Despite my family’s French heritage, I’m not what you would call a sophisticated wine drinker.
I enjoy a glass of red every now and then, I know the difference between a Malbec and a Cabernet, and I’ve even recently rediscovered that white wine has its merits. But if you asked me to pair a wine with a dish for dinner, I would be totally lost. I can’t really discern overtones from undernotes, and I certainly have no idea why someone would want to drink a wine that is described as tobacco-like.
Having said that, I do know something about some of wine’s other well-known characteristics. If you have you ever come home after a long day of work, exhausted; perhaps stressed the tasks still remaining to be done, and poured yourself a glass of wine to help alleviate some of that stress, then you know, as I do, that a glass of wine can be quite relaxing.
Now I’m not advocating that we all turn to wine to solve all of life’s problems. But if you are familiar with this experience, I want to say: congratulations, you’re in good company.
Even the Creator of the universe, our rabbis teach, knows the value of a relaxing glass of wine.
Whoever becomes more relaxed after a glass of wine, says Rabbi Hanina of the Talmud, has an element of God within them, since God acted similarly after smelling the sweet aromas of a sacrifice. (BT Eruvin 65a)
Remember the story of what happened to Noah after the flood?
Noah and his family emerged from the ark, and Noah offered a sacrifice to God. The sweet aroma of the burnt offering rose up to God, and, our rabbis tell us, God was relaxed, and said: I won’t ever again curse the ground because of humanity” (Gen. 8:21).
It’s as if, after a particularly stressful day (of nearly wiping out humanity) God sits back, inhales the sweet scent of Noah’s sacrificial offering, and just… mellows out. The smell of Noah’s gracious offering is just as potent as drinking a glass of wine.
This pleasing sent – a ריח ניחוח – is a frequent motif throughout the Torah. After Noah, it appears a total of sixteen times in the book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this Shabbat. And it will appear seventeen more times in Numbers. In total, God is pleased by a ריח ניחוח thirty-six times throughout the Torah! God, clearly, likes to kick back and relax after a hard day of being the Master of the Universe!
But what is it about the ריח ניחוח that acts so potently upon God?
Have you ever smelled a scent that acted upon you immediately? In particular – have you ever smelled a scent that spirits you away to another place, triggering ancient memories?
Marcel Proust was one of the first to suggest that smell is the sense most linked to memory. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust writes:
“When nothing else subsists from the long-distant past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell… of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
The scent of musty corridors of an old building triggers for me vivid images of exploring the cellar of my Great Aunt’s house as a five-year-old, trying to find the deep-freezer, so I could pick out an ice-cream treat.
When I smell my scented beard oil, I am immediately whisked away to my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Ontario, and filled with memories of playing pine-walled home where my father grew up.
And every autumn, the smell of biodegrading leaves and fresh mud takes me back to years of playing in the farm fields where I used to go to school.
What do your memories smell like?
God, we are taught, also responds emotionally to scents.
“The sense of smell, in the Holy [Hebrew] Language,” writes Rabbi Moses Mendellsohn, “corresponds to the power of memory in the soul, for the idea of memory is the remaining impression in the soul, after the tangible experience has passed. That is the unique property of scent… one which will provoke the desired memory before God.”
I wonder what God is thinking about when smelling the pleasing scents of the ריח ניחוח?
One idea is that God is remembering the promise to be compassionate toward humanity that God made to Noah.
There’s a great clue to this: in the Torah, we learn that one of God’s attributes is ארך אפיים – which we usually translate as being “slow to anger.” You might be familiar with this from Rosh Hashanah or other chagim, as we recite a list of the thirteen attributes of the Holy Blessed One.
But ארך אפיים doesn’t literally mean “slow to anger,” it actually means “long-nosed”! Why does the Torah have this imagery of God with a long nose?
Perhaps because it is through this metaphoric nose that we arouse God’s compassion. A longer nose equals more smelling power!
It’s a powerful, very human metaphor: God’s patient, gentle attitude toward us is triggered in a way remarkably familiar to us – by these powerful, pungent scent-memories that Proust spoke of.
The ריח ניחוח are the result of what we call sacrifices, but the English word “sacrifice” is not an adequate translation. In Hebrew, they are called korbanot – which comes from the root “to draw near.”
Just like scents can bring us remarkably closer to past memories, the ancient Israelites’ sacrifices were an attempt to get closer to God, to arouse God’s compassion, and remind God of memories of our covenantal relationship.
We don’t offer sacrifices anymore. But we still live in covenant with God, and we still want God’s compassion. And we still emit things into the world.
The things we send out into the world – both literal and figurative – can have both creative and destructive power.
You might think about this environmentally: is what are we emitting sustaining the world, or harming it? Is it pleasing, or polluting?
Or you can think of it emotionally: does the attitude we send out into the world create room for others to draw nearer, or does it close off?
You could think of this spiritually, as our ancestors certainly did: are the prayers and blessings we offer to God perfunctory, or do they come from a place of serious intention, of a desire to elevate our spirits and brings us closer to the holy and the transcendent?
Just as everything we “give off” here on earth is received physically and emotionally by others, we have an image of a long-nosed God who acts similarly. Everything we “give off” can either push us away or draw us closer to God.
How might we work to ensure that what what we put out into the world draws us nearer to God and to each other?
These ריח ניחוח, these pleasant aromas, were not pleasing to God because of their smell alone, but because of the intention of the person performing the sacrifice.
Just as scents are only the tiniest, microscopic of particles of something much greater, the ריח ניחוח were just the tip of the iceberg, a small hint of something much larger.
The ריח ניחוח are a taste – or scent, as it were – of the depth of intentions that each person brought to their offering. And that’s why this idea is so powerful – our offerings to God have always been a just a small taste of something more to come.
They point to something much greater than ourselves.
My Bubby Jeanne, zichronah livrachah, used to make classic French dishes for Shabbat dinner. My favourite was her Coq au Vin – chicken and wine, a classic French dish. I’m sure that there are many dishes in a restaurant that might smell or taste just as good as hers. But hers, I know, was made with love and care for me and my family.
When I walked into my grandparents’ home every week for Shabbat and smelled the sweet scents of the chicken cooking, I knew that I would be surrounded by the loving embrace of our family’s Shabbat celebration.
And it is that love, encoded in a scent, that has become fixed in my memory, drawing me closer to her memory.
The idea of sacrifices might seem ancient, backwards, irrelevant or even inhumane when compared to how we pray today. But the korbanot – these acts of drawing nearer – have built into them a very human idea.
The ריח ניחוח serve to remind God, and us, of basic human desires that we all share: we want to live and thrive, we want to be loved, and we want to do this in sacred relationship with each other.
Perhaps this is the lesson of these smelly sacrifices – to send out love and compassion, and to receive those “scented” offerings with a long nose.