A sweet scent: d’var Torah for Vayikra

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Crossposted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


This week as we begin the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, we enter into a mystical world of flour and oil, incense and entrails. We call these things sacrifices, though that English word misses the mark of what I think the Hebrew really means. The Hebrew word is קרבנות, which comes from the root which means to draw near. The korbanot are offerings intended to draw us near to God.

Again and again in this week’s Torah portion we read that we are to make a ריח ניחח, a pleasing scent, to Adonai. I hear those words and I think of woodsmoke, fine incense, the mouthwatering aroma of good barbecue. Once upon a time we understood our korbanot as our way of putting something fragrant into the air for our invisible Deity to consume.

I like to think of the reiach nichoach created by our choices. Think about how we behave in the world, how we treat one another, whether or not we take the time for the spiritual practice of mitzvot.

Do our actions create a reiach nichoach, a sweet scent, for Adonai?

One of the offerings described in this parsha is an offering of unleavened wafers spread with fine oil — what we might think of as fresh hot matzah with really good butter. Can we make our observance of Pesach, coming up in just a few short days, a korban, something which will draw us nearer to the Holy Blessed One? Can we set the intention of eating matzah that week with gratitude that we have this practice for remembering our story and celebrating our freedom?

Can we make choices which will create a spiritual fragrance to waft up to God on high?

I’ll close with a Torah poem for this week’s portion, which you can find in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

KORBAN

You’ll need a smoker.
Get one from Home Depot
and tighten each screw and bolt
exactly as the directions teach.

Split birch logs, and maple
kindle knobs of charcoal
fan them with cardboard
layer the hardwoods to burn.

Place the bird with reverence
then close the lid. What rises
will perfume the neighborhood,
your clothes, your hair.

Two hours later it’s blackened,
crisp and burnished, but
inside: so tender even
a butter knife cuts through…

What constitutes a drawing-near
two thousand years or so
after the last sacrifice, bull
or pigeon, went up in smoke?

It’s not the roasting that matters,
that’s just barbecue — though
maybe it’s a reminder
on some level too deep to name —

but anticipation, and gratitude.
So that what burns bright
on the altars of our hearts
sends a pleasing odor to Adonai.

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