Drash for Vayikra
Va-yikra describes in great detail the correct way to make offerings of sacrifice to God. Many of these are burned. The smoke that results is not just any smoke -- verse 9 says “It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to God.”
Often when people think about religion and how to practice it in a way that is meaningful, they think about a list of “shoulds” that need to be followed.
Do the right things and all will be good between us and God. Eat the right foods in the right way, pray at the correct time and in the right way, fast when it is correct to fast, but not at any other time. Good Jews “should” do all of these things. I find this experience of God small and confining. It is hard for me to connect with, and to experience in a deep, spiritual way.
Pleasing God with a pleasing smell is completely the opposite of pleasing God by following rules. A wonderful scent engages your body in a way that has nothing to do with thought. It is purely pleasurable, and brings joy. What does it mean to be “pleasing to God”?
The Baal Shem Tov said “Pleasures are manifestations of God's name.” Creating beauty and taking pleasure in it, experiencing the feeling that comes from doing that makes me feel joy, which is a purely emotional experience. Baal Shem Tov also said “He who is full of joy is full of love”. To me this means that by experiencing joy, we experience love to its fullest – whether that is love of others, or love of God. To love, to feel joy, to make life better, pleases God.
By burning sacrifices that were “of pleasing odor to God”, the Israelites were able to create something that connected them to God in a deeper way. Rabbi Charles Saevnor in his article “The Pleasing Aroma of Sacrifice” says: “As human beings we frequently need to visualize our values and ideals so that we can work towards actualizing them. The image of God accepting sacrifices with ‘a pleasing odor’ was always meant to inspire a higher level of connection with the Divine.”
When someone asks me if I believe in God I answer yes, without hesitation. But if someone asks me what do I mean by “God”, I struggle. It is easier for me to describe when I feel God, than what I mean when I say “God”. When I am stopped in my tracks by a beautiful sky, or when I listen to a Bach string quartet I feel something that lifts me up from my everyday life. I’m removed from my thoughts for a few minutes – that is God to me. When I am in community praying, and feel everyone’s voices praying with me – I feel God in me. Is that a meaning, or a lack of meaning? And does it matter?
Since the virus pandemic started I am struggling to feel the beauty of the world. At some point during each day, I am overwhelmed by fear. Sometimes this is a specific fear – will I run out of food? Will I no longer be able to leave my house? Sometimes I don’t even know what I am afraid of – dread weighs me down. It is easy for this fear to churn endlessly in my mind and hard to break out of. What does God do with my fear, with our fear? Is this fear and panic an unpleasing odor to God?
I don’t think so.
One of the things that draws me most to believing in God is feeling that when I am struggling, when I am sad or fearful or despairing, God is out there. Not necessarily doing anything about my personal struggles – that part doesn’t matter to me. But the idea that God is aware of my fear, of all or our fear, brings me some comfort. It makes me feel less alone. I am trying my hardest -- not always succeeding – to hold on to that feeling now. Because right now it is so incredibly easy to spiral into despair and fear.
Last week I took a walk to the park. The air was warm and the sun was bright. I was astonished to see that trees are blooming. I was so in my own head that I forgot it was spring. On the way to the park I saw a forsythia bush in full bloom – bright yellow branches exploding in every direction. I stopped and took it in. I breathed. It slowed me down. I was able to create a space of personal joy for myself.
This is my challenge, for as long as this surreal situation lasts. Each day I am trying to make space to experience something that is purely beautiful to me. Something that makes me feel joy or wonder. Something that takes me out of myself and my fear, even if only for a few minutes. This practice is helping me to feel the beauty of the world, and to remember that beauty still exists. It is so much easier to experience joy when everything is normal. It is so difficult now.
What works for you may be different than what works for me. When I stare at a a picture on my wall, or feel pleasure from hearing a piece of music that I love, it lifts me up. Surely God is in that piece of music. Maybe that joy that I feel is feeling God. It doesn’t matter to me what God is, God is in the feeling.
Opening myself up to experience beauty for a small part of my day helps me to remember that the world is beautiful. By opening ourselves up to experiencing moments of pure joy, we are connecting to beauty in this world. It brings us together in a way that transcends specific meaning.