We read in Parashat Toldot that when Yaakov disguised as Esav and brought meat to his father in order to receive his blessing, Yitzchak “smelled the smell of his garments,” and exclaimed that these garments smelled like “the field which the Lord has blessed” (27:27). Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that as Yaakov entered the room, he was accompanied by “the scent of Gan Eden,” and this is what evoked Yitzchak’s enthusiastic response, noting that he smelled the scent of “the field which the Lord has blessed” – namely, the Garden of Eden.
The Gemara, however, in Masekhet Sanhedrin (37a), presents a much different explanation of this verse, explaining that the word “begadav” (“his garments”) can also be read as “bogdav” – “his rebellious ones.” Yitzchak here foresaw that even the sinners among Yaakov’s descendants would have good deeds to their credit, and even they would emit a fragrant scent, so-to-speak, through their virtuous actions.
Seeking to explain the connection between these two readings of the verse, Rav Yosef Salant, in Be’er Yosef, cites a fascinating Midrashic passage in Shemot Rabba (chapter 19) describing the paschal sacrifice offered by Benei Yisrael on the night of the Exodus. The Midrash relates that many among Benei Yisrael refused to perform berit mila before the Exodus as God had commanded. But when Moshe offered his korban pesach, the Almighty had special winds blow from Gan Eden to Moshe’s sacrifice, and the fragrant scent of Gan Eden wafted through air. All Benei Yisrael followed the intoxicating scent to Moshe’s sacrifice, and asked for a share of the meat. Moshe informed them that they were not permitted to partake of the sacrifice until they underwent circumcision, and they promptly performed berit mila.
The “scent of Gan Eden,” then, refers to the inspiration that God sends to draw people to mitzva observance. It is the beauty and special appeal that mitzvot often have, and which motivates people to make considerable sacrifices which they had previously refused to make, for the sake of serving God.
Not coincidentally, Rav Salant notes, Chazal elsewhere (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, 32) comment that the meat which Yitzchak requested at the time he gave the blessing to his son was prepared as the korban pesach. The “scent of Gan Eden” accompanied Yaakov as he brought the korban pesach to Yitzchak just as this scent was produced by Moshe Rabbenu’s paschal offering in Egypt. Chazal associate this scent with the scent of “bogdav,” of the sinners of Israel, because this is the scent of inspiration, the draw and appeal of mitzvot that has the ability to arouse the hearts of even evildoers and motivate them to change.
The message of this insight, perhaps, is that we must do all we can to ensure that the mitzvot we perform indeed emit the “scent of Gan Eden,” a pleasing and attractive fragrance. We must perform mitzvot with sincerity, joy, humility and a genuine desire to serve the Almighty so He will send the special “scent” from Gan Eden, which will inspire and stir the hearts of people far and wide, engendering within them a deep-seated love for mitzvot and an appreciation for living life devoted to the service of God.