Parshas Toldos (5774)
One of the most incredible gifts we possess - and one that we hardly ever think about and, most likely, take for granted - is right in front of our noses. That's right .....you guessed it ....our sense of smell.
In his fascinating, information-packed book Designer World, Tuvia Cohen describes the brilliant design (can you say G-d?) that is involved in the creation and function of the human nose with its incredible sense of smell:
The sense of smell is a vital necessity. It gives pleasure (the wafting aroma of cholent on Shabbos morning), it gives warning (sour chicken soup, eggs past their prime, the smell of smoke or gas), and it evokes emotion (freshly mown grass, polished wooden floors, a pine forest). How does it work? On the roof of each nasal cavity there is a patch of yellow-brown tissue smaller than a postage stamp. In each patch there are receptor cells, with each cell containing 6-8 tiny sensory hairs that project from it. Each cell is connected to the brain approximately one inch away. A molecule (let us say of bread in the oven) floats through the air, and is inhaled up the nose. The molecule dissolves in the mucus covering the tiny cells with their tinier hairs. The molecule then reacts chemically with the receptor cell, causing a minute amount of electricity to be generated, and passed along the nervous system to the brain. In a fraction of a second, the message is decoded and the information released - baking bread. Automatically, a message is transmitted to the salivary glands telling them to begin production (food on the way), the hunger impulse is activated, especially if it is a fast day, and the brain registers a pleasurable sensation. Each single receptor cell residing on the little square patch is a machine of phenomenal complexity and efficiency, so complicated that we do not know precisely how it is able to react differently (and chemically) to each molecule. How many of these wonder-machines do you think you possess in each nostril? Just ten million!! Ten million advanced computers sitting quietly and modestly at the top of the nose.
Jews, in particular, have a special connection to the organ in which all this amazing smelling takes place - the big schnozzola - otherwise known as the nose. You know the old joke: Why do Jews have long noses? Because air is free. It has been said that Jewish people have long noses in order to stick them in the Five Books of Moses. And although it is definitely true that some of us could be poster boys for cosmetic surgery, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in his book Jewish Humor that social scientist Maurice Fishberg actually examined four thousand Jewish noses in New York City and discovered that only 14 percent were aquiline or hooked. While that percentage might be slightly higher than the number among non-Jews, it also means that 86 percent of Jews have straight, snub, flat, or broad noses.
In truth, our special connection to noses and to their unique sense of smell goes way back to a story in the Bible involving our great ancestor, the patriarch Isaac. And through an analysis of that story as well as some other Midrashic passages, we will hopefully gain some fascinating insights into the "spiritual side" of our noses' amazing sense of smell.
In this week's Torah portion, the aging, partially blind patriarch Isaac asks his firstborn son Esau to prepare for him some food so that he might bless him. Rebecca finds out and quickly dresses up her younger son Jacob in his brother's smelly fur coat and sends him to his father with some food, in order that Jacob receive the blessing she felt he so rightfully deserved. The Torah tells us that Isaac drew him [Jacob] close and kissed him, and "he smelled the fragrance of his garments [begadav in Hebrew] and he blessed him" (see Genesis 27:27).
A fascinating Midrash states: Read it as if it were bogdav, his "traitors", people such as Yoseif Meshissah and Yakum of Tzeroros (Yalkut Shimoni 115). The Midrash refers to two renegade Jews living in the Second Temple Era who were traitors to their people and violators of the Torah, but who, in the end, both repented and accepted death rather than continue to sin. Thus, Isaac "smelled the sweet fragrance" of even these spiritually-challenged Jews, meaning that he was able to perceive the holiness of Jacob's descendants, the Jewish nation, that even the lowest traitors among them never lose the capacity to lift themselves back up to the ancient plateau of spiritual greatness.
We learn from this Midrash something about the spiritual nature of the sense of smell. Great tzaddikim (pious, saintly Jews) like our forefather Isaac seemed to have the ability to "sniff" other people, so to speak, and to see beyond their outward appearance, straight to the core of their essence. So that where others might have looked down at Yosef Meshissah and others like him who, for all appearances, were evil people, those who have "a good nose for it" would be able to see the beautiful inner core of these Jewish "traitors” that was just waiting to come out and shine.
