The act of eating plays a vital part in refining and purifying the Creation. The food we eat is refined and elevated when it is transformed into the beautiful words that we speak: the blessings we make over the food itself, the prayers we offer, our words of Torah, and all the other devotions we are enabled to perform by the nourishment we derive from the food. One should keep this in mind as one eats. Then one’s food becomes “incense” as it were. One will find true joy and make a crown of lovingkindness and mercy for the King of Peace, as it is written: “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion and gaze upon King Solomon” – Shlomo, he to whom peace, Shalom belongs – “even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him in the day of his espousals, and in the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song of Songs 3:11)(16). – From Advice, by Rebbe Noson, Translated by Avraham Greenbaum.
We’re generally conscious of the fact that we have relationships with people and that these relationships reflect and in some ways define our relationship with Hashem, but it may be less obvious that we also have relationships with objects, concepts, and even processes, and that these, too have ramifications for our relationship with Hashem.
The way in which we eat and food itself aren’t merely processes and objects, though it’s easy to get bogged down in the sheer materiality of the process of eating and the materiality of the food (even on Shabbos we can get a bit bogged down in the food!) The processes involved in eating – smelling, tasting, chewing, salivating, swallowing, digesting and so on – run the gamut of material functions; from the sublime to the necessary to the distasteful. Even if we make the intellectual connection between our brachos (blessings) over the food we eat and the fact that we do indeed need to eat in order for our bodies to convert the food into energy with which to do mitzvos, we are hard-pressed to actually feel the spirituality inherent in this very earthbound process. And that’s okay, we don’t always need to be (and aren’t always capable of) feeling spiritual about mitzvos. We need to do mitzvos.
But Rabbeinu, via Reb Noson, tells us that our intellectual understanding of the eating process (by keeping in mind the true reason we eat), is able to transform and elevate the process (eating) and the object (food) to the level of “incense” (ketores). The ketores service at the Beis Hamikdosh (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) is a very high service, loftier than even the service of korbonos (sacrifices). Ketores is able to do what no other Temple service can – it’s capable of totally bonding us to Hashem.*
It should not come as a surprise therefore, that ketores involves the use of a sense closely related to the sense of taste – the sense of smell. Smell is necessary to taste – those who suffer from anosmia have a difficult time eating because nothing they eat has much flavor. It’s intuitively easier for us to understand the sense of taste – we come into contact and interact with a physical substance – ice cream, toast, apples. Smell is more refined, harder to put our finger on. We know we are coming into contact with fragrance molecules, but fragrance molecules don’t have a corporeal reality that we can relate to. Fragrance (think of crushed myrtle leaves), is generally fleeting and insubstantial. It seems to inhabit neither the material nor spiritual worlds fully, yet it resides in both.
Our sense of smell (and a smell, itself) is called ruach, which is the word for wind and spirit, too. It’s also one of the levels of our soul. The sister definitions for ruach give us insight into its fleeting and Heavenly nature – ruach’s hard to pin down in this world, we’ll better understand its existence in the next.
The organ with which we smell is the nose, which is placed directly above the organ with which we eat, the mouth. The space in between is the philtrum, the indentation that runs from nose to mouth, like a tiny highway. We’re told that while in the womb, an Angel teaches us the entire Torah. But Torah learned at the purely spiritual level of the soul before birth, (in other words, not through the challenges of life experience), isn’t as meaningful as Torah learned through our own, often challenging or even painful, efforts. That’s why, before we’re born, in order to make us “forget” the Torah we’ve learned, the angel taps us in the space between our nose and mouth, leaving behind a cleft. The cleft runs vertically, connecting the points where the mouth and nose begin, connecting the material to the spiritual. Which is maybe what Rabbeinu is telling us when he says we’re truly capable of turning our food into ketores, when we eat with the intent drawn down from both the Torah we’ve forgotten and the Torah we’ve relearned.