Whenever I make pesto, the scent of the basil immediately transports me back to my grandfather’s abundant garden, which took up most of the yard in back of their house on Mountainview Avenue in Syracuse, New York. I am five, or six or seven, and secure in the embrace and love of my grandparents.
Neuroscientific research now can tell us the how and why behind what most of us have know instinctively from very young ages: smells can trigger powerful and vivid emotional memories. This Torah portion helps us to see that as with many things, what it has taken modern humans millennia to figure out was embedded into our system of ritual from the beginning by God.
Tzav contains a rather exhaustive description of the ritual of various kinds of sacrifices – the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the sacrifice of well-being. We read details that to many of us, especially this vegetarian writer, can feel like a bit too much information about slaughter and entrails of animals. There is a constant refrain, however, which should catch our attention. Several of the sacrifices, the burnt offerings, are left on the altar all night long. The offerings made of grain are prepared with oil on a griddle. These rituals are designed with an attention to the scent that will emerge – the reyach nikoach – pleasing scent for God. Think about the scent of grilling meat on a summer night, or fried dough at a street fair. As with my grandfather’s basil, I imagine that each of us has associations with the scents of places, people, and seasons. What the Israelites are commanded to do in the desert sets their olfactory systems to feel connected to God even when they emerge from the wilderness – every time there is grilling meat or cooking food, they will feel connected to God and community.
This same command is found in the instructions for the first Pesach ritual. In Exodus 12, the Israelites are told to roast this first Passover offering, all night long (not cooked in any way with water, or raw, but roasted), and eat it with sandals on their feet, hurriedly. The scents of Pesach stay in our communal memories till this day. I imagine that the sacrifices in the wilderness, after God has taken the Israelites out of Egypt, and given the Torah, bring the Israelites back to that time of redemption. The rabbis recognized this as well, establishing no fewer than four brachot for different scents. Scent connects us to the past and to the future.
God gave the Israelites, and the Kohanim, instructions on the rituals of Jewish life in the wilderness into which lasting emotional impact was embedded. We would do well, here at Schechter, as we inculcate our children into Jewish life and values, to turn our attention to those scents, that reyach nikoach. What is the scent that we are transmitting to our children, our faculty, our leaders, our parent community during the everyday and during times of transition? How Schechter treats all of the members of this community, from our head of school to the beginning toddler at Gan Shelanu produces a reyach that impacts individual lives, our community, and wafts into the broader community as well.