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The Scent of Spirit

images“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare, arrange ten simple words into possibly the most famous aphorism in the English language.

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And yet, for all the mystique and romance associated with the beauty of the rose, the greatest of all poets recognized fragrance, not visage, as the defining quality of the most admired flower.

Bonnie Blodgett would almost certainly agree. In Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing and Discovering the Primal Sense, Ms. Blodgett describes the emptiness and depression that took over her life when a zinc-based nasal spray disrupted the operation of her olfactory nerve and disfigured her sense of smell.

Gone were the familiar, reassuring fragrances of her garden, replaced by ceaseless aromas of rotting flesh and excrement, which Ms. Blodgett describes as nothing less than torture. But even when these “phantom smells” abated, the odorless existence that replaced them was only a marginal improvement.

“I had no way of knowing before what it would be like to not smell anything,” she told NPR. “When I woke up and sniffed and there was nothing there — I don’t know how to explain it — I felt completely disconnected. I truly felt as if colors were more flat. The voices in conversation felt like a TV soundtrack to me.”

Adding insult to injury was the lack of sympathy received from friends. Unlike blindness, deafness, illness, or injury, most of us cannot relate to an impaired sense of smell as especially debilitating. Of all our senses, it is the one we are most likely to take for granted.

Of course, not everyone fails to recognize the power of fragrance. From Cleopatra to Oprah Winfrey, the rich and powerful have scented themselves to augment their personas and project an image of potency, charisma, or sensuality. Today, the research, development, and production of perfume and cologne have created a $25 billion industry that markets, in the words of star perfumer Sophia Grojsman, “a promise in a bottle.”

imagesNational Geographic explains it this way:  “Memory and fragrance are intertwined, some biologists insist, because the sense of smell plugs smack into the limbic system, the seat of emotion in the brain. No other sense has such immediate access.”

The unique power of fragrance takes little time to assert itself in the chronicles of mankind. Immediately upon exiting the ark, Noah gave thanks for his salvation by building an altar and bringing offerings of thanksgiving. “And the Almighty smelled the pleasing fragrance, and said to Himself, Never again will I curse the earth on account of man” (Genesis 8:21).  Obviously, G-d does not “smell” the way human beings do.  But according to the linguistic nuances of biblical Hebrew, “aroma” implies direct contact over a great distance in the finest detail and in the most subtle ways.*

The Hebrew words rayach (scent) and ruach (spirituality) derive from a common grammatical root, and the implied connection between them appears as early as the narrative of man’s formation, when the Almighty “breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Ibid. 2:7).  The common derivation of the Hebrew words neshimah –“breath” – and neshomah – “soul” – suggests that our spiritual life force comes, literally and metaphorically, by way of air and respiration.

Just as smell is the most difficult sense to measure, quantify, and define, so too is our spiritual essence the least palpable and discernible facet of our existence.  Similarly, the interplay between one soul and another is the most elusive of human pleasures, but it is also the most rewarding.  As King Solomon says, “Scented oil and incense gladden the heart, sweet as the sincere counsel of a kindred soul” (Proverbs 27:9).  Indeed, the smoky fragrance of incense wafting into the corners of our minds and rippling across the strings of our hearts is anything but smoke and mirrors; it stirs our memories and hopes and dreams the same way that true friendship and camaraderie arouse our spirit.  Truly, the faculty of smell provides the spice of life by adding texture and dimension to all our other senses.

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Ask Bonnie Blodgett.  As suddenly as her sense of smell disappeared, just as suddenly it returned, and she will never take it for granted again. “I was going around smelling everything,” she says. “Being able to smell lilacs again was just — I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”

imagesBut it goes beyond mere olfactory pleasure. There is truth to common expressions like he has a good nose for business and something doesn’t smell right. Like our sense of smell, human intuition is our intangible moral compass, guiding us when we encounter something for the first time to quickly assess its value and authenticity.  In the biblical narrative, Jacob disguises himself as his brother, Esau, then enters the tent of his father, Isaac, who exclaims, “The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field blessed by G-d” (Genesis 27:27).  The sages elaborate, explaining that the fragrance of the Garden of Eden entered with Jacob, convincing Isaac to bestow his blessing.**

What was this “fragrance of Eden”?  It was nothing less than the soul’s eternal connection to the ultimate Plan of Creation, which began with the placement of Man into a perfect world and will culminate in the restoration of that perfect world at the End of Days.***  And throughout the long generations of chaos in between, the spiritual nature of our world can be scarcely perceived through sight, sound, touch, or taste.  But it can be smelled, if we pay attention to the subtle pleasures of life that are expressions of the human soul and contemplate the mysterious allegory of fragrance.

And so the ancient sources describe the advent of the messianic era as a time when the divinely appointed redeemer will “smell and judge,” – determining complex truths through spiritual discernment (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 93b).  Thus we find, according to Chassidic tradition, the story of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the 18th Century leader of European Jewry whose wife ran through the door one afternoon shouting, “Mendel, Mendel, there’s a man outside shouting that the Messiah has arrived!”

Immediately, Rabbi Menachem Mendel jumped up and ran to the window, took a long sniff of air, then shook his head and muttered, “Nonsense!” before returning to his studies.  Like Isaac, the rabbi knew that a world with the Messiah smells different from a world without Messiah, and that if he could not detect the fragrance of Eden then certainly the messianic era had not yet arrived.

Two generations later, Rabbi Israel of Rizhin asked why the illustrious rabbi had to run to the window – why could he not simply sniff the air in his own home?

Rabbi Israel answered his own question.  So involved was Rabbi Menachem Mendel with his own personal service of the Almighty, so intent was he upon hastening the arrival of messianic era, so profoundly had he had already connected with the spiritual source of the universe that his own house had already acquired the fragrance of Eden.  Consequently, he had to run to the window to discover what the rest of the world smelt like.

The more we focus on what we should be doing to create a perfect world through the perfection of our own character and conduct, the more our lives will acquire the fragrance of spiritual purpose.  And the more eagerly we anticipate the glorious fulfillment of the Almighty’s Master Plan, the sooner we will enjoy a world in which we draw in the aroma of the Divine with every breath.

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*Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch

**Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, ad. loc

***Based on the Malbim, loc. cit.

Adapted from an essay originally published in Inyan Magazine, 2 July 2014.  With thanks to Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Aish.com.

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