Happy Birthday! 

Each dawn is the beginning of a new life. Live life day-by-day to understand the joy that is in your heart.

·        Louise Bradford Lowell

I often take a long walk in the morning. It’s a real turn-on because I can identify the various shrubs, trees, flowers, and birds that I see along the way. My students ask, “What does that all mean?” I tell them that what it means for me is that life unfolds daily moment by moment. I learned that from a wonderful teacher I had, the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. Rabbi Heschel said that what was needed most in the world was a sense of wonder, a sense of radical amazement, a sense of surprise. Looking at life that way has kept me young, more than anything else. People say, “You’re young because you’ve dealt with college students for twenty-five years.” No. What’s kept me young is the attitude that life constantly unfolds and offers something new every moment.

Young people are very directed and they plan their lives out with long-range goals; as a result, they burn out easily. Many young people are also very bored. They don’t know how to take life a day at a time. That’s terribly important.

I used to be the way they are. When I was younger, I programmed my life in such a way that at thirty-five I wanted to be here and at forty I wanted to be there and at fifty I wanted to be in some other place. I don’t do that anymore. One of the wonderful things about growing older is the ability to let go of that long-range programming and enjoy life as it comes.

In my younger years I was a collector. I met many interesting people. I collected art, I collected antiques. I traveled a great deal and took many photographs. One evening someone said to me at a dinner party, “Rabbi, you must be an interesting person because of the art and the antiques you’ve collected and the people you know.” I said, “I would rather you look at me not knowing anything about these things which are ancillary to me and say, ‘Indeed Rabbi, you’re an interesting man.’”

Something tragic happened shortly thereafter. I owned a house in the country and it burned down. My entire home – and all of my art and antiques – went up in smoke. Yet I felt liberated. It was as if I had been cleansed by fire. No longer did I have to be known by those things which were external to me. Now I could be identified by who I was. I tell young people, “Don’t seek an identity through that which is external. Look inside.”

Probably the course I like teaching most is Job. Prior to the beginning of the tragedy, Job is judged by his sheep, his cattle, his children, and his wealth. Job loses all and he must turn inward. At the very end of the drama, Job says to God, “I repent: I know that I am but dust and ashes.” Job reaches a basic humility. In turning inward, Job finds himself.

I can pride myself on my articulation, but that is an extension of my ego. I tell my students, “I’m best when I’m not articulate, I’m best when I can’t find the words.” In fact, the most profound moments of my life are those when I really can’t express myself and I have to remain in silence. According to Dr. Heschel, the response to the confrontation of the Holy Spirit is not to wax eloquent, but to say “Wow!” and think, “That’s wonderful!”

The people who are fascinating to me are people who are interested in discovering themselves, recycling themselves, and growing.

-Rabbi Harold White, one of the founders of the Interfaith Council for Peace, current director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at Georgetown University, and former Rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

. . . an entry from Susan’s (last name withheld) journal:

I am officially 48 years old today. When I first awoke this morning and thought about it, I had a kind of quiet dread going on. But I russled myself up, took my homeopathy, rinsed my face, put on moisturizer for that 40 something skin; made a cup of hot chai and sat down to read Simple Abundance and 'Special Anniversaries of the Heart'.

The author's prose spoke of the summers of her childhood: the pool, barbecues, picnics, adventures, excitement. It all had me harking back to my own love of summer as a child, sipping cold A & W rootbeer while we sat out and watched the stars, games of hide and seek, chasing fireflies, fishing on the bank of the creek, rowing in the boat, hiking in the hills. Uncle Forest and Aunt Jo coming all the way from California to vacation in Kansas. Forest's great stories and wonderful jokes, the way Forest liked to hold Aunt Jo's hand. But the strongest memory was of a birthday I had long ago. To this day it remains my favorite. I must have been 5 or 6. I'm not really sure why it stands out so, but it does.

