If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?
– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely
One of the more lovely aspects of living in Israel, besides having only one Pesach seder, is the ability to celebrate one's birthday, not only twice (once by the Hebrew calendar, and once by the Gregorian calendar) but throughout the entire stretch of time between the two days.
This period has aptly been named the Birthday Chol HaMoed, and can range in time from zero days (every 19 years the two calendars match up again) to up to three weeks.
Birthday greetings, balloons, presents, and, most importantly, Birthday Cake can be enjoyed every day of the Birthday Chol HaMoed without guilt (or calories), and with much glee.
Because my birthday (both Hebrew and Gregorian) falls sometime within the Chagim period, it often got overlooked when I was growing up. Sometimes birthday cake was served at the adjacent holiday dinner, sometimes on the birthday itself, and sometimes, not at all. It depended on how stressed my mother was. To be honest, I never cared. There was always a lot of cake in my house, whether it was for a birthday or not.
And so I grew up with little regard for birthdays. It was only as an adult that I understood how important they were to some other people, and how hurt someone would get if you didn't make a Very Big Deal out of their birthday. It amused me, as if the birthday person had done ANYTHING, besides, of course, cause his or her mother a great deal of pain, to deserve being made a big deal of.
But so it is; birthdays, it turns out, can be a Big Deal.
This year, I have a relatively long Birthday Chol HaMoed, almost two weeks. And I've decided to turn it into a Big Deal.
I decided this because of gematriya.
Gematriya is the practice of giving numerical value to Hebrew letters, and thereby giving meaning to certain numbers, or to words with the same gematriya.
A prime example of how gematriya is used in the Jewish world (without anyone even realizing it) is the word 'chai' (חי). In gematriya, chai, which means life, has the numerical value of 18 . It is standard practice in Jewish households, especially in North America - less so in Israel and Europe - to give gifts in multiples of 18, i.e., 18, 36 or 52 dollars. This symbolizes that the recipient should be blessed with life - chai.
I looked up my age in gematriya, i.e., what words, in Hebrew, add up to the numerical value of my age.
The first word to come up was madig (מדאיג), which means worrisome.
Hmmm. I don't need reminders to worry, thank you.
Another word with the same numerical value is halevai!! (and yes, with exclamation marks, it can only be said with exclamation marks). Halevai!! means 'if only', as in:
Neighbor: "Are you going to Hawaii this year for the Chagim?
Me: Halevai!!! But I have to host 267 people and stay home and wash dishes.
Friend: "Let's go out for coffee".
Me: "Halevai!!! But I have to wash dishes."
I don't think I want my year to be a Halevai!!!! year.
Then it came to me that this year is my 'chen' (חן) birthday. The letters of the word chen, in gematriya, have the numerical value of my age, as of this week.
A direct translation of chen from Hebrew into English would be grace, or charm, or graciousness but, in fact, chen, like so many other Hebrew words, has no real English equivalent.
In the book of Proverbs we find:
Grace (chen) is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears God, she shall be praised.
שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן, וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי: אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת-ה', הִיא תִתְהַלָּל. (Proverbs 31;30)
On the other hand, the book of Genesis tells us that
Noah found grace (chen) in the eyes of God.
'וְנֹחַ מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי ה (Genesis 6:8)
Here, Noah clearly has some je ne s'ais quoi that God saw, which allows him to be saved.
The Kabbalah defines chen as kindness, gentleness, pleasantness, and beauty—qualities that are not only attractive, but desirable.
So it seems that Proverbs is taking the grace/charm definition, while Genesis is taking the Kabbalistic definition.
Even on my best days, I decidedly do not possess grace or charm or graciousness, and, unfortunately, am often not kind or gentle or pleasant, and certainly not when I have to wash 267 dishes.
But a girl can try.
Over the years, as Hebrew has evolved, chen has come to mean both a physical beauty and an inner beauty, one that is not so easily recognized. It also means the ability to recognize another's inner beauty, and the beauty in all situations even, or especially, when that beauty is not so discernable.
Here's another thing about a birthday in Israel. The birthday person has the ability to bless others with good wishes. (Of course, everyone has this ability every day, but it's more, shall we say, potent on one's birthday.)
So, yes, in this coming year, I'm going to make a decided effort to be more pleasant (smiles don't cost money), more gentle (we never know what people are going through - it's always best to speak and behave with gentleness), and kinder (the world can only be improved through random acts of kindness). Please remind me of this.
In addition – this is where the Big Deal comes in, because I usually don't do things like this – I am going to use my birthday Chol HaMoed to bless/pray/wish/hope that we all encounter only beauty, and kindness, and graciousness – that all of Am Yisrael should all have a year of Chen.
And birthday cake. Let's not forget birthday cake.