A Scent of Self

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

We are left with the question of why they perceived that the Egyptians saw them smelling? This blending of sight and smell indicates a deep insight into their perceived lack of value. They were embarrassed that the shoddy quality of their work reflected some lesser quality of their being. This synthesis of sight and smell at the nadir of their existence is the foundation for a parallel synesthesia at the apex of their existence at the revelation of the Torah. At Sinai they saw the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). In Egypt their odor was exposed, at Sinai the sublime beauty of God was revealed to them.

When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? Take a lesson from this week’s Torah portion; at the heart of this feeling of shame might be the key to a deeper revelation of self-knowledge. While in many ways perception is reality, the lesson of the Exodus from Egypt is that we can escape that. Somewhere in between our perception of ourselves and other people’s perceptions of us we will discover a better sense of ourselves.  If a group of smelly slaves can enter into relationship with God, we all have the ability realize inner worth and our scruptious selves.

– Check out two fascinating TED lectures that deal with the science behind and the concept of  synesthesia:

1) The science of synesthesia- Fast forward to end

2) Kika and Booba Test used again but in the context of metaphors and communication.

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