I recently had a birthday. It wasn’t one of the big number ones; not really a big deal. And no big deal was made of it! Was I a little disappointed? I guess I was. Even though I know it’s silly. Even though I know that I should really use the opportunity of a birthday to thank all the others who helped get me here – parents, husband, kids, friends. Even though I know that a birthday is not a mark of any accomplishment whatsoever, that each year, each day in fact is a gift from God.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a little grumpy (although the surprise ice cream cake at my daughter’s house definitely helped!) – until another daughter shared this beautiful story.

At the shiva for her father, my daughter’s friend related that her mother never wanted birthday presents. She always said to her father, “Whatever money you would spend on a present, give it to tzedaka.”

Wow! (Now I didn’t feel grumpy, I felt humiliated.) Her father was a very generous man (meaning the gifts could have been large diamonds) and so his house was filled with plaques and other gifts from all the charitable organizations he gave to. Walking throughout their home, his daughter pointed them out, “This is from my mother’s 35th birthday, this was her 37th, her 40th." And so on.

Their home gave testimony to her father’s desire to give – and her mother’s desire not to take but to give also.

I was duly chastened. While I was busy focusing on the trivial details of the day, others were building a lasting legacy. They were taking the opportunity of their birthday to think of others, to help others, to create something eternal.

They weren’t focused on themselves. I wasn’t about “me, me, me”. I think that, for many of us, our childhood experience of birthdays still shapes our adult perspective. It’s a day devoted to satisfying my wishes and desires – what kind of party (princess or Disney?), what kind of entertainment (magician or clown or petting zoo?), what kind of project (arts and crafts or ceramics or something more elaborate?), what menu (cupcakes seem no longer to be sufficient – one of kids wanted zucchini soup, one of my grandkids quesadillas!).

Even though the parties frequently end in disappointment for the guest of honor, we continue to make them. And the impression and expectations linger.

It’s time to move on, to let go, to grow up. And to create some new expectations and impressions. I think the idea of giving charity on our birthdays as an expression of appreciation to the Almighty for helping us reaching this day brings meaning and elevation to the moment. I think thanking others and giving them blessings ensures that the day is other-focused and not just an exercise in ego. I’m open to suggestions. I think there are many ways to use the gift of another year as a springboard to growth and connection to our Creator.

And maybe perhaps, just a small present to accompany it…And of course, always ice cream cake…