It looks good from here

Perspective is everything.

When I look at our garden, it’s so easy to see the things that aren’t doing well; the bugs, the dead plants, the faded flowers. But I step back and take another look and am so grateful for the beauty of the whole. Colors! Fresh veggies! Shade for the summer and for privacy! Priceless.

And how fitting that this lesson is reinforced by the Torah portion of the week, Parashat Balak, in which the [evil? selfish? self-absorbed? capitalist? capitalizing?] Bilaam is hired to curse the people of Israel (oh people do that for free these days). He tries a few different times to view them from afar to get the right perspective in order to curse them, but ends up seeing only the good and blesses them instead. Seeing them from afar makes all the little things disappear. And oh how many little things there were/are! And ironically, some of the blessings that he offers do turn into curses later, as they land on the little things. But how important is it for us, the receivers of the Torah these many generations later, to take the long perspective, to gain an appreciation for how things look in general! And then to focus in and fix the little things.

Or to appreciate the little things! Amazement at the variety of colors, smells, the visiting bees, butterflies, birds.

Oh the smells! This is something I know so little about; how does the sense of smell work? Here’s a little description that I found helpful:

Smell and taste are the oldest of the senses. They are essential for survival, having evolved to play key roles in such basic processes as feeding, mating, and avoiding danger.

As the two chemical senses, they work by allowing tiny bits—molecules—of the outside world into the body, and binding to them…

One thing that makes olfaction unique among the senses is that its receptor cells are themselves neurons. Each olfactory receptor cell has filaments called cilia, with receptors designed to bind to specific molecules. Like all neurons, the cell also projects a thicker fiber called an axon. The axons come together in the olfactory nerve and go directly to the brain.

In other words, the olfactory nerve consists of neurons with one end in direct contact with the external world and the other in direct contact with the brain.

This is it: there is a binding, for good or for bad. Whenever we travel from home along Route 6, the major highway along the central spine of Israel, we encounter the acrid smells of burning rubber. There is a bad habit among Palestinians to burn garbage, including tires, rather than take them to a dump. And their willingness to be involved with arson that burns their neighborhoods, not just Jewish ones.

A moment of frustration here–why are people so short-sighted that they are willing to hurt themselves and the whole environment? We all need to do better. How to encourage people to make those better choices? I have to reread Nudge, which talks about this. And then how to make a difference…

Oh but for the all the smells that come upon you without any control! Like the neighbors who have to paint whatever furniture with spray paint, always when the wind is pointing directly in our direction. I wouldn’t care if it’s Tzfat blue, but it’s not even that. We have to close our windows and pray it won’t hurt our plants! And unfortunately, too often I get bombarded by the smells of mangal–the Israeli penchant for cooking meat outside. I have become more and more disgusted by the smell of charred flesh. It becomes problematic when I’m with people who like that kind of thing. If I hadn’t been a vegetarian because of taste, now I truly would become one because of smell.

And then the stench of body odor, especially when encased in polyester clothing, in any humid situation, whether summer or just overdressed in winter. And why do so many Israelis especially wear black, even those who are not conforming to religious dictates but to fashion?

It is another level of irony that as my vision and hearing start to go due to aging, my sense of smell gets stronger, even if that is not often the case.

Smells, of course, release memory. Is it because we can’t control the act of smelling or be in control of the recall of memory?

We can choose, though. We can take good smells and bring them into our lives. Well, yes, that is once again very relative to what people think is good, as opposed to my sense. For example, I never knew I loved lavender! Because the only lavender I was exposed to was this highly gratingly artificial one that my MIL favored. My response was avoid lavender at all costs! But now, I am so grateful that we have beautiful bundles of lavender growing along the pathway to our house. And I have bunches of lavender hanging all over the house.

I just realized that our occasional guests may not like lavender, even if the natural variety. Now to have to add that to the “do you have any allergies or food limitations?” list…After all, I am allergic or at least highly sensitive to certain lilies and peonies, unfortunately. Oh, and lilacs. And there are probably more. But I’m also allergic to horses, and as long as I don’t stay in the stable, I seem to be able to ride them without incident. So being in the open air makes all the difference in these cases.

Being a vegetarian, I do have issues with the whole return to sacrifice concept. I don’t mind the emphasis on the incense offering, of course. I hope I’m not allergic to that…

Until then, I get to enjoy the weekly spices used every week during Havdalah, the ceremony separating us from Shabbat back to the grind. Here’s what the Rambam and the women at Deracheha have to say about the spices:

Mishneh Torah Laws of Shabbat 29:29

Why do we recite the beracha over spices on Motza’ei Shabbat? Since the soul is in sorrow at the exit of Shabbat, we gladden it and restore it with a good scent.

The spices aid in our emotional transition into the weekday.

And Rabbi Yonason Goldson adds this:

According to Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Torah uses the language of “aroma” to describe direct contact over a great distance in the finest detail and in the most subtle ways. The Hebrew words rayach (scent) and ruach (spirituality) derive from a common grammatical root, and the implied connection between them appears as early as the narrative of man’s formation, when the Almighty “breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Ibid. 2:7).  

The common derivation of the Hebrew words neshimah – “breath” – and neshomah – “soul” – suggests that our spiritual life force comes, literally and metaphorically, by way of air and respiration. By the same token, the spices we inhale as part of havdalah ease our transition from Shabbos, a day of heightened spiritual sensitivity, back to an existence defined by the physical and the mundane.

Perhaps the unexpected common consequence of COVID, the loss of smell, was indicative of our loss of being in nature. If you Google “sense of smell”, almost all of the results are about loss of the sense, and how to regain it. Perhaps we should be recalibrating all our senses to be back in the garden.

After all, when Yitzchak wanted to bestow a blessing on his son,

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יִצְחָק אָבִיו:  גְּשָׁה-נָּא וּשְׁקָה-לִּי, בְּנִי.26 And his father Isaac said unto him: ‘Come near now, and kiss me, my son.’
כז  וַיִּגַּשׁ, וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ, וַיָּרַח אֶת-רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו, וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי, כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ ה.27 And he came near, and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD hath blessed.
Genesis 27

See? Releasing the blessings comes from the smell of the fields.

Our newest jasmine vine
At Banias — the smell as well as the beauty of the flowers as released by the heat of the day
Our flowering lavender towards sunset

Edit: I knew I had written about smell before, but only checked this blog and not the previous one… It is so similar, but maybe I’ve learned a thing or two.

2 thoughts on “It looks good from here

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