Awestruck in the rainforest

By Rabbi Shira Wallach
Parashat Ki Tissa

As student rabbis and newlyweds on a budget, we looked to Groupon to determine where we would go on our honeymoon adventure — which is how we ended up in a remote town in Guatemala, on the shore of beautiful Lake Atitlan. As soon as we arrived, we knew we had made the right decision, as we saw a handwritten note taped to the window of one of the breakfast cafes, written in Hebrew: “Mamlitz hapancake: We recommend the pancakes.” Ask us another time about our perilous hike up to the top of a volcano in the pouring rain, which is freezing at 10,000 feet, no matter how hot and humid it is at sea level. I have never been so grateful to return to solid ground.

Anyway, aside from that hike — or to be more accurate, treacherous mudslide — the most memorable part of our week was a tour we took through a cocoa plantation. Our guide showed us the entire journey a cocoa bean takes, from harvesting to drying to roasting to grinding and finally, to mixing with sugar and milk at different percentages, to becoming the universal sign of delight and comfort: the chocolate bar. And yet, as we tasted the sweet and zesty notes of the pulp that envelops the cocoa bean and regarded the vivid reds and oranges of the cocoa pods in which they grow, we became overwhelmed at the raw beauty that surrounded us.

But there was more: as we walked through the luminous rainforest, sun streaming through rich browns and greens, our guide stopped every now and then to cut a small section from a tree. “Smell this. Can you tell what it is?” A glossy emerald-hued leaf had the aroma of sharp spice with an undertone of fruity sweetness — cloves! A bit of bark that was the warm color of chestnuts reminded me of the best babka I’ve ever tasted — cinnamon! And though my brain ultimately made the connection, it occurred to us that what we tasted from our grocery-store purchases so many miles away was only an echo of this original vibrance. When we smelled and tasted and experienced these flavors at their origin, there was nothing to say except for the blessing that praises God for making them: Baruch atah Adonai melech haolam borei minei besamim: Praised are you God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of varieties of spices.

In our Torah reading this week, Ki Tissa, God instructs Moses to “take choice spices” — myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia and olive oil — to blend them together and to use this as “shemen mishchat-kodesh,” sacred anointing oil. The priests must use this to anoint the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Pact and each and every instrument, container and tool before they can be used for sacred worship in the Tabernacle.

Olfactory memories are the most vivid kind; even a whiff of baking challah, movie popcorn or our grandmother’s laundry detergent transports us immediately on a journey of nostalgia — or in my case, I could never escape the smell of my dissection lab in high school, so that everywhere I went, I smelled formaldehyde.

Why was it that our ancestors were commanded to mark our holiest objects with luscious scents? Perhaps my husband and I only began to uncover the beginning of an answer as we were awestruck in the rainforest. Indeed, it is our inspired discovery and rediscovery of these glorious images and perfumes and flavors that remind us of the miracle of the world and all of the creations within it. It is only natural that these besamim form the gateway that bridges our consciousness between heaven and earth.

Rabbi Shira Wallach serves Congregation Shearith Israel. She is the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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