I remember getting the bright red and green watermelon beach bag I had picked out at the Jack and Jill store. There were other gifts too, but for some reason that beach bag really did it for me. I had requested my favorite food. Dad's barbecue chicken and I can still see him cooking it on the patio. And Mom was inside making my other request, homemade peach ice cream. My aunt, Katie, had created yet another gorgeous angel food cake. And life was good, very good. And we would all celebrate together and of course I would be the 'celebrity' for the evening. It was a magical birthday. It was a perfect birthday. And I stuck my nose in my beach bag and took a whiff of its newness and looked upon its beauty and I was a very, very happy little girl.

My Dad was a train engineer, he had a special way he would blast the whistle when he came into town. It signaled to Mom that his train was in. He died when I was 15. I kind of wish right now that I could have him fix me some of that chicken and taste Mom's peach ice cream. I guess that birthday qualifies as a secret anniversary of the heart for me and I have to thank Sarah B. because if it hadn't been for her, I might still be feeling quiet dread. Instead, I am warmed, moved and grateful inside. I am blessed and have always been . . . 48 times over. As I wrote that, a train whistle blew in the distance and now Charlie and Woonie, two of our dogs, are crooning to the moan of the whistle.

I think Dad just wished me Happy Birthday.


Every day is a birthday, for every day we are born anew.
·        Ellen Browning Scripps

As a leader in a youth group, I chanced to meet one of the state officers at an annual state gathering. Nick’s broad smile and firm grasp of my hand was more than enough to infect me with the warmth of his presence. The piece of bubble gum that he slipped into my hand while shaking it was a pleasant surprise – actually, everyone got the same treatment, it seemed. But the most astounding thing was the greeting he gave to each of us he met: “Happy Birthday!” he would say in an excited voice. Happy birthday? So, I asked him, “Why do you greet each person with ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Each day is a re-birth for me. And it is for you, too, in case you didn’t know it. Think of how much fun the day of celebrating your birth is. Now, multiply that by the number of days you live. What if you could be that happy each and every day of your life? Make it happen, make each day a celebration of just being alive!” he told me, and then moved on to the next person with a resounding “Happy Birthday!”

I chewed the gum, and gave it some thought. I read the Bazooka Joe comic – it was just like when I was a kid. It took me back, brought memories from a simpler time, a happier time. My first piece of bubble gum, the first time I remember reading the comic on the little piece of paper wrapped around that pink wad of un-chewed gum. I wanted a turtleneck sweater, so I could pull it up over half my face, just like Joe. I collected a lot of those little comics. Mom eventually made me throw them out. I complained, but I knew that was not the end of the matter - there were a lot more where those came from. Especially in the 5-pack.

I thought about Nick’s greeting throughout the meeting while I watched everyone else chew gum. It was a long meeting, but no one complained. We couldn’t wait to hear more from Nick. I think we all must have thought about it, especially those who didn’t ask why he had greeted us that way. Some just gave it their own interpretation, and that was o.k., too. Somehow, our lives were profoundly changed by that heartwarming encounter with someone who had optimism and joy in his life, and managed to pass it on to the rest of us. To this day, I connect Bazooka Bubble Gum with Nick.

“Happy Birthday,” I whisper, as I unwrap the gum.

A dear friend who is very special to me celebrated her birthday this last week. Here is part of the thoughts she shared with those she loves:

“I’ve come to know joy, strength and power within myself. I would try to control my life, as well as others, to the point where I wasn’t having fun. I would always be thinking of what was going to happen next and miss out on what was going on right then and there. Now, I try to focus on being in the moment. It sounds simple, but to actually do it? I didn’t know how. It’s not always easy. Now, when I do regress to my old ways of thinking, I remind myself to come back into the moment and take in that breathtaking sunset or feel the breath I just took.”

Someone pass that lady a piece of gum. And give some to the rest of us, too. Happy Birthday, everyone!


email: Michael@N-Spire.com

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