Each year, a few days before each of my children’s birthdays, a package arrives at the door from Louise, my former congregant. Inside the package are two wrapped presents – one to the child whose birthday is coming and one to the sibling. The present for the birthday child has a card saying “Happy Birthday” from Louise and the present to the sibling has a card which says “Happy Un-Birthday” from Louise. The “un-birthday” present is typically small in size – such as alphabet stamps or a book – but its impact on my family has been immense.
On the morning of my son’s birthday, my daughter woke me up at 6:00 am announcing, “I’m ready for my un-birthday present from Louise.” The un-birthday present allowed her to greet the day with excitement. The day of a sibling’s birthday can be hard for a small child, causing them to feel left out or jealous as their brother or sister is showered with gifts and attention. However, the un-birthday present makes the sibling feel special and allows them to enjoy fully the magic of the day.
My children don’t see Louise often, but she has developed a relationship with them as the one who remembers them on their “un-birthday” each year. As I cherish these packages, I started to think of the un-birthday gift as not merely a present but a way of life. The giver thinks about who might feel left out or lonely at a given time and through an act of kindness, brings them joy.
This approach is echoed in this week’s Torah portion, called M’tzora, which means one who has a skin disease. As a result of this infection, the afflicted person had to be separated from the community until they recuperated. The parasha opens with God instructing Moses how the priest should help reintegrate the recovered person into the community. God explains that the priest should go outside the camp, “and see,” and if the affliction has been healed, conduct a ritual of purification.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, the moment of recovery from a serious illness entails a mix of feelings – including relief and happiness which may be coupled with “resentment over what had been gone through as well as envy of people who had remained healthy.” Anticipating these feelings, the priest is “not to wait” until the person comes to him, but rather to go to meet that person where he or she is. The priest needs to take the initiative and reach out to the person who is in an emotionally delicate state.
I have also known others who have followed this priestly approach – such as Toby Lee, of blessed memory, who was also my congregant. Toby was always the first to invite newcomers to the community to her home for Friday night dinner. When she realized I would be alone for Friday night dinner, she invited me to her home week after week, and we shared countless meals together.
The examples of the priest, Toby, and Louise challenge me to wonder: Who can I reach out to? Who is in an emotionally delicate moment – whether recovering from an illness, new to the community, facing a difficult transition, or even feeling a bit sidelined in another’s moment of joy? What kind word or action can brighten their day?
As we approach Passover, this week’s parasha reminds us that it’s not always the grand, sweeping gestures like the splitting of the red sea that distinguish between affliction and freedom. Sometimes, liberation can come in a smaller package.