Happy Birthday!

A few days ago, thank G‑d, I marked my 58th birthday. A fleeting day filled with a perhaps paradoxical mixture of serious reflection, a pink birthday crown, feeling grateful, being feted and too many calories.

Along with the joy, I felt an undercurrent of anxiety.

I wanted to grasp the quickly passing day, dig a little deeper and squeeze meaning out of it. Banal trips to the post office and making copies seemed wasteful, a leaking faucet wantonly dripping these precious moments of charged potential.

Should I adopt society’s view of the birthday? Just celebrateI felt an undercurrent of anxiety and enjoy the attention. Or ignore it altogether, since approaching 60 is a little intimidating, and these days, we’re all about youth. Should I splurge and dye my graying strands or get a facial, to try to pass as barely 50?

The Rebbe guided us in marking our birthdays with a blend of joy and seriousness. A birthday is a special time to enjoy, be celebrated, and bask in the warmth of loving friends and family. A time to reflect on the idea that somehow, for some happy reason, G‑d chose us and gave us this challenging but truly rich life. It’s a time to reflect on our purpose. To paraphrase Rabbi Simon Jacobson, birth is G‑d’s way of saying that we matter.

And because of this special, purpose-filled day, the birthday boy or girl actually has special soul powers. I might feel a little egotistical about telling everyone it’s my birthday, but friends and family are glad to know, clamoring, “Please give me a berachah, a blessing.” We are enjoined to use this unique 24-hour power to pour blessings on our loved ones—an even more delightful and meaningful way to “give back to the guests” than party favors and goodie bags.

But my anxiety comes from the other part of the birthday, the serious tone of the day. It’s a time for cheshbon hanefesh, internal stock-taking. And I know how short I fall. I think of the slothful wasting of time, the excuses, the half-baked efforts in so many directions. I know the gifts I’ve been given, and how little I really develop and utilize them.

I remember going to the Rebbe for dollars. The timeless moments when the Rebbe’s intense blue eyes met mine, and I felt uplifted with kindness, my soul awakened and galvanized. At other times, I felt a gentle yet strong urgency and request emanating from the Rebbe. I interpreted the penetrating look as saying, “Nu? Step up to the plate and do it already, actualize what you’ve got.” And I know that while I’ve had moments of real engagement, they’ve been spotty and erratic.

So, this 58th birthday, I carve out some time to sit down to collect my thoughts. How did the years fly through my fingers, with a whoosh and a snap? What the heck did I do with them? As illness and mortality become more real, taking away beloved ones much too often, time is becoming more precious and, like the cliché, rushing past. In the midst of a year of personal challenges, I’m struggling to recalibrate, and get a grip and direction.

I look at the numbers. Fifty-eight—nun-chet. Nach, like nachat, pride derived from children. Yes, thank You, thank You, thank You, G‑d. How can I have the audacity to do anything but thank You for my lovely family. I do have rich nachat. Should I just sit back, try to nurture, and help the growing young adults and their families, and enjoy? Certainly. But I still have things to do in my own sphere as well.

Fifty-nine—the year I’m entering. Nun-tet. It makes the sound N-T. Not. Hmm. It’s easy to focus onHow did the years fly through my fingers? the Not. It’s my default mode. The Nots that I’m not accomplishing, the Nots that I’m not getting. I can choose to see the cup as half-empty in many ways, big and small. Yes, I know about thinking positive and all that rosy stuff. But there are so many Nots. And in the world, too. The painful goings-on. The suffering. It feels like too much to bear.

But Not is quite negative.

I want to come up with a more positive message about this year, even if I’m NOT feeling it. Fake it at least.

I decide to flip the letters.

Tet-nun. T-N. This sounds like the Hebrew word tein, “give.”

Give, give. A good Chassid is always giving, like those smiling Chabad emissaries giving food, warmth, friendship and Torah, with seemingly endless energy, patience and joy. But I’m not there; I’m so empty, so worn down. I often feel I have nothing to give.

Hmmm. Maybe there are too many I’s and me’s in this essay. And too many in my mental pity party. It’s not really all about me. I don’t understand why G‑d makes so much suffering. And I don’t understand why life is hard. So what?

Maybe a little bittul, self-nullification, is called for. Paradox again. It’s my birthday. All about me. And the healthiest thing for me to be is an empty vessel, letting G‑d’s light pour through me, doing what He wants me to do—to give. Berachot. Energy. Caring. Creative energy. Let it flow, walk in His steps, and trust. Don’t worry. Just step up to the plate and be willing to try. G‑d’s got those inscrutable why’s all figured out, while they will forever remain beyond my ken.

From those hard-working emissaries, I learn: I should give. And give more. Spread light. And somehow, I won’t feel emptier, but fuller. And if not, I should spread light anyway. It’s not about me. Not so much. It’s about G‑d, who set the world up so that we need to lend a hand, an open hand.

The paradoxical nature of the 24 hours of our birthday is a microcosm of the paradoxical adventure we call life. I should give and spread light

It zooms past. We have be alert and focused to squeeze out its richness. To grasp for meaning. To savor and enjoy. To celebrate and be grateful. And to strive for bittul, the humility to realize we just don’t know, can’t know.

But if we can focus—and not on all the negatives—if we can serve and give, we can transform ourselves and our world into that resplendent garden we know this world can be, that’s just waiting for our drops, our touch, just waiting to blossom.