I have a birthday at the beginning of this month. I hadn’t given it too much thought before because it isn’t a milestone and, at a point, birthdays that aren’t milestones seem to become days like the rest. I’ve already had enough non-milestone birthdays as an adult to know that this is true. Milestones are times for parties, vacations, hemming and hawing about getting older, the reassessment of goals – or, at the very least, answering other people’s questions about whether or not you are hemming and hawing or reassessing your goals. My non-milestone birthday dreams used to be about big fancy dinners with lots and lots of friends and, now, I am happily contented to know that a dinner out with my husband during the adjacent week, a day of texts and facebook messages from my friends and family far and near, and if I’m really lucky, a homemade birthday crown from my kids will be more than enough. The first year they gave me a birthday crown – so I could celebrate just like them at the Charlotte Jewish Preschool – is probably my best birthday memory in recent years.
What I’ve realized, however, is that this birthday is a milestone. It is double chai. Twice 18. Twice Life.
Each letter of the Hebrew alef-bet has a numerical value. The letters as numbers become very important when chanting Torah because they help you navigate from one chapter to the next, one verse to the next and so forth. In gematria, this practice of studying the numerical value of letters and words in our sacred texts, additional understanding is derived from comparing words with similar numerical values.
Letters as numbers also give us deeper insight into the complex nature of Torah – and everything, really – reminding us that the apparent meaning is only one way of understanding. What we see on the surface is rarely, rarely the whole story. It is the very tip of an iceberg that lives far beneath the surface, discoverable only to those who would undertake great personal risk or employ great skill to dive deeply into the abyss to behold the majesty of what is at the foundation.
So, the word chai – life – is 18. It is so simply because the letter chet is 10 and the letter yud is 8, together having a value of 18. We give gifts in increments of $18 so that our gift may bring a blessing of long and healthy life to the recipient. It is our way of giving with the hopes that the gift be a harbinger of good.
But Chai is also the symbol of an entire childhood. 18 is the year in which we earn our right to vote and so many of us graduate high school, leave our parents’ home, adventure into the word for the first time. I did.
Double Chai is to have lived twice your childhood. Double chai is to have had as many years of adult adventures and experiences as years those years at home. Double chai is enough time to write an entirely different story.
What, I wonder, will it be to sit at triple chai – 54? And four times chai – 72? If we are lucky – 5 times chai on our 90th birthday, knowing that we been given 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 times as many years of a single young life to live and work and bring this world closer to perfection?
We are the manifold expression of our younger selves, exponentially deepening our wisdom through experience and the living of lives.
It is no small thing to live in multiples of chai. I am grateful for my twice chai and for each of you who has shown me the richness of lives fully lived over and over again.
Wishing you each much joy and gratitude in the milestones that abound in each of our lives, if only we choose to see them. And a very special “chai birthday” to all for whom this is a year of living another 18 years.