Pinchas: Aromatherapy

July 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Posted in Pinchas | 3 Comments

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest, turned my hot anger away from the children of Israel with his zeal, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel with my zeal.  Therefore say I am giving him my covenant of peace.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:10-12)

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Command the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You must pay attention to  my offerings, to my food for my fires of fragrance for calming me down—to make the offerings to me at its appointed time.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 28:1-2)

reiyach = fragrance, odor, aroma (same root as ruach = wind, spirit, soul)

nichoach = calming down, soothing, settling into tranquility (same root as Noach = rest, resting-place)

Last week’s Torah portion ended with Pinchas skewering the couple who worshiped the local god of Peor by fornicating near the entrance of the God of Israel’s Tent of Meeting.  (See last week’s blog:  “Balak:  Wide Open”.)  This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas,  begins with God’s response:  promising Pinchas some kind of peace, and rewarding him and his descendants with everlasting priesthood.  (At this point in the Torah, there are only two living priests; the next generation has not yet been ordained.)

Many commentators have explained that God gives Pinchas a “covenant of peace” so that he won’t be too psychologically disturbed following his own violent and gory deed.  Only divine grace can give Pinchas a tranquil, peaceful soul.

So God calms down Pinchas.  And later in this week’s portion, the Torah reminds the Israelites to calm down God, by paying attention to making regular burned offerings in order to raise up that soothing fragrance.  This instruction is followed by a list of all the regular times when God requires burned offerings of animals and/or grain, and libations of wine.  There must be two daily offerings, plus additional offerings every seventh day, every new moon, and for five special occasions during the year (now called PesachShavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret).

The concept that the smoke from burned offerings reaches God as a reiyach nichoach,  “a fragrance of calming down”, appears once in Genesis/Bereishit; three times in the book of Exodus/Shemot, 17 times in   Leviticus/Vayikra, and 18 times in Numbers/Bemidbar, including the sentence above.

So the idea of calming down God through fragrant smoke is nothing new.  But it is an especially poignant instruction after Pinchas’s deadly zeal turns away God’s deadly zeal.

The God depicted in the Torah is often enraged by human behavior.  Although God does not skewer anyone with a spear, God does periodically kill hundreds or thousands of people, most often with plagues of disease, occasionally with fire, and on three occasions with unique methods of execution:  the earth swallowing Datan and Aviram in Numbers/Bemidbar 16:31-33; the ten miracles that strike Egypt in Exodus/Shemot; and the flood in the time of Noah.

In fact, the Torah’s first use of the phrase reiyach nichoach, “a fragrance of calming down”, is in the story of Noah.  Noah’s name in Hebrew is N0ach, which comes from the same root as nichoach and means “rest”.  After the survivors of God’s flood emerge from Noah’s ark, Noah sacrifices the surplus birds and beasts, and God smells the “fragrance of the calming down” and vows to himself never to doom the earth again because of the behavior of  human beings, who are inherently fallible, capable of both spurning God and yearning for God.

Today, people who use words like “God” to refer to more than just a mythical character tend to view God as either loving or without emotion, rather than angry.  We no longer subscribe to the anthropomorphic image of the God with the quick temper and the burning nose.  Yet we sometimes find ourselves disturbed by our own irrational anger, and the impulsive actions we commit as a result.  We get stuck in anger at ourselves.

One solution to this trap is to make regular offerings or gifts to God.  Jews no longer slaughter animals and burn them up into smoke for God, thank heaven!  But we are asked to draw closer to God through prayer at regular times, daily, weekly, and annually on religious holidays.  Some people find prayer meaningless, or a mere obligation.  But it is possible to make your prayers into fragrances that soothe your own soul, calming you down when you are angry and lifting your spirits when you are sad.

For me it was a true blessing to discover a way of praying that brings reiyach, fragrance, into my ruach, my spirit or emotional soul.  May everyone whose soul needs to be unstuck receive a blessing like that.



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  1. […] They burn the previous week’s frankincense, so God can enjoy the fragrance (see my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy). Then the priests eat the stale […]

  2. […] Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.) […]

  3. […] See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal […]

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