BY RACHEL LAVICTOIRE / AJT //

Washington University in St. Louis hosted its 11th-annual Relay for Life event recently to benefit the American Cancer Society. The goal this year was to raise $251,053; hitting this ambitious mark would bring Wash U’s four-year fundraising total for this event to $1 million.

Rachel LaVictoire

Rachel LaVictoire

Starting at 2 p.m., tents rose on the football field, and little white bags – each hand-decorated to honor a loved one – were lined up around the track. Once 6:30 arrived, we started the opening ceremony while the sun slowly fell from the sky.

The national anthem was sung and speeches were read. And, just as at all other Relay for Lifes across the nation, the leaders concluded by asking all cancer survivors present to come down to the track for the Survivor’s Lap. At that point, I left my friends in the bleachers and joined the group below.

Five of us held the relay banner, and we all started to walk. At first we were silent; there must have been 20 of us behind the banner, and yet the only sound to be heard was singing coming from the sound system.

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Eventually, someone nearby said, “I love this song.” Another person responded, “me too,” and then we started making small talk.

Four-hundred meters later, I was sad to see the end of our brief walk. I had been listening and chatting, connecting with survivors twice and three times my age. I’d known them only a few minutes, but I felt like they understood a part of my life that’s unexplainable to outsiders.

When we crossed the finish line, our friends flocked towards us with flowers and hugs. It was 7:15, and we’d been at the event for only an hour, but we’d called to mind more than 30 loved ones with a history of cancer.

The event would go on until 6 a.m.; after the sun set and the singing concluded, 1,571 participants would circle the track, play games, listen to music and dance with their friends.

In effect, we were fighting cancer with fun. Interestingly enough, this week I learned that the Israelites had the same mindset when sending their sacrifices up to G-d.

We read in the Torah, week after week, countless reports of the Israelites bringing cattle, goats, sheep and doves to the Temple, killing them and offering them to G-d. And for the sin offering, they always burned incense.

Though it always seemed odd, I don’t think I’d ever sought an explanation for the ritual. I happened to stumble upon it recently, though.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei-Kedoshim, literally means “after the Kedoshim,” referring to the continuation of last week’s parshah, in which Aaron was anointed as the kohen gadol and saw his sons killed as the result of an improper offering to G-d.

We pick up now with G-d’s instructions to Moses:

“Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain… With this shall Aaron enter the Holy: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering (Leviticus 16:2-3).”

G-d proceeds to outline the specifics of Aaron’s two offerings, then explains:

“And then he shall take a pan full of burning coals from the altar, from before the Lord, and both hands’ full of fine incense, and bring [it] within the dividing curtain (Lev 16:12-13).”

The Israelites burn incense, as I have recently learned, because it is considered the only one of the five senses not corrupted by Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. She listened to the Serpent, saw the tree, touched the fruit and ate it – but she did not smell. Therefore, when we seek forgiveness, we offer a scent to G-d.

Ok, interesting.

But the truly intriguing facet of burning incense to me is that, in burning it, we aren’t necessarily focused on the good smell, but rather on the bad. Remember that one of the main ingredients in creating this sacrificial smoke is khelbona, which is a spice known for its terrible odor.

The potent stench is then mixed with a potpourri of pleasant smells. The rationale is that if it weren’t for the horrid smell, we wouldn’t appreciate its opposite – the sweet smell would go unnoticed.

This week’s parshah takes place on Yom Kippur; when Aaron brings the bull, the ram and the incense to sacrifice to G-d, he is seeking atonement for sins. He uses his sons’ poor behavior as an opportunity to reach out to G-d. This in mind, take a moment now to think about Yom Kippur, just a few months away.

Have you ever noticed a unique sensation? Beneath the hungry growls and impatient yawns, I suspect that most people feel the power of the holiday, of recognizing their sins and using their plea for forgiveness, as an excuse to speak with G-d.

This is because we fight cancer with fun. We smell the sweetness among the stench.

If everything was good, then really, nothing would ever be good; we have to recognize what is wrong in life before we can make things right.

Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl.edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.

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