Learn from Congregation B’nai Chaim: Shelach Lecha

Rabbi Marc Rubenstein
Rabbi Marc Rubenstein. Valley News/Courtesy photo

Rabbi Marc Rubenstein, Special to Valley News

When I was in rabbinical school, one of my teachers told us a story about how he learned how to study Talmud. My teacher and his classmates were instructed to spend the week studying a small section of Talmud. When the week was up, they returned to class to explain what they had learned.

My teacher began to speak and said maybe a sentence or two when he was cut off by his very stern teacher, rebuking them by exclaiming, “You’re not smelling the sugya (passage) right.”

He kicked them and told them not to come back until they smelled the sugya correctly.

This story always amused me, and I have been thinking about it this week as we prepare to read this week’s Torah portion.

Much is made in the text of the spies and their roles in the Jews’ relationship to God. In temple times, priests would help other Jews offer their sacrifices, and the smell of the sacrifices would rise up to the heavens and this smell would be pleasing to God, according to Leviticus 1:9.

The Sfas Emes taught that it was one of the priests’ essential functions – to help offer up the pleasing odors of our essence – and that by doing so, they brought other Jews closer to God. When you know how someone else smells, when you know someone that well, that is when you can have a real impact on their lives.

Think about the people in your life who you have hugged tightly – the smell of your loved ones’ hair, their skin, their perfume, their aftershave, etc. When you are intimate enough with someone to smell them, the relationship is more intimate and what you can offer each other becomes greater. The same is true for us and God. When God can smell us, when we are hugged tight to Hashem, we can begin to be enlivened by the divine blessings.

This idea is ultimately what I believe my teacher’s teacher was trying to convey. When you finally get close enough to the text to smell it, its meanings and blessings will become more meaningful to you. The spies in this week’s passage didn’t smell the odor of God. They did just the opposite and didn’t want to enter the promised land.  Joshua and Caleb disagreed.  They smelled the fragrance and led the people over the river Jordan to the promised land.

In the last few months, we have been detached from each other; most of us living alone in our homes. How do we give each other our deepest blessings when we can’t get close to each other, when we can’t smell each other?

The priestly blessing, which we receive in the synagogue, is often referred to as the lifting of the hands. The Sfas Emes elsewhere explains that the job of the rabbis is to raise their hands up and pull the divine flow down from the heavens. He said that before the error of the golden calf, we used to stand tall. And from that moment on, every time we err, our spiritual posture becomes more bent.

Yet through our desire to reattach ourselves to the source of all, we can slowly straighten up again. It is the hopeful message of the priests and their hands. While we may be low and feel like we have fallen, we know that we have the ability to get up again.

And that day when we will return to each other, hug each other, smell each other and learn from each other, that will be a holy day indeed. A day full of life. I cannot wait until our country is whole again. June 14 was flag day. We are all Americans. The word community is two words, “common unity.” America should be united with all states receiving God’s blessing.

Congregation B’nai Chaim is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit https://www.bnaichaim.com or find them on Facebook.