Something Smells Amiss by Mark Gotesman


Within the first few Pesukim of Parashat VaYikra, we are greeted with a phrase found frequently throughout this book of Korbanot, offerings: “VeHiktir HaKohein...LeIsheh Rei’ach Nicho’ach LaHashem,” “And the Kohein shall turn burn...a fire-offering of pleasing odor to Hashem” (VaYikra 1:9). This terminology, “Rei’ach Nicho’ach LaHashem,” is so commonplace when discussing Korbanot that we probably pass it by without a second thought. But even a moment’s analysis raises a very obvious question: what does it mean for a Korban to create a “pleasing odor” to God? The simmering Chulent on Shabbat morning may smell intoxicating to us, but how could God, a being without body and above the corporeal, exhibit this trait fundamentally attached to the human body?

Apparently, Rashi was bothered enough by such a comparison as to reread the Pasuk entirely. Instead of rendering Rei’ach Nicho’ach simply as “a pleasing odor,” Rashi (1:9, quoting the Sifra) identifies the root “Nachat Ru’ach,” “contentment” in the phrase. According to Rashi, the Pasuk can then be explained as Hashem receiving contentment from the fulfilled commandment of sacrificing that specific Korban.

Though Rashi’s interpretation constitutes an adequate explanation of the Pasuk, it strays from the simple meaning of the phrase, against while the rule of Torah study “Ein Mikra Yotzei MiDerech Peshuto,” “a verse never leaves its simple meaning” (Yevamot 11b). To try and address a literal interpretation of Rei’ach Nicho’ach LaHashem, Ibn Ezra (1:9) refers us back to a comment of his on Shemot 29:25, where the similar language of Rei’ach Nicho’ach is employed. Ibn Ezra writes, “HaMeivin Sod Nishmat HaAdam Yavin Zeh,” “One who understands the secrets of the soul of man will understand this.” What exactly does this mean? Does the Ibn Ezra want us to seek out someone particularly spiritual for guidance on this Pasuk? The footnotes to the Torat Chaim edition of the Mikra’ot Gedolot attempt to rationalize this view and explain that Ibn Ezra’s comment refers to a phenomenon we all have most likely heard since first grade: because God is far beyond the scope of simple human comprehension and the Torah is made accessible to man, God is described in terms relatable to humans.[1]

However, this idea does not seem exactly appropriate in our context. The Torah might employ such reasoning to characterize God’s actions as being done with a corporeal “hand” or explain that Moshe was able only to see the “back” of God. In these instances, the phraseology allows the reader to understand, in relative terms, what is being described: he can visualize God acting as if through a hand; he can imagine God showing only a portion of Himself as if by revealing his back. But the pleasure derived from the human sense of smell is different entirely. When we benefit from smell, there is something intrinsic, hardwired into our brain, which activates the right receptors and releases the right chemicals to generate the “pleasant” feeling. Yet God does not have anything “hardwired” into his makeup; He by definition is without human limitations and above any automatic responses such as these! What, then, is the reader to understand by description of God in such terms, i.e. having an automatic response akin to human pleasure of smell?

I believe the answer is rooted in the reasoning that the Ramchal (Mesilat Yesharim 1:2) gives for God to involve himself in creation of man in Olam HaZeh. Essentially, the Ramchal explains that God, a being of pure goodness who desired to share this goodness, created man and wished that man partake in His goodness. However, before man could get an opportunity at this proximity to God in Olam HaBa, he was placed here, in Olam HaZeh, to struggle and follow God’s commandments which in turn allow him to receive his greatest reward, proximity to the Divine in Olam HaBa. What emerges from this analysis is that God, as a being of pure, intrinsic goodness, desires to see man succeed in his tests and commandments so that God can share the maximum extent of S’char, reward, with man. Thus, in the description of God’s “smelling,” the “hardwired” response of us humans is being likened to God’s wish to see man succeed. When God perceives that man is taking the proper steps, such as fulfilling a commandment and bringing a Korban, we are to understand it as a “pleasant smell” to God, i.e. his inherent goodness and desire to see man succeed “automatically” generate a feeling of pleasure similar to the human experience of smell. This is, then, what the Pesukim mean to teach, and what the Ibn Ezra had in mind when explaining them.

In fact, I believe this new understanding perfectly clarifies Ibn Ezra’s initial vague comment, “One who understands the secrets of the soul of man will understand this.” Essentially, one who understands the profound placement of the soul within man as evidence of God’s goodness and desire to see man achieve his maximal reward will understand “this,” God’s intrinsic response of pleasure at seeing man work to attain the good He is prepared to give.

God places us here, in Olam HaZeh, to work at the Mitzvot and is filled with pleasure at our success. If we would only realize this immense capacity of our effort, we would try all the harder to fulfill His will.

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