What does God smell like? The question seems to be absurd—as much as asking what God looks like or sounds like. Even more so, perhaps, since the Bible brims with accounts of the divine voice and appearance, ineffable though they may have been, but says nothing about God’s scent. Any physical quality of God is a human projection, and yet such projections still have power. We can imagine viewing the divine glory, comparable to a brilliant cloudburst in the sky, or hearing the divine voice, whether in the power of thunder or the quiet beauty of birdsong. But smell? What would God smell like?
Consider the experience of Israel encamped around the tabernacle. Inside its sacred precincts were special objects—the menorah, the table of show bread, the incense altar, and deep within, the holy ark. They could imagine what these objects looked like, and they received reports of what Moses heard of the divine voice within. But these were mediated experiences. The only direct sensation accessible to them must have been the scent of the incense. It was burned in the tent each morning and evening—perhaps a whiff of that luxurious aroma wafted into the camp, allowing the Israelites to sense the divine service within. Perhaps when they smelled the incense our ancestors allowed themselves to imagine that they were somehow smelling God. Continue reading
What is the function of cherubs? Not the love-struck angel babies of Valentine’s day, but the winged ark ornaments that we read of this week in Parashat Terumah. Their wings were spread upwards, and their faces were towards one another, and also down toward the kapporet—the golden lid of the ark upon which they were mounted. What did these cherubs symbolize, and what was their function? Just two weeks ago in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:4) we read that God prohibits the making of graven images, and yet here they are, winged creatures with human faces, mounted atop the holy ark and embroidered into the curtains. Clearly they play an important function, but is it strictly symbolic, or are the cherubim literally standing guard? Continue reading
One my strangest experiences came during my last visit with my grandmother Belle Nevins, z”l. She was dying, and although conscious it was not clear that she was aware of us. Suddenly she looked to the empty chair in the corner of the room and addressed her husband, my Papa Sam, who had died many years before. “Wait for me, Sam, I’m coming,” she said. And so she did. It turns out that this story is not so strange after all, if strange means unusual. A new study reported this week by Jan Hoffman in the NY Times proclaimed “New Vision for for Dreams of the Dying.” Many dying people report seeing deceased relatives as they themselves prepare to die. For most, such visions are comforting, though there are exceptions. Medical researchers are beginning to examine the dreams and waking visions of dying patients and their role in bringing comfort or distress to them and their loved ones. It is not easy for physicians to take such “deliriums” seriously, but these researchers make the compelling case that the experiences reported by patients are always relevant to their care. Moreover, many of the dreams of the dying do not come across as delirious. They have narrative coherence and enduring meaning for the patients and for those who know them. And so they are worthy of respectful attention.
Treating unusual and even improbably visions with respect is not so difficult for religious people. Even the most critical reader can appreciate the power of a narrative that shares an intense and miraculous vision. We cherish our sacred scriptures in part because they periodically depart from the realm of ordinary experience and give us a glimpse of a different reality. We cannot prove anything about these visions other than that they have had enormous power for millennia, and continue to move us. When our texts slip between normal and extraordinary modes and back again, they make an implicit claim about the blended nature of reality. Continue reading
What do you feel when listening to the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? It is very difficult to describe the experience of hearing the shofar. There are many regulations and associations that come with the shofar, of course, and some of these may come to mind while we listen to the “voices of shofar.” We are aware of halakhot about the type of horn we use and the variety of notes. We recall the image of Akedat Yitzhak and realize that the shofar is meant to remind God of that act of sacrifice and to view us with mercy. All of the verses about the shofar fill our minds with texts and contexts on the great themes of creation, revelation and redemption. But in the moment when we actually listen to the shofar we try not to think of any of those things. Those associations become peripheral to the pure and powerful experience of sound.
When we really hear the shofar the effect is one of bringing us to attention—we become fully aware, not of any thing, but simply aware—listening, absorbing, and being present. We are not alone, but with people who share our experience. And that, I think is what the Torah is trying to tell us this week about Matan Torah. There is the decalogue, of course, and Parashat Yitro is followed by Mishpatim and then dozens of chapters of Torah filled with regulations regarding the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices and purity laws. But first—before all of that, and also after it—is the experience of simply standing at attention and listening to the powerful and even frightening sound of the shofar. The Torah is teaching us about God—not a thing, not an image, not even a word—to experience God in truth is to release all limitations and stand in dumbstruck wonder, awe, and love. Continue reading