While not experienced by all those who had the displeasure of COVID, nevertheless one of the oft-discussed side effects of this virus is the loss of the sense of smell.
For those who have unfortunately lost their sense of smell either for a fixed period of time or who’ve still yet to fully recover this sense, it is hard to put into words the dullness which replaces the stimulation previously felt when smelling flowers, spices, fragrances and food. And though the inability to smell in some cases is just disappointing, in other cases – such as when someone cannot smell a nearby fire – it can be incredibly dangerous.
Yet just as we often rely on our sense of physical smell, faith often demands that we are cognizant of our sense of spiritual smell. As I’ve previously explained in my commentary to Yoma 14: ‘many people think that a Jew is defined by how they look. But as the Maharal explains (Chiddushei Aggadot on Sanhedrin 93b), while it is possible to wear the right garb, and say the right things to try and give off the right image (as Yaakov did to his father Yitzchak), the ultimate quality of a Jew is not measured by their physical clothes. Instead, as the prophet Yeshayahu (11:3) teaches in the words: הֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת ה’ וְלֹא לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט וְלֹא לְמִשְׁמַע אָזְנָיו יוֹכִיחַ – ‘And his scent shall be in the fear of the Lord; he shall not judge by what his eyes see, nor decide by what his ears hear’ – the ultimate quality of a Jew is their spiritual scent. This is why the Gemara (Sanhedrin 93b) says that Mashiach will be able to smell the actions of every person, and this is why our Sages described scholars whose attitude and behaviour were lacking as people who lacked ריח התורה – the scent of Torah.’
Of course, maintaining this sense of ריח תורה should be an expectation of everyone. But in particular this sense is something that we should expect from our leaders, and I believe that this is why our Sages emphasise that the basket into which the baby Moshe was placed was covered with the smelly pitch on the outside as opposed to the inside כדי שלא יריח אותו צדיק ריח רע של זפת – so that the righteous person [Moses] should not smell the foul odour of pitch (Rashi to Shemot 2:3, based on Sotah 12a) – meaning that notwithstanding what he experienced, Moshe was able to maintain a clear nose for spirituality.
Having explained all this we can now turn to today’s daf (Megillah 10b), because it is noteworthy that Mordechai is referred here – given to the connection between his name מרדכי and the the words מר-דרור (Shemot 30:23) meaning ‘pure myrrh’ – as being ראש לכל הבשמים – ‘the finest of all spices’, and similarly Esther, who the Megillah also refers to as הדסה (see Esther 2:7) – is compared to a myrtle, about which the Gemara later on (see Megillah 13a) observes that righteous people are referred to as myrtles (על שם הצדיקים שנקראו הדסים).
What this tells us is that though many of the Jews in Persia had lost – or at the very least had experienced a dulling of – their sense of spiritual smell as evident by some of the choices they made – both Mordechai and Esther were like the finest of spices and their sense of spiritual smell was uncorrupted. And while some members of the community could not smell the nearby spiritual fire of assimilation even prior to Haman’s decree – they could.
We often think that leaders have foresight and can see what we cannot. But my belief is that those who are most spiritual sensitive can sense and smell the subtle changes, opportunities and dangers that many of us cannot, and precisely because many of us operate with a compromised sense of spiritual smell, we need leaders not only with clear nose for spirituality, but who, ideally, also transmit a positive and uplifting scent of Torah to those around them.