We read in Parashat Toldot of the scheme devised by Rivka to have Yaakov, her younger son, receive the blessing which Yitzchak, who was blind, had intended to confer upon the older of the twins, Eisav. Rivka had Yaakov disguise as Eisav, and, in case Yitzchak would feel his smooth skin, she covered his arms and neck with goatskins so he would feel hairy like Eisav (27:16). When Yaakov approached his father and, pretending he was Eisav, requested the blessing, Yitzchak felt his arms, and kissed him. He then marveled at Yaakov’s pleasing “fragrance,” exclaiming, “See how my son’s fragrance is like the fragrance of a field blessed by the Lord!” (27:27).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65) questions why Yitzchak would find Yaakov’s smell pleasing, given that he had on him the skins of freshly-slaughtered goats, which emit an offensively foul odor. How did Yaakov emit a pleasant fragrance? The Midrash presents several answers, including one which rereads Yitzchak’s exclamation as an allusion to the future of Yaakov’s descendants. The phrase “Re’ei rei’ach beni” (“Look how my son’s fragrance”), the Midrash comments, alludes to the time when the Beit Ha-mikdash stood, and Benei Yisrael brought sacrifices, which, as the Torah states on numerous occasions (e.g. Vayikra 1:9), produce a “rei’ach nichoach l-Hashem” – “a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.” The Midrash explains the next phrase – “ke-rei’ach sadeh” (“like the fragrance of a field”) as referring to the period after the Temple’s destruction, when the prophecy of Mikha (3:12), “Tizyon sadeh teichareish” (“Zion will be plowed like a field”) was fulfilled. Finally, the concluding words of this verse, “asher beiracho Hashem” (“which the Lord has blessed”), alludes to the rebuilt Beit Ha-mikdash, which will be a source of eternal blessing, as the verse in Tehillim (133:3) promises, “For there the Lord has assigned blessing, eternal life.” According to the Midrash, then, when the Yitzchak expressed his pleasure over Yaakov’s “fragrance,” he was in fact foreseeing the three periods of the built Temple, the absence of the Temple, and the rebuilt Temple (in the Midrash’s words, “Beit Ha-mikdash banui ve-chareiv u-banui”).
How might we explain the connection drawn by the Midrash between Yaakov’s “fragrance” and these three periods of Jewish history?
The answer, perhaps, is that the Midrash teaches that we can emit a pleasing “fragrance” under all circumstances, even when conditions are far less than ideal. When the Beit Ha-mikdash stood, we had the opportunity to offer sacrifices and thereby produce a “rei’ach nichoach l-Hashem,” and we are promised that in the future, when the Mikdash will be rebuilt, we will again offer sacrifices, whose “fragrance” will bring great blessing to the earth. We might have assumed that in the interim period, when we do not have the Beit Ha-mikdash, we do not have the ability to produce a “fragrance.” The Midrash thus teaches that just as Yitzchak enjoyed his son’s smell even when he had with him malodorous goatskins, similarly, God finds us “fragrant” even when we are not our best, even under “malodourous” conditions, when we cannot serve Him the way we ideally should. Even when we find ourselves in a state of “Tziyon sadeh teichareish,” when we feel as though we are a desolate field, unable to bring pleasing “sacrifices,” we are still capable of producing a “fragrance,” of pleasing our Creator. The Midrash here teaches that we must strive to do the best we can under the current circumstances, no matter how far from ideal they may be, and never despair because we do not have the “Mikdash,” because we lack the ability to serve God in an ideal fashion. We are assured of the ability to produce a “rei’ach nichoach l-Hashem” at all times and under all conditions, as long as we are trying and working to do the best we can.