Smell Can Trigger Reminders of the Goodness Sought Through Prayer

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By Rabbi Marc Israel

Parshat Vayikra

I love to barbecue. I love everything about the experience — finding the right marinade and/or seasonings, ensuring that the fire is at exactly the right level to cook the meat thoroughly without burning the outside, seeing the enjoyment of my family and our guests when we serve them the food.

But most of all, I love the smell. Even if I am walking down the street and catch a whiff of someone else grilling out back, I often stop to take in that delicious smell.

So when Parshat Vayikra declares that the sacrifices produced a reyach nichoach la’Adonai — a pleasant odor to the Lord — it resonates with me. Perhaps this is another indication of what it means to be created b’tzelem Elohim — in God’s divine image. Just as God loved the smell of the sacrifices, so, too, we enjoy the smell of a barbecue.

Except, of course, there is one problem. God, who is without a corporeal body, has no nose and, therefore, likely has no sense of smell.

So how can we understand this phrase, reyach nichoach la’Adonai, one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the Torah? The medieval commentator Rashi explains that “God is pleased [by the offerings] because God had spoken and the people did everything according to God’s wishes.” Ibn Ezra goes further and states: “Far be it that the Almighty should smell or eat.” He teaches that we must understand this phrase as a metaphor, explaining: “The verse would tell us that the worshiper is as pleasing to God as a sweet odor is to a human being.”

But if the “pleasant smell” is a metaphor, then we must seek to understand why this metaphor was chosen. Our text could have stated that God saw the sacrifices and was pleased, for seeing is also a metaphor when it comes to God. The choice of phrase reyach nichoach and its constant repetition must have a specific reason.

To understand this, we need to know something about our sense of smell.

Studies have shown that “odors that trigger strong, emotional memories also trigger elevated activity in the brain areas strongly linked to emotion and memory.” Further studies found that “evidence to suggest that memories triggered by an odor (like the scent of a rose) were accompanied by greater activity in the limbic system (which includes the hippocampus and amygdala) than memories triggered by the verbal label of that odor (like the word ‘rose’). The scientists also found that memories evoked by odors were linked to more brain activity in areas associated with visual vividness.”

But, of course, we don’t need studies to tell us our sense of smell is strongly correlated to memory.

Most of us (except those with smell disorders) can think of an example of walking into an unfamiliar place and smelling a familiar scent that triggered memories of an event or place from long ago. I can still sense the smell of my Grandma Ruth’s (z”l) kitchen when she was cooking for a holiday meal, even though it’s been over 20 years since I had a meal at her home. Just thinking about it as I type brings forth a range of memories and a warm feeling, much more so than if I was simply talking about her.

Therefore, when the Torah is telling us that the sacrifices produced a reyach nichoach la’Adonai — a pleasant smell before God — it is telling us something about the purpose of the sacrifices and of the worship.

Many of our prayers ask God to remember us for goodness — zochreinu Adonai Eloheinu, remember us Adonai our God. Our worship — in biblical times, through sacrifices; today, through prayers — are intended to remind God of the promises made long ago to our ancestors. When our ancestors brought forth their sacrifices, it is as if they sought to trigger God’s pleasant memory of a people who would, at least sometimes, do God’s will. And therefore, it was hoped that God would be more likely to do our will.

While we no longer bring forth sacrifices, each of us understands the power of smell. The Torah’s use of this metaphor draws us in to the text. It is almost as if we can smell the meat on the fires of the altar. Thus, the language of the pleasant smell tells us much more about us than it does about God.

As we approach the month of Nissan and the holiday of Passover, I hope that each of us will have an opportunity to experience that warm feeling of nachat ruach as we take in the pleasant smells and are reminded of Seders long ago. Perhaps you may want to kasher that grill after all. 

Rabbi Marc Israel is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, where he looks forward to enjoying the smells of the “Hava Nagrila” barbecue contest on Aug. 27. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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