I’m pretty sure birthdays are about getting to do whatever you want, right? As children, we’re served cake and ice cream and showered with presents as our parents rent out party rooms at some activity center. As we get older, what we want may become more reserved, such as a quiet evening with the wife or dinner with close friends. Those of us who are haunted by the aging process may want to skip the whole thing altogether. But a couple years ago I found myself choosing to spend my birthday at a solemn memorial as the community buried one of its most dedicated members.
To be honest, I don’t love the big party get together. My friends have always come from disparate groups, often lacking anything in common. Rather than sitting back as I’m greeted with well wishes and whiskey shots, I find myself running from group to group, making sure each friend is comfortable, attended to, and well… not bored. So when I found myself at the funeral of Peter Weintraub, in some ways it was a relief.
The Weintraubs had been major supporters of Aish and The Community Shul for years and Sarah orchestrated the annual Aish banquet with spectacular results. Though I have no honest understanding of the full scope of what they’ve accomplished, they were the hosts of one of the first Shabbat meals I ever attended. However, other than that we didn’t have a personal relationship, really. So when I saw the Baruch Dayan HaEmes email from the Community Shul announcing his passing and that the levaya (funeral) would be on my birthday, I didn’t think I was going to actually attend.
Judaism doesn’t seem to hold that a person’s birthday is worthy of so much fanfare. The only mention of a birthday in the Torah is that of Pharaoh, not a figure we strive to emulate. Birthdays are considered celebrations of the secular world and there is a mitzvah to specifically not follow customs of other nations. Judaism if far more concerned about the yahrzeit of a person, as those are usually the dates that are remembered and celebrated when it comes to the big rabbis.
However, there is some evidence to support that Judaism does appreciate birthdays. For one, it’s the day God decided the world could no longer exist without you. You’re here for a reason and whatever it is, you’re the only one capable of doing it. That purpose is inherently connected to your mazel. Which brings us to idea two. Judaism views time as a spiral. Important events of a spiritual nature resonate on their anniversary. So on the day you came to fix the world, you’re believed to have “good luck.” When Haman cast his lot to decide the day he’d kill Jews in the Purim story, he rejoiced when the date of Moses’ death came up. But he forgot that that was also the day Moses was born. So what he thought would be an inauspicious date for the Jews was actually a day of fortune. Thirdly, it’s believed that you have the power to give blessings on your birthday. I’m not sure what the source for it is, but it is a regular occurrence in my community, especially when accompanied by a l’chaim.
What you want to do vs. What you should do.
As the day approached, I really wanted to stay in and chill. It was a Sunday, meaning the year before was Shabbos which limits what you can do, and the following years would be weekdays so I’d likely be working. Also, what difference would one person make? So many other people had such a stronger connection to Peter, I certainly didn’t want to come off as someone signaling virtue and a relationship that really wasn’t there.
But then I remembered an old Jewish saying from Koheles, “If you have the choice between going to a wedding or a funeral, go to the funeral.” The idea is that even though it is a tremendous mitzvah to join in the simcha (joy) of a wedding, making the bride and groom happy, a funeral will put you in touch with what it means to be alive. There is also a quote from Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avos 2:4, “Don’t separate yourself from the community.” Here was my chance to be with the community, to share in their grief, and physically contribute to the mitzvah of a burial. Literally lend a helping hand. Or I could stay home and play Grand Theft Auto 5.
Ultimately it came down to the question, why did I deserve to have another year? Yes I could do anything I want and I could be the center of attention on my one day, or I could sacrifice that for someone who can’t possibly repay me.
🎵Happy Funeral To You🎶
There were three specific take aways I remember from the event. One was noticing my shul’s rabbi, Rabbi Cohen, hanging back. Kohens aren’t supposed to come in contact with the dead. So in a cemetery they have to be exceedingly careful. The chapel service was packed and there were chairs arranged for rows outside the building’s doors. Rabbi Cohen resided far back beyond that, head down, deep in thought, and keeping a safe distance while being as present as possible.
The next was when Sarah spoke to eulogize her departed husband. Sarah might be one of the strongest, most courageous women I have ever met, but with Peter’s casket behind her, she was winded, physically as well as emotionally. Upon stepping up to the podium, she looked back at the casket calling, “See Petey, look at all the people who came to see you off.” I don’t know if that’s actually what she said. But it was the way she referred to her husband with such present endearing intimacy… it will forever be seared in my consciousness as the example of love.
Lastly, the Rabbi who spoke, I can’t recall who it was, gave the following idea. A cemetery has three names in Hebrew. Beit HaKeverot (a house of the graves), Beit Chayim (a house of life), Beit Haolam (a house of the eternity). For a person who makes their life about themselves and the pleasures of this world, they don’t leave anything behind. You can’t take your money, your pleasures, or your belongings with you. So at your grave stone there is nothing but that grave. For a person dedicates their life to relationships, helping others, and serving the community, their grave is a place for all who benefited from that good to share their lives that were aided by the deceased. What they did with their life will endure in this world. But for a person who not only helped those, but also served the Almighty, they established eternity and their grave is a connection to the world to come. Peter was certainly the last two, if I remember the eulogy correctly.
And Many More
A birthday should be about reconnecting to your purpose. As that number gets bigger the realization of how far away from that purpose we have strayed can become terrifying. Today is my 38th birthday (assuming you’re reading this on the day of publication). There are certainly birthdays I won’t forget, with this year is shaping up to be among the top. The impression left by that experience on my big 3-5 changed me though I can’t precisely articulate how. But as each birthday approaches, the experience has given me a guidepost to help realign, should I fall too far off track. Thank you Peter.