The divine fragrance of memory

The divine fragrance of memory

Parshat Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10

The Book of Exodus describes six ritual objects designed for use in the mishkan, the Taberncle: the Ark of the Covenant, the sacrificial altar, the menorah, the laver, the table for the “display” bread and the altar of incense. Which do you think is most important?

The ark is the first that might come to mind. The ark was the first ritual object that God commanded and the first that the Israelites constructed for the mishkan. Exodus 25 teaches that God imparted to the people from between the two cherubim and above the ark. If the infinite God was associated with one finite place on earth, it was the ark. God, so to speak, was in the box. But the ark was captured in battle by the Philistines, then taken as booty to Bablyon along with the entire Jewish people in the Exile of 586 B.C.E. Despite what “Raiders of The Lost Ark” or the History Channel might deceive us into believing, the ark vanished long, long ago. So much for putting God in a box.

What of the sacrificial altar? If the ark was the place where heaven touched earth, then the altar was the place where earth touched heaven. But the Babylonian Exile put a temporary halt to sacrifice, and the destruction of the Second Temple then ended sacrifice permanently. Ever since, we Jews touch heaven through prayer, and heaven touches us through mitzvot.

The menorah? Parshat Tetzaveh begins with the kindling of the Menorah. It was the first ritual object put to use in the mishkan, mirroring God’s first creation, light. Today almost every Jewish home has a menorah, more exactly a chanukiah with nine branches, not seven like a real menorah. A chanukiah is kindled only eight nights a year, a paltry sum compared to the menorah kindled to begin Tetzaveh and then burned morning and night, day after day, every day of the year. As important as the menorah once was, today it exists mostly as a minor variation on a theme for Chanukah.

The laver was used with the sacrifices. Therefore it suffered the same fate. Today, many Jews use lavers to wash their hands before the hamotzi prayer to begin meals. But many more Jews don’t even know of such a ritual, let alone have a laver. Ignorance is never an excuse, which leads us closer to the most important ritual object in the mishkan.

No, it was not the table for “display” bread. The table’s 12 compartments were for 12 breads baked fresh for each Shabbat. Each Shabbat, 12 new breads were baked, and the old breads were eaten by the Kohanim. According to Josephus, they were unleavened bread. So imagine eating week-old matzah. Matzah is tasteless enough. Lying out in the torrid dessert sun and the chilly desert night for a week, matzah would have been super-tasteless.

Taste is a sense that is as powerful as it is deceptive. Taste barely exists by itself. All the other senses function independent of one another. You can touch without seeing, see without hearing, hear without smelling, and smell without tasting, etc. But taste is acutely dependent on the sense of smell. All of us know from the common cold what scientific research confirms: When you can’t smell, you can’t taste. All the subtleties of taste that allow us to discern between sushi and soufflé are not in the mouth but in the nose. And hunger is not summoned by taste nearly as much as it is by smell. The aroma of cookies baking in the oven or a brisket smothered with onions, opening a jar of kosher dill pickles and the smell of whatever thrills your palate are what make your mouth water.

In extolling our sense of smell,  Gordon Shepherd, a neuroscientist at Yale University proposed, “We think our lives are dominated by our visual sense, but the closer you get to dinner, the more you realize how much your real pleasure in life is tied into smell. It taps into all our emotions. It sets patterns of behavior, makes life pleasant and disgusting, as well as nutritious.”

Of all our senses, smell is literally closest to the brain. The olfactory bulbs that discern smells lie right at the base of the brain, in close proximity to the master glands of the body: the pituitary, thalamus and hypothalamus. More than any other sense, smell connects to the brain’s limbic system that shapes raw emotion and lasting memories. Consequently, smell can evoke powerful emotions.

Love smells. These words sound silly but they are true. Think of the smell of a newborn baby, your daughter at 4 years old, your son at 14. Think of the smell or your spouse.

Smells also repulse, typically for good reason. Open a container of leftover food moldering in your refrigerator for the past six months and you know not to eat it. Or reflect on this passage from the Gates of Repentance: “How many are those who rest in nameless graves, and how many those whose ashes were blown by the winds to every corner of the earth? Even now the air we breathe is thick with the dust of our martyrs. Do men and women know that they breathe it still?”

Thus, we come to the most important ritual object in the mishkan: the altar of incense. Its power lies in its aroma to evoke powerful memories. Now conjure the smell of Shabbat candles as they burn down and gutter. That is the incomparable and unforgettable smell of Shabbat. Now think of how we conclude each Shabbat with the smell of sweet incense, with the hope and prayer that the memory of Shabbat’s sweetness will remain with us for the week.

The instructions to fashion the altar of incense come at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh, saving best for last. The smell of sweet incense reminded the Israelites of their duty to serve God. This Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembrance, underscores the power and purpose of memory in Judaism. To lose our memory is to lose our identity. To remember is to affirm our identity, to assume our duty and to shape our destiny.

These six ritual objects all disappeared millennia ago, along with the mishkan, yet they live on in our collective Jewish memory. But the altar of incense alone still teaches us that being Jewish is remembering everything that preserves our eternal covenant with God.

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.