But are birthdays a day we really want to celebrate? Especially in a culture that venerates youth, is getting a year older and gaining a few more gray hairs and wrinkles truly cause for celebration?
Whether I like it or not, my birthday is a milestone and Judaism cares about milestones. Every 50 years we celebrate Yovel or the Jubilee year, which has a huge significance for commerce. Every seven years we celebrate Shmita, which has significance for business and agriculture. Every year we make a big deal about Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and use it as a time for introspection to see whether we have lived up to our own expectations for the past year, and to ensure that the following year is more successful and productive. Every month we celebrate Rosh Chodesh or the New Month as another milestone. Every week we celebrate Shabbat.
This gives us an idea of how Judaism views time. Time is really not an independent entity at all. There is an eternity of time. We humans are limited in the time we have to live, yet, that is only a subjective experience. For an inanimate object that is unaffected temporally, or for God, time is irrelevant. Time becomes important when we create milestones and deadlines.
In a sense, all of the celebrations that Judaism offers enable us to have a better grasp on our time. This allows us to make sure that the time we have is used productively.
In our personal life, Judaism offers us other milestones. In the great rabbinic wisdom book entitled Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) Yahudah ben Teima is quoted as saying: "At Five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at Ten years the Mishna, at Thirteen the commandments, at Fifteen the Talmud, at Eighteen, marriage. Twenty, to pursue a livelihood. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power etc. (5:24).”
These are very general milestones that an individual should set for their lives. They are shorter in duration when we are younger, but as we hit 20-years-old each milestone is a decade apart from the other. Some people believe that these milestones are reached automatically. I maintain that the Mishna in Avot is telling us what we should strive for as we go from decade to decade in our lives.
But beyond that, this wisdom-teaching has a larger message about time. Time becomes significant when we create goals and milestones for ourselves. Besides the general goals of trying to reach "understanding" by age 40 and "counsel" by age 50, we should also have other more specific goals for each decade.
When I turned 20, I set a goal for myself to become a published author at age 30. I was, with the help of my Creator, successful at reaching that goal with the publication of "Jewish Wisdom for Business Success" in 2008.
This is another area where Judaism has had a huge impact in my life. If I had not assimilated this teaching, significant accomplishments would be impossible.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life