The Numbers:13 Project
Every citizen, when presenting an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD, shall do so with them. Numbers 15:13
For most of my life, I have lived in places with the motto “if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change.” It was certainly the case growing up in Chicago, where summers fluctuated between 50 degrees and unbearable and winters were inconsistently bone-chilling and (as my son once said) “I-can’t-feel-my-face.” Spring and fall were always delightful, the one occurring on May 15 and the other on October 12.
Washington, DC is similar with one exception: whatever the weather, the DC area is unprepared. The city in which I live floods when it rains – and not just the part near the river – and has for so long that there is a flood-measure marker at a prominent corner. Snowfall, which amounts to more than a foot on average, is such a surprise that the forecast alone is enough to close some school districts and cause a run on toilet paper, snow being the laxative that it is. And the quality of the heat in summertime strains the local forecasters’ vocabularies, because “hazy, hot and humid” is only one variation.
But there are a few summer days in DC on which the weather seems to carry memories from far away places. When the temperature is high and the dew point is low, there is a breeze that blows down every street between the office buildings. The pleasing odors travel on them. Unquestionably, they are of local origin. But deep inside my old olfactory factory, I am transported back to Jerusalem.
I have had the privilege to spend time in Jerusalem during many of the years of my life. Other members of my family are there more regularly; my nephew and his family live there permanently. But in this one somewhat unusual way, Jerusalem is always with me.
I know how peculiar that seems, but there are three smells – I can’t call them fragrances – that transport me to the streets of the Holy City immediately. The sensation is entirely pleasant, even if the smells are not always.
Perhaps the most appropriate one is smoke from a grill or a fryer. The scent of meat on an open fire, falafel and fries in ubiquitous corner shops and shawarma roasting on a vertical spit is unmistakable along the streets of the Holy City. You find nothing exactly like it in downtown DC, but there are molecules that insinuate the aroma of very familiar places. I can be crossing 19th and M NW and find myself momentarily among the restaurants that line Agrippas Street near the market.
Those aromas and others might be found in all sorts of cities around the Mediterranean. But when you walk through the place where the Temple stood, the pleasing odor is redolent of Biblical instruction. Sacrifices roasted on the fire of the altar every day the Priests and Levites performed their duties. When the dry desert wind blew the smoke through the city, a sacred memory was implanted in every nostril. When the pilgrims returned to their villages from a Temple visit or the exiles wept by the waters of Babylon, a moment of homecoming was stirred by the unexpected whiff of an everyday fire. What I smelled in Jerusalem let me travel back in history before it followed me halfway around the world.
But what are the other two smells? They are very different from the pleasing odors.
One is the scent of diesel fumes from certain bus emissions. The other is the very pungent odor of certain refuse.
Pollution and garbage! What an awful way to prevent my right hand from losing its cunning! But I assure you it is entirely involuntary, the way most memories associated with smells can be, including smoke on the breeze.
Jerusalem is traversed by a network of buses that still carry the majority of vehicular passengers through the city. They are joined – especially during the summer – by tourist buses of various degrees of luxury. The smell of the exhaust is almost inescapable, especially on the major thoroughfares. Depending on how hot it is, how windy it is and how close you are to the back of an accelerating bus, the smell of diesel exhaust is to your nose as the on-hold music for your call to the airline or utility company is to your ear: unavoidable, intrusive and forgotten immediately – until the next time.
As in any city with a hot summer, the garbage in Jerusalem piles up and cooks. In neighborhoods populated by considerate merchants, the trash finds its way to large dumpsters off the beaten path. Some of the less considerate restaurant operators hose down their kitchen and dinning room floors and sweep the dirty water onto the sidewalk and gutter to evaporate. The stench from either is unmistakable. It sneaks up on you without warning and assaults your sense of smell. My reflex, probably not unusual, is to hold my breath for a few steps or more. But the fact is that when I exhale, I can feel the stink trying to hold on for a free ride. Sweet, sickly and pungent – I could not recreate it if I wanted to.
Washington has buses and garbage, too, as does most any city. The buses are less numerous, and the trash is mostly behind the buildings. And the wobbly pattern of weather does not often recreate the dry desert wind that blows through Jerusalem.
The fact is that food, transportation and waste are the essence of any city, anywhere in the world. And, as I have written before, the sense of smell so often is the most reliable carrier of memory among the ways we perceive the world. It’s that breeze which is so usual in Jerusalem that distinguishes a sudden whiff of Washington as a souvenir of Israel when the weather is not heavy or wet or still.
I am reminded that people live their everyday lives in a place I am instructed to remember for its holiness, and that therefore there is something holy in the everyday lives of people who catch a hint of those sometimes-pleasing and sometimes-not odors meant to remind me of sacred ordinariness.