Parshat Re’eh: One to Fly the Heavens

For years I had an arrangement with my kids that if I’m driving them somewhere they have to play DJ and only put on music they think I’ll like.  It’s a win/win since I get to hear all the great music and they had to research my favourite musicians and which genres I prefer.  There was one song that was lovely and soothing but I had to nix it from the playlist because it’s too soothing for driving –it would lull me into a trance.  It’s called Three Wishes by The Pierces and the lyrics I really like brought beautiful images to explore:

You want three wishes

One to fly the heavens, one to swim like fishes

You want never bitter and all delicious

And a clean conscience and all its blisses

You want one true lover with a thousand kisses

You want soft and gentle and never vicious

And then one you’re saving for a rainy day

The proverbial 3 wishes, the magic Genie who will grant those magic secrets of our heart, the fantasy of wish fulfillment that Freud named and we all primordially desire.

It seems to never go away.

I recently asked some young people what they would wish for if they had 3 wishes.  The usual exclusion applied — you could not wish for more wishes.  

I had some interesting responses:

One person wished for an end to the pandemic, international communication, and youth.

One person said they’d have to think about it, they’d get back to me at some point.

One person said they’d want infinite resources, infinite time, and because that was all they’d ever need, they’re donating their third wish to charity.

No one wished for happiness.

King Solomon was once asked by God what he would like as a Divine gift and he asked for wisdom.  The Sages praised his choice, saying wisdom would grant him anything else in life he could desire, wisdom would find the way to achieve it.

Even King Solomon didn’t ask for happiness.

But when you ask any parent what they want for their child, they would all, undoubtedly, say they want their kids to be happy.  So, why do we want it for those we love but not for ourselves?

When we celebrate a life milestone Jewishly, we celebrate a ‘simcha’, which means ‘happiness’.  Quite literally, planning any simcha translates as ‘we’re planning the happy’.  I send out invitations so you can join my happy and no matter what life may throw at me, I don’t postpone my happy once it’s planned.  We’ve witnessed Covid simchas proceed as planned, once scheduled, even though every detail about the event has changed, but the date usually won’t.  Happy is not to be delayed.

I also asked the same group of young people why they would choose to have Judaism present in their lives.  Why get married with a chuppah?  Why recognize a Jewish holiday?  Why put a mezuzah on your house?  I got varied and unique responses, but when I asked them if they did any of that because it made them happy to do it, only 1 person said yes…after thinking about it for a while.

We have so many Jewish expressions for being happy, but we don’t internalize how important that is within Judaism and within the Torah.  We want to get the commandments ‘right’, we want to celebrate holidays without upsetting family members who are Jewishly traditional or putting off family members who are Jewishly liberal.  We set the bar for Jewish holidays at hoping no one walks away offended and let’s all say a communal prayer that the drama stay outside the gathering.

It’s so interesting, given this week’s portion, parshat Re’eh.  It’s a daunting Torah portion.  Moses is getting ready to die and he’s addressing Israel with a warning about blessings and curses.  He reviews EVERYTHING he can think to say: don’t worship idols, keep the holidays, here are the details of the holidays, don’t worship idols, don’t eat blood, remember to tithe, don’t worship idols…

It’s exactly what we’d expect him to say:  do what God wants and you get blessings, go astray and you get curses.  The surprise isn’t in the information or the instruction, it’s the thing we hardly notice: the number of times Moses tells us to be happy.

On six separate occasions Moses commands us to be happy.  The first time he refers to being happy because we have food.  The second time we should be happy with family and friends.  The third time it lists food, family and friends and the works of our hands.  The fourth time it includes everything up to then, while we embark on a pilgrimage to meet our fellow Jews.  The fifth time it refers to the holiday of Shavuot and now includes foreigners, widows and orphans.  The sixth time it tells us to be happy in our holidays, includes everyone mentioned before and ends with declaring “And you should be oh so happy”.

Each time, we are to bring our happiness to God when we visit and remember, it’s not nice to come empty handed, always bring a gift.  

Moses uses the language of commandment to discuss our happiness.  It is not something we wish for, it is something we choose.  It starts with recognizing we have what we need — food — and it builds from there to family, to friends, to nation, universally and transformatively.  Things don’t make me happy, I choose the happy, but happy does not create rose coloured glasses.  It is happy within a world that is challenged and filled with suffering.  My obligations are not diminished by my happiness, they are simply met more fully when I choose to smile.

Moses has done what every parent would hope to do: remind us of our commitments, our obligations, our responsibilities, and then command us to find ‘the happy’, or we will grow to resent it.  As the High Holidays start to approach and we question how this year will look, it is so crucial to hear Moses remind us that the challenges will never go away so why focus there, the part we can fulfill, no matter what, is to look forward to celebrating another Jewish holiday in a way that makes each of us uniquely happy.

So why not have it all?  In a challenging moment, I could list how many things have gone wrong with my electronics in the last 24 hours…or…close my eyes and imagine I can fly the heavens, swim like fishes, find I’m covered with a thousand kisses as I save a last wish for a rainy day. 

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