Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger

Performing Under Pressure

The sweet fragrance accorded to the animal sacrifices that Noach brought to mark his exit from the teivah presumably announced Hashem's happiness with those sacrifices and probably indicated that they were an auspicious start to the new world that Noach would build. How fascinating it was, therefore, to find the medrash (Raba 34:10) describe the fragrance as nothing other than "the scent of destruction". Afraid that we would mistakenly conjure up the smell of waste and destruction left behind by the receding flood waters and associate that with these sacrifices, the medrash continues with a parable. We are asked to view Hashem's reaction similar to that of a king planning the construction of a beautiful seaside palace. Searching for the precise location, the king chooses, from amongst all the possible views and conveniences, the place where he chanced upon an attractive and apparently powerful odor.

This medrash certainly should leave us quite puzzled. What is the sweet odor of destruction and desolation? Does it in any way resemble the fragrance of the sacrifices of years later that are indeed referred to with the same phrase? It would certainly be surprising to see emptiness and waste in the solemn introspection of a sin offering or the attendant gratitude of a sinner seeing an animal take his place on the altar. Furthermore, the parable teaches us that Noach's sacrifice convinced Hashem of the vitality of the world that He would build through the efforts of Noach and family, but leaves us on our own to connect the dots.

Clearly, it would not be hard for us to imagine Noach emerging from the flood as a cynical survivor overwhelmed with doubts of the value in rebuilding the world that had failed and crumbled to nothing in several months. How else can one feel with friends, home, indeed all of what commonly lends structure and familiarity to life, simply washed away to nothingness.

Yet it is my generation that witnessed, perhaps like none other, an altogether different kind of survivor as well. We saw people with enormous dedication to the past and incredible commitment to a bright future that would be mixed with indescribable pain. Indeed we grew to know survivors that were determined not to be the link that failed, and felt the responsibility that assured their eminent success.

Thus the sacrifice that showed that Noach emerged with belief that was strengthened rather that strained, and shoulders that were broad and youthful rather than shaken and aged, gave rise to the bitter sweet smell of destruction. Out of his loneliness arose a sense of unique responsibility for G-d's world and a sense of purpose that was bold and defiant.

Perhaps the medrash instructs us further to appreciate why the Torah describes the expanding family of Noach as an introduction the subsequent disappointing sequence of events(9:18-21). Noach becomes a "man of the earth" only after his chlidren had inhabited many countries, and the future of the world no longer was entirely dependant on him.

With the pressures of being a lone survivor well behind him, the fragrance of the vitality and vigor that often results from desolation began to fade, as did those who were so clearly commissioned to build the royal seaside palace.

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