We read in Parashat Toldot that before Yitzchak blessed Yaakov – whom he thought was Esav – he kissed his son and declared, “Behold, my son’s scent is like the scent of a field blessed by the Lord!” (27:27).
Rashi, citing the Midrash, raises the question of how Yitzchak smelled a pleasant fragrance when he smelled Yaakov. After all, as we read earlier, Rivka had taken the skins of the goats she had slaughtered to feed Yitzchak, and wrapped them around Yaakov’s arms so he would be hairy like Esav. Fresh goatskins emit a foul odor, and yet Yitzchak marveled at Yaakov’s pleasing fragrance. The Midrash explained that the “scent of Gan Eden” accompanied Yaakov as he came before his father for the blessing, and this is what Yitzchak smelled.
One way of explaining the Midrash’s comments, perhaps, is that it allegorically depicts the tragic absurdity of the situation. Yitzchak mistook the foul “odor” of Esav’s conduct as “the scent of Gan Eden.” This entire situation arose because Yitzchak failed to recognize Esav’s true character. Somehow, Yitzchak misperceived Esav as a person accompanied by the aura of Gan Eden, overlooking the “odor” of Esav’s sinful conduct.
The question remains, however, as to how Yitzchak could have overlooked this “odor.” How could Esav’s conduct possibly be mistaken for the “scent of Gan Eden”?
The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (36a) comments that when the Torah describes Yitzchak smelling “rei’ach begadav” – the smell of Yaakov’s garments – it means that he smelled “rei’ach bogdav” – “the smell of his unfaithful ones.” Meaning, Yitzchak “smelled” the “scent” of the sinners that descended from Yaakov. This interpretation appears also in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:22), which gives examples of sinners who ultimately repented. These repentant transgressors, the Midrash teaches, emit a “pleasing fragrance” despite their years of sin, because they eventually changed course and underwent teshuva. Interestingly, the Midrash associates repentant sinners with the word “begadav” – garments. Clothing is external to a person’s being, and can be easily removed. Similarly, sinful conduct and negative qualities are not something permanent; we are capable of ridding ourselves of our vices and faults just as we are capable of removing an article of clothing. Of course, this requires a great deal of work and effort, but it can be done. And thus Chazal associate penitent sinners with Esav’s garments worn by Yaakov. Just as Yaakov wore these as a disguise, and they did not reflect who he truly was, likewise, we must always view our negative tendencies as something external to our beings which does not reflect our true essence, and as something which we are capable of removing.
Chazal make this comment in reference to Yitzchak’s embrace of Yaakov, whom he mistook as Esav, perhaps to explain how Yitzchak could have made such a mistake. Yitzchak undoubtedly noticed Esav’s “garments,” and smelled the “odor” emitted by his wrongdoing. Nevertheless, he smelled the “scent of Gan Eden” because he believed that these “garments” could and would eventually be removed. Yitzhak felt confident in Esav’s ability to overcome his negative tendencies and then harness his God-given talents and energies for the right purposes and goals. He smelled the “scent of Gan Eden” because he insisted that beneath the outer layer of putrid goatskins there was a great deal of goodness and purity that would one day be revealed.
Although Yitzchak erred in regard to his assessment of Esav, his assessment nevertheless serves as an important example of attempting to find the “scent of Gan Eden” within all people. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Esav, whose “odor” indeed reflects their true essence, and from whom we must distance ourselves. Generally, however, we are capable of finding the “scent” within even those whose “garments” emit a “foul odor,” who outwardly appear flawed. If Yitzhak held out hope for Esav, albeit mistakenly, then we should certainly be looking for the “scent” of goodness within the people around us, searching beneath the veneer of wrongful conduct to find the spark of sanctity and virtuousness waiting to be ignited.