This Shabbat morning, during our Torah study at my shul, we'll be discussing ideas which flow out of one verse in our Torah portion. What appears below are a variety of teachings and questions, some of which I plan to offer during that discussion. Enjoy -- and if you have other teachings to give over on this subject, please feel free to share!
תעשה לה לריח ניחח אשה ליי / You shall make of it an offering of fire for a pleasing odor to Adonai (Exodus 29:41)
Classical commentators note that the phrase reiach nikhoach, a pleasing odor, is used to describe offerings from the cheap to the costly, as an indication that God is gladdened by simple offerings as much as by fancy ones. Fire reduces all of them to ashes; after a sacrifice has been given and burnt, all that matters is its acceptance by God, not how expensive it was or wasn't. What matters is that one reached out to God, and that reaching-out is always accepted.
The Hebrew word קרבן (korban), usually translated as "sacrifice" or "offering," comes from a root meaning to draw near. Other peoples of the ancient Near East made sacrifices to propitiate their gods; the startling shift in ancient Israelite tradition was that sacrifices were understood not as a way of "paying God off," but as a mode of drawing-near to God. In this week's Torah portion, we read about the daily offerings of lambs, of flour mixed with oil, and of wine: "an offering by fire for a pleasing odor to Adonai." The scent may or may not be pleasing to us (though for the carnivores among us, the idea of the scent of roasting lamb may evoke some mouth-watering) but Torah tells us that it was pleasing to God.
In the world of kabbalah, smell is regarded as the loftiest and most transcendent of the senses, the critical connection-point between body and soul. The Ari -- Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the great founders of kabbalah -- taught that the sense of smell is connected with the month of Adar (in which Purim takes place), perhaps because both of Purim's heroes have a connection to scent. Esther's real name was Hadassah, which means myrtle, and the Talmud drashes the name Mordechai into mar dror, flowing myrrh. This year we have two months of Adar, and we're in the first one now. What are the scents of this season for you?
Today our strongest religious connection to scent may come at havdalah, the short-and-sweet ceremony of wine, fire, and spice with which we sanctify the passage out of Shabbat. We pass around b'samim, fragrant spices, in order to spiritually revive ourselves so that we don't fall into despair when the "extra soul" which has been ours during Shabbat departs for the workweek. What are the evocative scents of your religious life? Sweet wine, havdalah spices, matzah balls cooking in the kitchen, the etrog when it first emerges from its case at Sukkot-time -- or something else entirely...?
My friend Bella Bogart offers an insight in the name of Rav Tzadok HaCohein of Lublin (of blessed memory) as taught by David Twersky. Rav Tzadok was writing about the ketoret (incense) offered on the golden altar in days of old, and noted that one of its ingredients had a terrible scent. Why would we include something bad-smelling in our incense when the goal is to create that reiach nichoach, that sweet fragrance for God? The symbolism, he wrote, is that we are demonstrating that "even if a Jew has a 'bad odor' -- is not acting like he is supposed to -- he still has a place in the Temple of God." Even someone who dosn't always do the right thing, that person is still welcome in our community and welcome to relate to God.
And what can we make now of this idea of reiach nichoach, offerings which have a pleasing scent to Adonai? My friend Hazzan Abbe Lyons points out that one option is to look at this idea from an environmental point of view. Emissions can be more or less pleasing (to God and to us.) What do we emit into the world? These offerings, Torah tells us, were made at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, the place where the community came together. What are we emitting when we come together -- in the world of action and physicality (automobile exhaust, power burned to keep our synagogue warm and bright), in the worlds of emotion and intellect and spirit?
In a sense, anything we "give off" -- emotional energy, spiritual energy -- is perceived and received by God. When are our emotional emissions pleasing to the Holy Blessed One? It's easy to imagine that joy is an emotion which is pleasing to God (after all, Psalm 100:2 says עודו את–יי בשמחה / ivdu et H' b'simcha, "serve God with joy"), but how might our other emotions be received by God? Can we imagine times when anger might be pleasing to God -- righteous indignation; anger which burns pure and clean -- and also times when God might not find our anger "sweet"?
Hazzan Shoshana Brown offers the idea of linking the word "reiach" to its cousin "ruach" (spirit) since they share the same root. That root appears in Exodus 5:21, where the word "reycheynu" is used to refer to the reputation of people. When the Israelite foremen are complaining to Moshe about being made to look bad before Pharaoh, what they're really saying is "you have made us 'smelly' in Pharaoh's eyes!" What might it mean to make ourselves sweet to God's supernal sense of smell? Because reiach and ruach share a root, Hazzan Brown also offers, we can think now in terms of offering a ruach nichoach -- a pleasing spiritedness -- towards God in our prayer and our song.
My colleague David Rachmiel suggests that if we each imagine coming home to a glorious scent -- a pie or challah baking in the oven; grandmother's chicken soup, or dad's most fabulous recipe -- we can begin to get a glimpse of what these offerings might have been like for God. In burning those offerings, once upon a time, we were creating "home" for God. What can we do in our lives now to create a "home" where God can dwell?