Religious Life

Spice and Spirit

“Spice and Spirit”
13 Adar 5777 • Titzaveh • Shabbat Zakhor • March 11, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis

What’s your favorite smell?

Do smells ever remind you of something? A certain place or a time?

For me, I love the smell of rosemary. It reminds me of my year at Hebrew University where it grows wild around the campus. And then there is the smell of paste. One sniff and it takes me back to preschool. It is probably one of my earliest memories.

Of our five senses, I think we pay less attention to smell than say sight or sound. But smell is powerful. It is a carrier of memory. And on this Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat when we are commanded to remember, I wanted to take some time to consider the role of scent. I do so to sniff out a kind of smelling salt to revive us and fill us with a much needed ruach (spirit) at this time.

I was drawn to this topic because of our parasha, because of Purim and because of an article I recently read. The article described an experiment at the Morgan Library in New York. There, scientists from Columbia University are trying to capture the scent of this historic building. Researches are literally crawling around the building on all fours sniffing rare books, furniture, and carpets to detect its unique aroma. They then use a contraption to bottle the smell. They send it to the International Flavor and Fragrances lab which breaks it down into molecules to determine its flavor profile. The goal, the project’s director says, is not to create old-book-perfume but to study the powerful connection between smell and memory. At a time when the printed page is giving way ever more to the digital age, he is looking to preserve and convey the library’s history beyond its look through the very sensual experience of smell.

As Jews, we are familiar with the power of smell. We consider smell as a gift and offer thanks to God for a pleasant aroma. We are familiar with the blessing for havdalah spices, borei minei b’samim. But that is not the only brakha for smells. There is a category of birkhot hareich which includes a blessing for perfume, for flowers, for good smelling fruit. No wonder God made the Jewish nose. “The better to smell You with my dear.”

Our parasha as well speaks about smell in its description of the incense altar. It comes at the end of the reading which in itself is strange and unexpected. Last week, we read all about the structure and furniture of the Tabernacle. This week, the majority of the parasha focuses on the Kohanim, their clothes and anointing ceremony. So it seems out of place to return and describe an altar. It would have made more sense included in last week’s parasha. Both medieval and modern scholars debate the placement of this section without a definitive answer.

If you want, you can see a picture of the altar in the back of the chumashim. It was 3 feet high, 1.5 feet square and it was lifted and carried with two poles. It was called the mizbeich hazahav, the golden altar, and it stood just outside the Holy of Holies which was a sign of its significance.

In Hebrew, incense is ketoret hasamim. We know the phrase from Ein Keloheinu, “At hu Eloheinu… ata hu shehiktiru avoteinu lifenekha et k’toret hasamim.” Ketoret means to burn or smoke. It is the same for “incense” which comes from the Latin incendere (think of incinerate) and likewise “perfume” from the Latin, per (through) fumum (smoke).

The incense of the sacrificial rites was a secret spice blend of eleven spices that was burned by the Kohanim on the altar every morning and evening. Rambam says it was meant to sweeten the putrid smell of the sacrifices. His explanation is quite practical. And that is ok, sometimes, you just need to hide a bad smell.

But looking further we can uncover a deeper spiritual message. The Talmud teaches Berekhot 43b: “Ezohu dvar shehan’shama nehenet mimeinu v’ein haguf neheneh mimeinu? Havei omer zeh hareiach. What doesn’t benefit the body but benefits the soul? It is none other than scent.” Now we might disagree and say that smells have a physical impact on our bodies. But the point of the rabbis is that smells fill us, revive us and thus touch our soul. The reiach renews our ruach, our spirit. The proof text for this claim is “kol han’shama tehalelya, let every soul praise God.” Even, or especially, those things that touch the soul directly like scent inspire us to praise and thank: barukh ata hashem eloheinu melekh haolam, blessed are you God, creator of…

Jewish tradition teaches that scents can cover up a smell and can revive our spirit. And we know that intuitively. Some burn incense or take aroma therapy or clean with Pine Sol. Some relax with a cigar or a brandy in a snifter. For others, it is the smell of challah baking that revives them after a long week or havdalah spices that fill them with spirit to face the new week. In these and other ways, we sense the connection between reiach and ruach, smell and spirit.

But there is something more to learn. For it is not just what scents can do for us, but what we can do with them. Appropriately on this Shabbat leading into Purim, we turn to the megillah for insight. And we find a clue in our heroes, Mordechai and Esther.

The megillah is scary. It describes a threat to the Jewish community. A world turned upside down. But long before we get too far into the story, we are given a glimmer of hope that things will be ok when we look closely at the names.

The name Mordechai, the rabbis teach, is Aramaic for meira dakhya, raw myrrh, in Hebrew, mor dror. Myrrh is one of the eleven incense spices. Apparently, it has quite an stench. It only becomes pleasant when processed by fire. So too, the rabbis teach, Mordecai, attained his status by being brought through the fire of suffering and exile.

Esther has a similar story. The megillah tells us that Esther spent six months treating herself with myrrh oil and with perfumes, shisha chodashim b’shem hamor v’shisha chodashem bibsamim. In addition, to that cosmetic treatment, consider her name. In the megillah, Esther is called Hadassah which means myrtle. Again the rabbis teach, its pleasant fragrance only comes out when its leaves are bruised and crushed.

It is a message we must adopt. I have a sense that there are people who have been feeling bruised, people who feel burned and crushed. These last few months have been exhausting and exasperating and stressful. Between politics and bomb threats we are on edge as a nation and a Jewish community. We want something to hide the stink. We need smelling salts to enliven us and refresh us. But Mordechai and Esther challenge us saying, don’t just sniff snuff, become air freshener. We must become the perfume of the world. That is our job as Jews, as Shoshanat Yaakov, rose of our ancestor Jacob.

When God first meets Abraham, and God says, “Go forth.” The midrash compares this to perfume made of myrrh. At first the flask of perfume is closed. Then God says “lekh l’kha,”, and opens the flask. Thus, Abraham might leave his trace like the scent of perfume wherever he goes. To paraphrase the midrash, “Abraham, many good deeds are in you. Travel about and share your scent with the world.”

Tonight we’ll make Havdalah and usher in Purim. According to the Talmud, the original spices were myrtle. And the spice box is called hadas. So think about it. We smell the myrtle and are carried by memory back to Hadassa, to Queen Esther who turned her bruises into blessings.

And so too must we. It is not enough for us to inhale the b’samim. We must become the b’samim. It is not enough to say “ata hu shehiktiru avoteinu lifanekha et k’toret hasamim, our ancestors offered incense.” It is davka now when we feel bruised that we can spread sweet fragrances though our mitzvot and acts of chesed. Doing so will not only create a powerful, lasting memory for a new generation of Jews, our reiah will spread ruach, ruah elohim, God’s spirit to the world.