I recently celebrated a birthday. “Was it a big one?” someone asked. “Or the big one?” queried another. “I’m going to be out of town for your birthday,” mentioned another friend. “I hope I’m not missing that one.”

It’s very nice that people are interested and I appreciate that they want to share the occasion with me but the questions got me thinking.

What difference does it make whether it’s a big one or not? And what makes it big? Because it has a 0, is 50 more significant than 49 or 51? (Did you fall for it? I’m long past 50!) Every year, every day is a gift. Every birthday is an opportunity to reflect and every birthday is an opportunity to be grateful. It doesn’t matter how many years have accrued.

In fact, the only real difference the number of years makes should be in our level of gratitude. The longer we have lived, the more we have to thank the Almighty. It is not accomplishment; it is His generosity.

I pray that the Almighty grants me the health and the energy to continue to be productive – to teach, to grow, to give, to love. But I think that we put too much emphasis on the numbers – 60 is not the new 50! – and I think it’s because of our own fear and anxiety.

It’s sobering to recognize that our lives are more than half over. It’s terrifying to take stock and to see the roads that can no longer be taken. All the frantic celebrations of the “0” birthdays seem to me to be warding off the terror that we all feel – some appropriate and some not.

As on Rosh Hashanah every year, we should be concerned over whether we are using our time wisely. It’s really not the years but what we do with them. (Okay, it’s also the years!) Perhaps the 10-year birthdays are more of a wake-up call (although 10 year intervals means a lot of sleeping in the middle!), a clearer recognition of the swift passage of time (your mother warned you about that, remember?!), a greater impetus to act and change before it’s too late.

But, like so many things, the anticipation is frequently more emotionally unsettling than the actual day. When that long-anticipated birthday arrives (or even when one of those more prosaic ones does), it turns out to be just a normal day – with its ups and downs and challenges and opportunities and highs and lows – with perhaps a little introspection and a few gifts added it.

And that’s okay. Because like with all of our holidays, it’s the preparation that counts. And like with presents, it’s the thought that counts – in this case, our own thoughts about who we want to be, what we’ve done with the gift of time until now and how we want to use it in the future.

Was this a big birthday? Only in the sense that all are. Only in the sense that every day is. Because every moment is so precious, every moment brings a new change to grow and change and connect to the Almighty.

It shouldn’t be a self-centered celebration but an outward-focused one, with expressions of appreciation to our Creator, to our parents, to our families and to our friends. And a little cake and ice cream is always nice…