The Torah tells in Parashat Toldot that when Yaakov came before Yitzchak disguised as Esav to receive his blessing, Yitzchak “smelled the scent of his garments and said, ‘Behold, my son’s scent is like the scent of a field blessed by the Lord!’” (27:27).
Malbim offers an insightful symbolic interpretation of this account. Garments represent that which is peripheral and external, as they are placed on the person without becoming a part of his essence. Therefore, Malbim suggests, we may view the image of garments as symbolic of our mundane pursuits, which are to be regarded as secondary to our primary goal in life – the strive for excellence in avodat Hashem. These “garments” do not, intrinsically, have any “scent”; they are not, in and of themselves, significant. We can, however, infuse them with “fragrance” – with meaning and purpose – by utilizing our physical strengths and material blessings for worthwhile spiritual objectives.
This might be the intent of the Midrash cited by Rashi in his commentary to this verse. Rashi notes that there does not appear to be any reason for a pleasant fragrance to have been emitted from Yaakov at this time. In order to disguise Yaakov as Esav, Rivka wrapped his arms in goatskins (27:16), which produce a foul odor. Why, then, did Yitzchak marvel at the pleasant fragrance of Yaakov’s garments? The Midrash answers that “the scent of Gan Eden” accompanied Yaakov as he approached his father, and this is the scent which Yitzchak smelled and enjoyed. The Midrash’s question and answer may perhaps be understood in light of Malbim’s comments. To a spiritually sensitive person, who has a proper sense of priorities, our “garments” seem to emit a “foul odor.” If we seek to commit our lives to sincere avodat Hashem, then the “garments” – our engagement in mundane activities – seems unbecoming, or perhaps even “odorous.” Our physical and material needs often appear to get in the way of our pursuit of what ought to be our true goals, and threaten to distract us and lure us away from intensive spiritual engagement. But Chazal here are teaching us that to the contrary, even our mundane affairs can emit the “scent of Gan Eden”; even they can be meaningful and significant. As long as we conduct our lives with our priorities in order and with our minds focused on our pursuit of spiritual excellence, then even the “goatskins” assume a “heavenly” scent. If we maintain a clear perspective on what is primary and what secondary, what is essential and what is peripheral, then all aspects of our lives together emit the “scent of Gan Eden,” as even our ordinary, mundane undertaking become laden with meaning and importance.