Parshat Yitro: Eyes that see, a nose that smells and a heart that listens

Rabbi Nadav Nizri is the administrative director of the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

Yitro, the Midianite priest, comes to Mount Sinai after hearing of the splitting of the Red Sea and the war between Amalek and the Israelites, and when he gets there, he meets Moses, his son-in-law. The following day, Yitro sees Moses judge the people from morning to night, prompting him to offer a few suggestions, including a recommendation to select several judges in order to lighten some of Moses’ caseload. Immediately afterwards, the Torah tells us about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, when the commandments and laws of the Torah were handed down.

Jewish law is based primarily on the sense of sight. Judges only have their own eyes to rely on (as we read in Tractate Bava Batra 131a), and the witnesses in a person’s trial can only rely on what their eyes have seen. We also see that the episode concerning the establishment of the legal system precedes the giving of the Torah. Notably, when the Torah describes Yitro’s departure (in chapter 10 of the Book of Numbers), Moses tries to persuade Yitro to stay with him, saying: “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be as eyes for us.” Yitro, like the judicial system he wanted to establish, is also represented by a set of eyes.

It is clear, however, that the judicial system is limited in its ability to judge truthfully. One such limitation is the case of framing. If individuals bear false witness in a particular case, the judges will need to make a ruling that isn’t just, because the judicial tools they have available are limited, by virtue of the fact that they are flesh and blood, and because there are laws that can be bypassed. Sure enough, the Gemara, in Tractate Chagiga (Jerusalem Talmud) tells us of the son of Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach, who was executed by a court of law because someone had framed him for murder.

I’d like to propose that on a certain level, the giving of the Torah can complement the statutes Yitro wanted to introduce into the judicial system. In other words, he was trying to include “the nose”, i.e., the sense of smell, which complements the sense of sight. Let’s begin with a short midrash on the giving of the Torah:

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said:

What is the meaning of that which is written: “His cheeks are as a bed of spices”? From each and every utterance that emerged from His cheeks, i.e., the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the entire world was filled with fragrant spices.

(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 78b)


Earlier, we described the handing down of the laws of the Torah as an act that was tied to the “world of sight”, but Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi understands that the giving of the Torah is tied to the “world of scents” – the world of “fragrant spices”. The world of scents isn’t tied just to the giving of the Torah, which covers all aspects of life, in their totality. It is also tied to the domain of Jewish jurisprudence. In the future, when the Messiah arrives, the judicial tools of King Messiah (who will be able to judge) will involve judging using the sense of smell. This is how the Gemara, in Tractate Sanhedrin (93b), describes Bar Kokhva: 

…and it is written: “And his delight shall be the fear of the Lord”. Rava says that ‘his delight’ teaches that the Messiah will smell and then judge on that basis, sensing who is right, as it is written: “And he shall neither judge after the sight of his eyes… and with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide equity for the meek of the earth”.  Bar Koziva, i.e., bar Kokhva, ruled for two and a half years. He said to the Sages: I am the Messiah. They said to him: With regard to the Messiah it is written that he is able to smell and judge, so let us see ourselves whether he, bar Kokheva, is able to smell and judge. Once they saw that he was not able to smell and judge, the gentiles killed him.

Therefore, the sense of smell can discern certain things to which the sense of sight is oblivious. It can comprehend the intent and the inner nature of the words being said. People can utter certain words but have entirely different ideas in mind, which might even be antithetical.

The people of the Torah must use both of their sensory organs – their noses and their eyes. Our eyes reflect accuracy and efficiency, while our noses perceive the subtext, which often turns out to be no less effective than understand the content of what is being set. As human beings connected to the world of Torah, we need to remember the laws of the Torah, but we mustn’t forget it’s pleasant fragrance. We must keep in mind that the Torah could be the “spice of life”, but it may also, heaven forbid, become the “spice of death”. Those who suffice in knowing the laws of Torah without trying to investigate it’s deeper meaning and intent will never comprehend its greatness and perfection.

As a young boy, King Solomon asked Hashem for a “hearing heart”, to use when judging the people of Israel. According to the Zohar, King Solomon merited to be a morach vada’in, a judge with a sense of smell. This may help us understand how these things interrelate: by being attentive, careful and perceptive, we can develop a new type of listening ability as we hear the arguments voiced by those standing before us, leading us to a more accurate understanding of that individual’s feelings and desires.  This kind of heart can understand the world better, and through this, our Torah and way of life will be even more complete.

May we merit a heart that listens, and a nose that smells the pleasant fragrance of the Torah.


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