The Scent of Shechinah
In the journey in the desert,
What will you be?
Goatherd? Guide? Gopher?
Priest? Prophet? Perfumer?
This week's parashah, Ki Tisa,
Another in the chain of chapters
Of Exodus devoted not to
Plagues or Miracles or Fiery Mountains
But to the Mishkan, the holy pop-up
sanctuary where the tablets are kept
And where the Shechinah dwells.
There in the wilderness,
Amid scrub and thorns,
We refugees seeking sanctuary
Build our own sanctuary
With our own arts. Our clever fingers shuttling the
Fine yarns and dyes. Making curtains and covers.
Beams and basins. And gold cherubim,
Face to face, framing God's face between.
But the Mishkan is not just a feast for the eyes.
But one for the nose as well.
A place for ascent through scent.
This sanctuary, unlike ours,
Is not scent-free,
Rather scent is required, commanded.
Torah gives the recipe:
Take 500 shekels of myrrh, says God,
Half that much of cinnamon, a spice so old that even in
Torah it is already called kinneman.
Another 250 of k'neh – calamus root?
And 500 of kiddah – that's cassia, another bark with some bite.
Grind to a pulp, Torah implies, then
Blend with olive oil to make a rich balm
That is not burned but rubbed
On altar and ark and lampstand and utensils
Greasing the fittings with good-smelling goop
The way the temples of goddesses
Were filled with fragrance
To sweeten the stink of sweat, sheep and shit.
These are not like the fragrances of today.
Today, chemicals cooked up in corporate labs
Are carrier waves for smells that might once
have had something to do with nature. Possibly.
Or maybe not even.
And so we make our sanctum scent-free.
But this was another time.
When scents were devised with sensibility.
Mortar and pestle. Delights olfactory
Made with industry but no factory.
A time when the word "natural"
Was not needed before the word "fragrance"
Because what else would it be?
And things smelled of what they were.
The perfume smelled of cinnamon,
It did not smell like cinnamon,
Not like now, not like the reek
Of laundry detergents and soap and candles
And air fresheners – toxic mimics
Of nature, slowly degrading
in bathroom dispensers
or plugged into walls,
Or worst of all, in a taxi, from which there is no escape
While the meter racks up in dollars and cents
The cost of breathing this offense.
But none of that here, where we maintain scent silence.
And not in the Mishkan of old either: One part cinnamon, two parts myrrh,
Cassia, calamus, oil. Stir. Apply.
Or the other recipe Torah provides this week:
Four kinds of resins
Dried, crushed, atomized,
Placed before the ark where God promises to materialize.
And between the material and the immaterial
Is this pungent poof of a human-divine hello.
We never really know how we will serve until we get there.
But what if it were you whose job
was to make the perfume?
What if this were your service,
The product of your wise heart,
Your skilled fingers,
Your much maligned Jewish nose.
You, the rokeach, the aromatist!
You whose work is to waft
What Yahweh wants to whiff?
At the end of your long day, crushing, stirring,
Anointing all that is holy,
Pans, poles and priests,
Would you come home empty-handed
as God commanded?
Or would you risk retribution
And sneak some for yourself?
A trace behind the ear?
A drop in the soft of your wrist?
As enticement for a lover.
As invitation to a dream.
As memory of Shechinah.
And a reminder that you too are God?
The phrase "toxic mimic" I borrow from the remarkable Caroline Casey.
Consider eliminating scented products from your home and your life. Environmental sensitivity is rapidly increasing, affecting a substantial portion of the population. And you don't know who, standing next to you in line, might be physically affected for the rest of the day from the residual chemical smell of your sweater. So switching to non-chem, scent-free products would be an important mitzvah, growing out of Leviticus 19:14 (no putting stumbling blocks before the blind). Congregation Ner Shalom has a scent-free policy that could be the beginning of your synagogue's scent-free policy. Check it out here.