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Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

“The Priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the curtain of the Shrine” (Leviticus 4:6).

Anyone walking past a bakery who is stopped by the aroma of freshly baked bread experiences the answer to an important question posed by Parashat Vayikra. Vayikra introduces the sacrificial rite in great detail: how the animals shall be cut up, which parts shall be removed or burned, how the blood shall be splashed on the altar, and which parts may be eaten by the priests.

The description of the sacrifice ends, repeatedly, with the phrase, ishe rei-ach nicho-ach ladonai, a gift of a pleasing odor to the Lord. (e.g., Lev. 1:9). This raises two theological questions: does God really smell and is the sacrifice magic (in the sense that a human behavior (sacrifice) can make God act a certain way)?

The first question is answered, easily. The rabbis are comfortable with metaphor as an interpretive lens, so Ibn Ezra (1089- ~1164; great medieval Spanish scholar) reads the phrase to mean God reacts as a human would to a sweet smell. The answer to the second question is a little more involved. Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512–1585; Talmudist, physician, and rabbi in Egypt, Italy, and Poland) explains the aroma of the sacrifice is a hint of the individual’s future good deeds. So, just as the smell of freshly baked bread hints at the delicacies inside the bakery, the smell of the sacrifice (properly done) is a good faith “marker” the individual intends to behave properly. God is pleased in anticipation.

Research shows odors are the most potent trigger to memory. It may not be accidental the rabbis use the sense of smell as a metaphor for God’s acknowledgment of human behavior.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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