And Isaac wasn't the only prominent Jew with a great nose (or should I say - great Jew with a prominent nose?). The Talmud in Sanhedrin 93b, in a discussion about the future King Messiah and his various character traits, abilities and powers, tells us about the Messiah's amazing nose:
"He [the Messiah] will he imbued [vaharicho] with a spirit of fear of G-d" (Isaiah 11:3). Rava said: vaharicho means he judges by smelling [meriach]." [The Messiah will have the ability to "smell" who is guilty and who is innocent.] For the verse continues, "He will not need to judge by what his eyes see nor decide by what his ears hear. Yet he will judge the destitute with righteousness, and decide with fairness for the humble of the earth."
Again we see the sense of smell being used as a metaphor for the ability that some people have to see the undistorted truth - without being affected by what they see or hear. What is it about our noses that give them their unique quality and special talent for being able to sniff out the truth? And why is the sense of smell - and not our sense of sight, hearing, or taste, for example - chosen by the Midrash as a metaphor for this spiritual capacity of seeing beyond someone's external facade to the inner essence of his being?
HOW THE SOUL GETS "HIGH"
"Let the entire soul praise G-d" writes King David in his Psalms (Tehillim 150:6). The Talmud in Berachos 43b derives from this verse that one must recite a blessing upon smelling certain fragrances, for the Psalmist says: Let the entire soul praise G-d, and the pleasure which does not nourish the body but only delights the soul is the scenting of a fine fragrance. Hence we learn that one should praise and bless G-d for providing this pleasure, just as for providing the body with food. Maharsh”a, a 17th-century Talmud commentator, notes that animals, like men, have fine senses, including the sense of smell, despite the fact that they have no souls. He suggests, however, that animals, which have only a "life force" and not a soul, do not have the capacity to enjoy the fragrances they smell (as an instinct to aid their survival), an enjoyment reserved for the soul within men.
It is another long-standing tradition that during the Havdallah service on Motzo'ei Shabbos (Saturday Night), we recite the blessing Borei minei besamim over fragrant spices (besamim). One of the reasons for this is that when Shabbos departs, the soul becomes depressed because of the loss of the neshamah yeseirah, the "extra measure of soul" which Shabbos always brings. Thus, in order to alleviate this sadness and to "revive" our soul, we inhale sweet-smelling spice, which, as mentioned above, is really the only pleasure in which the soul delights and finds nourishment. (Obviously, one has to be an extremely spiritually-sensitive person to experience both the addition of the neshamah yeseirah at the onset of Shabbos, as well as its exit and the subsequent depression it causes when Shabbos departs. Great Tzaddikim have been known to experience this spiritual "high" each and every Shabbos.)
We learn from these two Jewish Halachic traditions a fascinating concept - that although our physical bodies get their "high" from eating and drinking, our souls - our true essence - can only get pleasure and nourishment from things that we inhale, such as besamim, or other sweet-smelling things.
I'm sure that by now you're all totally confused! I mean, what's that all about?! Why would our spiritual, intangible souls, only receive pleasure from things that involve our sense of smell? Or, to paraphrase the old Passover question .....why is this sense different from all other senses?
THE SENSE WITH SENSIBILITY
To begin to understand the depth of the unique, spiritual quality of our sense of smell, we must go back even further in time .....to the very first people with noses - Adam and Eve - in the Garden of Eden.
An interesting observation was made by the great Chassidic thinker, the B'nei Yissas'char. In the sin committed by Adam and Eve when they ate from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, virtually all of the senses were involved. They heard the incitement of the serpent, saw the beauty of the fruit, touched and tasted it. And the B'nei Yissas'char explains that as a result of the sin, all of these senses became affected with materialism. Only the sense of smell was not involved in this sin and it therefore remains pristine enough to still be enjoyed by the pure soul.
