‘Pleasing to the Eternal’
‘Pleasing to the Eternal’
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Please complete the following sentence: ‘my most favourite smell in the world is…’
I know you’re British so this might be a bit awkward, but let’s try anyway. ‘My most favourite smell in the world is…’
My toddler’s and baby’s freshly washed hair.
Fresh ginger root.
Logs burning on the fire place.
Challah hot from the oven.
Cut grass on an early summer’s day.
Any of our senses can take us back to our most precious moments in a matter of milliseconds yet few things are successful at plummeting the depths of the soul as smell. An entire childhood of summer holidays, memorable Shabbatot with loved ones or the romantic linger of someone’s perfume can be conjured up by the most fleeting scent.
According to the Torah, a sense of smell isn’t only important to human beings but also to God.
We read in parashat Vayikra, this week’s Torah reading:
‘V’hiktir haKohen et hakol haMizbecha olah isheh, reich nichoach lAdonai’ – ‘and the Kohen shall cause all of the animal offered to go up in smoke, as a burnt offering of fire and it shall be a pleasing smell for the Eternal.’ (Lev. 1:9)
In context of the ancient sacrificial cult, this verse seems to make sense. After all, the people brought their sacrifices to the priests: the opening chapters of Vayikra meticulously describe five different sacrifices: olah (burnt offering), mincha (meal offering), shalem (peace offering), chatat (sin offering) and asham (guilt offering). Each corresponds to a different spiritual need for tikkun (repair) and teshuvah (return): complete surrender, gifts out of gratitude, voluntary offerings of devotion and atonement for unintentional sin and intentional guilt.
Yet the leap from a psychological understanding of the sacrificial traditions to the idea of God ‘smelling’ offerings and appreciating delectable scents is an enormous one to make, even by those of us who are inclined to read the Torah anthropologically. What, after all, does it say about God that God can ‘smell’, or ‘approve’ of what we might colloquially term ‘a rather tasty BBQ’? It makes us feel theologically uncomfortable to say the least. Certainly, this anthropomorphic, capricious Bronze Age God who needs to be placated by blood, flesh and fire is not the gentle, persuasive Power that makes for Salvation of contemporary Reform Judaism!
And we moderns aren’t the only ones uncomfortable with the image: in his commentary on the verse, Rashi tries to rationalise it. He writes:
‘Nichoach: nachat ruach lefanai she’amarti v’ne’aseh retzoni’ – ‘Pleasing: [this sacrifice gives Me] contentment before Me for I have said [commanded] and My will was fulfilled’.
What Rashi does here is clever: he turns God’s literal delight in the scents of sacrifices into a metaphorical understanding of religious virtue. Suddenly, God’s enjoyment is no longer about an indulgence of the senses but about contentment with our fulfillment of Divine imperative. In a pun of related etymologies, where ‘reich’ (scent) becomes ‘ruach’ (spirit, soul), God is ‘schepping nachas’ on our behalf!
This, of course, is a far cry from the psh’at – literal meaning – of the verse. But it is a far more compelling reading. God enjoys the rich sensuality of us seeking to be in relationship with the Divine. And this relationship is, of course, reciprocal.
Psalm 34 celebrates our sensuous, sensory experience of God:
‘I will bless the Eternal at all times; His praise is always in my mouth.In the Eternal, my soul shall glory, the humble shall hear this and rejoice.I sought the Eternal and God answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.They looked onto God and were radiant and their faces will not be ashamed.This poor man called out and the Eternal heard and saved him from all his troubles…‘Ta’amu u’r’u, ki tov Adonai’ – ‘Taste and see that the Eternal is good.’ (Psalm 34:2-9)
As you can see, this psalm indulges all our senses: speech, hearing, sight and taste (and by extension, smell—they often go together).
This reciprocal relationship is sensuous, intimate, loving and deeply personal. Viewing the sacrifices of Vayikra in this context helps us re-envision the intentions behind those sacrifices. We no longer (thank God) bring offal, flour and oil to be burnt on the altar. But what do we bring to our Judaism today? We are gives so many opportunities to deepen our Judaism: not only through cerebral learning, philosophical contemplation or communal solidarity but through the unending, childlike joy and wonder of the senses.
Our Judaism can be visceral, tangible, experiential, personal, joyful, sensual… Judaism is meant to be a kinaesthetic and holistic experience.
Let us then offer at our own altars, deep love, beautiful song, fresh challah, tasty morsels of food. Cuddles with our children, kisses for our loved ones, soft hands and gentle arms and exalt God through our finest memories—to last a lifetime and to be conjured up by the subtlest of scents. These are the things that endure across the generations.