Have you ever had the sensation of breezing past a department store perfume counter and suddenly conjuring a vivid memory of a grandparent? Or walking into someone’s home and having the smell of dinner carry you away to your childhood? It is widely accepted scientifically that brain anatomy is responsible for this strong connection between smells and memory. The olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, is directly connected to two of the brain’s emotion and memory centers: the amygdala and hippocampus.
I don’t need to understand the anatomy to know there are certain scents that just make me happy in an instant. The smell of Olga bread from my favorite restaurant in Detroit can make my mouth water. The smell of good Texas barbecue is enough to make me ravenous no matter how full I am. The smell of the challah on Friday or Havdalah spices on Saturday bring me to a place of instant peace.
Of course it’s not just food. The sweet smell of Shiri’s head as she rests it against me when she cuddles makes my heart melt. I have one particular sweater that belonged to my father; if I hold it close, I’m embraced with the faint smell of his cologne. More than sight, sound, or touch, our sense of smell has a unique way of tying into our taste buds and our memories so that we are instantly moved by the various odors around us.
This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the third book in the Torah. This book contains many practical laws to guide our communities as well as the original laws of sacrifice, and it’s filled with rules and laws about gifts we should be making to God: gifts of well-being, gifts of thanks, gifts of apology. It also has within its chapters the text known as the “holiness code,” which directs us in how our relationships with others should be created and managed. But the first portion of the book, which we read this week, focuses mostly on the types of offerings we will make to God as both individuals and as a community.
As God in the Torah starts to outline the different sacrifices that the Israelites are expected to make for various reasons, we begin to see God’s reaction to these sacrifices. Chapter 1, verse 9 evokes “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord.” We know that it’s our physical makeup that makes smells pleasing to us, but how is this possible for God, with no physical makeup? Does God have the same human reaction that I have? The commentators emphatically reject the notion that God is actually smelling the sacrifices. Instead, what is described as pleasing to God is that the Israelites are doing what is asked of them.
I see a direct parallel to how we interpret memories and behaviors. It’s not the chemicals in the odors, but the feelings associated with them that matter. Traditional sacrifice has long been abandoned in favor of more modern interpretations of how we offer praise to God. It’s not the sacrifice itself, but the intent behind the sacrifice that is “pleasing to the Lord.” Obviously it was because my dad was who he was that the memory is so special; the cologne is simply a reminder of that. These emotional triggers are superficially enjoyable, but it’s up to us to create those memories in the first place.