On a deeper level, we can understand this as follows: The root of Adam and Eve's was that they were tempted by the outward appearance and desirable nature of this forbidden fruit, thinking that it was more than it truly was, when, in fact, it was really not good for them. And by doing so, and by partaking of this forbidden fruit, they brought into the world a distortion of what is real and true and good, and what it not real and good, and is just a facade. After their sin, man lost the clarity of vision and the ability to see things for what they truly are. And till this day, we suffer from that big cosmic no-no. Any time a man throws away his whole marriage as well as his future in exchange for a few minutes of gratification of a fleeting temptation - which is not really good, it just looks that way - we see Adam and Eve's sin once again rearing its ugly head. And there are many more examples of this distortion and blurred sense of reality - all the ramifications of that original sin.
This primordial distortion involved all of man's senses - all, that is, except his sense of smell. The sense of smell thus retained its ability to see the true essence of things and people, not to be swayed by facades and outward appearances. And from that point on, the sense of smell has been the metaphor for a person's ability to see things without distortion - truly the only sense with "sensibility".
PHYSICAL MANIFESTATIONS OF THE SPIRITUAL REALITY
Rabbi Akiva Tatz quotes a fascinating teaching of the Kabbalah that everything that G-d created in the physical world mirrors and parallels an objective, spiritual reality. Which means that if we want to understand the true spiritual nature and essence of a created entity in this world, we have only to study its physical characteristics and structure. This idea can also be applied to our discussion of the unique spiritual nature of our sense of smell.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary to Genesis that the sense of smell is that sense in which fine particles of a substance at a distance have to come into direct contact with the nerve-ending in order for the receptor cells to register a sensation. Whereas in the senses of taste and touch the substance itself has to come into contact with the nerve-endings, and our senses of hearing and sight only receive impressions from things at a distance, the sense of smell is between the other four. The objects can be at some distance, as in sight and sound, but tiny particles must come into direct contact, as in taste and touch.
Just as in the human realm, the more "spiritual" a person is, the more he can perceive things which aren't as readily visible or obvious to people who are less spiritually-inclined - so it is with our senses. The more "spiritual" a sense is, the more it will be able to perceive objects, even at a great distance. And, conversely, the more "physical" a sense is, the more it will have to come into physical contact with another object in order to sense it. So that the senses of sight and hearing are the more spiritual senses, and the senses of taste and touch are the more physical ones, with the sense of smell being right in the middle of the two groups.
The Mahara”l in his commentary to the Talmud, as well as the Abarbanel in his commentary to Isaiah, explain the connection between the sense of smell and Isaac's capacity to discern the true, inner goodness of the traitors of Israel, as well as the King Messiah's ability to judge truthfully and fairly. The senses of sight and hearing, while they are generally more "elevated" and spiritual than the sense of smell in that they can perceive objects at a greater distance, are also at a disadvantage as they relate to our capacity for judgment, in that they have the ability to see and hear things that are not proper to see and hear and that are even potentially evil, and which definitely don't reflect the truth. And based on what the judge sees or hears, he might be inclined to lean the wrong way and thus to distort the judgment.
The sense of smell, on the other hand, knows a bad smell when it smells it, and will surely reject it. And even though the sense of taste will also generally reject a bad or sour taste, Mahara”l explains that only the three more "spiritual" senses - sight, hearing and smell - can relate to the concept of judgment which is essentially a spiritual/intellectual pursuit. [Furthermore, even the sense of taste can't always be relied upon to reject a bad-tasting food or drink. Sometimes we start drinking a cup of milk that has soured, and only after smelling it do we realize that it has gone bad.]
So that, as the Kabbalah teaches us, the spiritual reality and essence of our G-d given sense of smell - the only sense which was not involved in the cosmic distortion of essence caused by Adam and Eve's sin, thus retaining its pure, natural ability to see the real truth, as well as its ability to nourish the spiritual soul - is manifest in the physical characteristics and defining qualities of our sense of smell, which knows a bad smell when it sniffs it, and which cannot be fooled by outward appearances.
The nose knows the truth ..... and now you know it too!