In Anticipation of the Meal
Perhaps it is the most troubling passages of the Torah which cause us to think and learn the most. At first glance, we may find them most difficult to accept — and may want to reject them out of hand. But at second and third glances, we may find that our discomfort gives way to new learning and new understanding.
Leviticus 1:9 (and its parallels elsewhere in the Torah) is one of those challenging passages. In discussing the olah sacrifice, the Torah tells us: “… and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, a gift of pleasing odor (re’ah niho’ah) to the Lord.”
In our belief of God as Creator of the universe who has no form or shape, no mouth, nose or stomach — the idea that the sacrifices would be “a gift of pleasing odor” to God makes no sense. But the phrase occurs many times in this parashah and in the Torah as a whole. What are we to make of this passage?
Fortunately, we are not alone in our discomfort. From Talmudic times forward, our Sages have found this expression problematic. In the Talmud, Tractate Menahot (110a) we find: “Lest you say, He [God] needs the offering for food, Scripture states “If I were hungry, I would not speak to you of it” ((Psalm 50:12)… You sacrifice not for My sake, but for your own sake …” The Talmudic author is clear that God neither needs nor consumes the sacrifices. They are for human benefit.
In the Middle Ages, the biblical commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra add their own thoughts on this passage. “What is pleasing to God,” says Rashi, “is not the aroma but the fact that Israel is doing God’s will.” In other words, we shouldn’t take the words “pleasing odor/aroma” literally, but should understand that what is pleasing to God is that we take God’s word seriously, that we take God’s commandments seriously and that we do God’s will. In a similar vein, Ibn Ezra writes: “Far be it that the Almighty should smell or eat. The verse would tell us that the worshiper is as pleasing to God as a sweet odor is to a human being.” The Torah is speaking in our language — Ibn Ezra tells us — and letting us know that our performance of the mitzvah is as pleasing to God, as something sweet—smelling would be to us. The language the Torah uses, the expressions the Torah employs, are used so that we may understand how pleased God is with us. But God neither smells nor eats. God is, after all, God!
The 16th century commentator Eliezer Ashkenazi provides us with an even deeper message when he tells us: “Should the worshipers imagine that they have atoned for their sins by bringing a sacrifice, the Torah informs them that the sacrifice is merely a foretaste of proper behavior in the future, even as the smell of food is only an anticipation of the meal.” (quoted in Etz Hayim Humash, p. 589) Not only should we avoid seeing the “sweet odor” as literal, but we should also not see the animal sacrifice as an end in and of itself. The sacrifice is just an auxiliary of the true atonement that must take place for whatever sin one has committed. Without the atonement, the sacrifice is meaningless. The sacrifice serves as a new start, a promise of “proper behavior” in the future, due to the person’s true desire to atone for his or her sin. And the metaphor the Torah uses, says Ashkenazi, is the “pleasing odor” that comes before a delicious meal.
May we all find favor in God’s sight, and be granted the strength to live up to God’s high standards for our behavior.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.