Making a La Çhayim and eating some delicious cake is an opportunity to gladden the hearts of others — and שמחה, joy, is the most important gift one person can give another.
Rav Bar Shaul wrote a book, it was actually the first Hebrew book that I ever read cover-to-cover, “The Intricacies of the Heart”. In it, he grapples with the question of the meaning of life. Although I read it 45 years ago, I can still recite the first sentence word for word:
“A person has two births. the first take but a few minutes [in duration], the second lasts the entirety of their lives.”
The Rav intended to say that the first birth is biological. It is the moment we left our mother’s womb and came out into the world to start our journey as independent creatures. The second birth is our spiritual birth. It is the process of awakening to the infinite layers to the world around us. It is our search to discover some meaning in the circumstances in which we live and the reason we exist.
My biological life commenced on the 25th of August 1951. My search for meaning probably started as early as when I could ask my first question. But I can also give a definite date for when I choose the framework for my spiritual journey — the day I accepted upon myself to live as a Torah observant Jew, the 15th of Tevet, 5733.
What is this rambling monologue trying to communicate? I guess its a sort of public celebration of my life! My life has been full of humbling experiences.
- People took me in and treated me as if I was a member of their family;
- An impossibly marvelous woman saw something in me that occasionally I doubted was even there and together we’ve enjoyed (endured?) forty-five years of married life — my they happily continue!
- Together we merited to bring six beautiful children into the world, experience the joys and tribulations of raising them, and now pray for their happiness and success;
- My wife and my inlaws ז”ל made it possible for me to study Torah almost twelve of the past forty-five years — something that filled my mind and soul with light and meaning;
I could go on and on.
When I got off the plane on the 3rd of January 1973, I knew no one in Israel. My entire worldly possessions were packed in a knapsack carried on my back. Like so many passages in Tanach, I personally identify with Yakov’s words on the eve of his return to the Land of Israel:
קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃ I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
I too question why I merited such kindness. I too thank G-d, the source of all existence, that I was blessed to live the life I have lived till now, with all its blessings, all its trials, and tribulations. Both have been a source of learning and insight.
Surrounded by the love of wife, the devotion of my children and grandchildren let me express one last thought:
May your lives be as blessed and full of meaning as mine (and may you experience fewer trials and tribulations than I did).
Avraham Yoel Ben-Avraham
A resident of Shilo, Nachalat Ephraim, Eretz Israel
*My mother may she rest her soul passed away this year. For 68 of her 94 years, I lived on a different continent, and she didn’t have the opportunity to visit with me or be visited by me. I mentioned it partly because of the coincidental numeric value of my age and the number of years we lost. I also admit that, unlike our patriarch Yakov, I’m blessed to have my children (for the most part) live in the same country as I do, and a small one to boot.