The Torah in Parashat Toldot tells the story of the blessing which Yitzchak wished to confer upon his older son, Eisav, but which he ended granting to the younger son, Yaakov, after Rivka had Yaakov come before Yitzchak – who was blind – disguised as Eisav. Yaakov came before Yitzchak wearing Eisav’s garments, which, apparently, emitted a distinct aroma, for when Yitzchak embraced Yaakov, he smelled the garments and exclaimed, “Behold, my son’s fragrance is like the fragrance of a field blessed by the Lord” (27:27).
The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (37a) suggests reading the word “begadav” (“garments”) in this verse as “bogdav” – “his rebellious ones,” such that the Torah alludes here to the sinners among Yaakov’s descendants. Yitzchak foresaw that the nation which would descend from his son would produce not a small number of “bogdim” – those who fail to uphold the values and traditions of Am Yisrael. And yet, Yitzchak proclaimed that even these members of Am Yisrael emit a “fragrance,” because, as the Gemara comments, “even the empty ones” among the Jewish people are “filled with mitzvot.”
Rav Leibele Eiger, in Torat Emet, explains the Gemara’s comments as focusing on Yaakov himself. At those moments, when Yaakov – albeit against his will – came before his father in disguise, with the aim of deceiving him, he felt like a “bogeid’ – that he betrayed Yitzchak. He felt broken and distressed, wishing he would not be going through this charade. And these feelings of angst, Rav Leibele suggests, emitted a beautiful fragrance. Rav Leibele writes: “When he came to his father with this broken heart, the scent of his broken heart arose… Just like fragrant trees – when the wood is broken the scent wafts more strongly, similarly, through the breaking of Yaakov’s heart…Yitzchak ‘smelled’ the essence of Yaakov’s sanctity.” The “scent” which Yitzchak smelled was the “scent” of Yaakov’s broken heart, his anguish over the act of deception that he was perpetrating.
This chassidic insight teaches that genuine humility has a certain “fragrant” effect that people find appealing. We are naturally repulsed by arrogance and overconfidence, and we tend to feel more comfortable and at ease around those who are humbly aware of their faults and shortcomings, which they do not attempt to hide through a façade of self-assurance. And so while we might think we can impress others and earn their respect by appearing confident, proud and self-assured, in truth, we are far more “fragrant” when we conduct ourselves with honest self-awareness, with a clear recognition of our strengths and weaknesses, and of our successes and failures. It is precisely when we do not try to broadcast ourselves in an effort to impress that we emit a pleasing “scent” through which we are more likely to earn other people’s admiration and favor.