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  • Writer's pictureEvan Wolkenstein

The Smells of Quarantine Shabbat

In high school, I was very choosy about my music. I loved the Beatles, first and foremost, because of their use of melody and harmony, humor and irony. I loved Simon and Garfunkel because of their lyrics, their poetry.

What I did not love was (what I called, at the time), “Noise music.” Too much screaming, distorted guitars, crashing drums drove me away.l

Then, I discovered the Dead Milkmen. A friend introduced me to a song called, “My Many Smells.” I won’t trouble you with the lyrics — they describe the odoriferous emanations of the singer. As a 15 year old, I found them hilarious. I couldn’t believe an actual song on an actual album would have words like that. My friend and I laughed and laughed and would riff off the words, passing each other in the hallway.

The words to the song describe smells. Their hilarity, of course, is due to the emotional reaction against them. Smells and emotions like disgust and pleasure are closely linked – as are smells and memory. Perhaps that is why, to this day, I can recall the descriptions of the Dead Milkmen’s singer’s odor-profile.

In this weeks parsha, Tzav, we learn about the offerings in the Tabernacle, from ingredient to restriction, from burning to smoke to ash. All the senses are activated: we can hear the crackle of the wood, used to fuel the fire. The sight of the flames, the touch of the animals, slaughtered and butchered for the holy meals — even smell.

Here, it becomes strange. The smoke is described as a “Reiach Nichoach” —  a sweet or pleasing savor. Sometimes, it’s even referred to as a Reiach Nichoach to God. Clearly, God is not eating the sacrifices, as such. How can the smell be “reiach nichoach” to God?

Meforshim (commentators) wrestle with this. Rambam, Moses ben Maimon, a rational thinker from about 800 years ago, wrote that the sacrifices “serve to remove sinful thoughts from our hearts. The effect of the offering upon the man who sacrificed it is pleasant unto the Lord.” Rashi understood “reiach nichoach” as “nachat ruach lif’nai” — “Of pleasing [fragrance] , satisfaction before Me [God],” for I commanded [that this be done], and My will was carried out.” (Sifra per. 6, 8.)

Both Rambam and Rashi transform a smell into an abstract thing: a recognition or a delight at human righteousness. But this loses some of the power of the actual thing – the smell in itself.

I’d like to suggest that the “reiach nichoach” is not abstract — it is a real smell — but the preposition “l’” is not signifying “to” God, but “of” God. The warm smell of toasting bread and grilling meat, the floral aroma of incense — this is, as it were, “God’s smell.”

What does this mean, that God has “a smell?” The smeller, of course, would be not God, but the people. They would derive pleasure from these smells. They would be reminded of prior holidays and pilgrimages, times of community and deep meaning. They would experience Israelite Aromatherapy. And this is much needed – many of the interactions with God up to this point have been tense or fearful: the quaking Mt. Sinai, the punishment after the golden calf, the plagues of Egypt.

Indeed, the genius of the Torah is that, today, without these verbal reminders of the smell in this and other parshiot,  we might imagine or picture the Korbanot (offerings), but we would not emotionally connect to the joyous aromas of feasting, dedication, and celebration. The mere mention of the smell calls to mind warm and pleasurable memories from our own lives. It allows us to connect to the Israelites’ experience.

These days, we are floating in a paradox — on the one hand, tumbling in turmoil through a world altogether strange, foreign, terrifying. And on the other hand, spending an inordinate amount of time at home, surrounded by the familiar: our rooms, offices, dining room tables – the same view out of every window, day after day.

My wife, Gabi, is an amazing chef. But beyond that (and besides being a brilliant writer and problem solver) she is an aromatherapist.

No, she doesn’t dab the bridge of my nose with rose oil to enhance my adaptogenic abilities (though that sounds cool), but she does fill the house with the comforting smells of baking challah, the savory waft of toasting sesame, the tang of sourdough starter. Out there in the world, it feels out of control. But at home, when we’re not looking at the news, it’s tranquil.

Let’s all take the time, this Shabbat, to stop and smell the roses, so to speak: find something delicious, soothing, stimulating, or comforting, reflect on where you are and who you are with. You will experience something of the power of the Korbanot in the Mishkan – and be glad it is a loaf of fresh Challah baking which you smell, and not the lead singer of the Dead Milkmen.

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