Rabbi Rachel shows how the word "rei'ach" (odor) is used metaphorically within the Torah itself (e.g., Exodus 5:21) to mean something like "the lingering ethical and spiritual effects of a person's actions." (It's not so different from the metaphors we use in English when we say that something is "sweet," or that it "stinks.") In the parlance of the Torah, our good and reverent actions result in leaving a pleasing rei'ach for God. Our bad actions make God reach for the metaphorical gas mask.
For me, the real payoff of our study, though, came from another insight from a member of our group. Mrs. R. observed that smells are effortless. Things that smell good need no effort to spread their fragrance and they don't expect anything in return. So should it be with our prayers. Prayers offered in joy are not like cosmic purchase orders submitted in anticipation of the delivery of our wishes. They are offered freely with no desired outcome.
This should be true even of the bakashot, the prayers in which we make requests of God—for example, prayers for healing, for sustenance, or for the coming of redemption. We offer up our words of yearning, but we don't expect God to hand us what we want like gift-wrapped presents. We leave it up to God to shape our yearning into the outcomes that reflect God's will—not our own.
This got me thinking about Shabbat and the exclusion of bakashot from Shabbat prayers. The thirteen request blessings that form the backbone of the Amidah during the week are replaced on Shabbat by a single blessing of appreciation for the sanctity of the day. Shabbat is a time when we distance ourselves even further from seeking outcomes from God—we don't even ask for what we want on Shabbat because to do so would move us further away from the ideal of a free "offering of fire for pleasing odor" to God.
This is a bit of an inversion of the usual reason given for omitting bakashot on Shabbat. Often, we are told that it is inappropriate to ask God for things on Shabbat because God should get to rest on Shabbat, too. It is as if our requests on Shabbat would only "noodge" God on Shabbat. That explanation rubs me the wrong way. Psalm 121:4 says, "The Guardian of Israel never slumbers or sleeps," and I'm not convinced that God needs "a day off." I am much happier to understand that the reason for not making bakashot on Shabbat is for the sake of our rest, not God's.
We spend so much time during the week considering and analyzing the possible outcomes of real and imagined scenarios. Our minds are busy, busy, busy all week thinking about what we want and how we will get it. Like the hungry wild animals we used to be, we instinctively focus on grasping for the things we want. That's good, to the extent that we strive for things that truly benefit us and others, but we also know that we often overdo it. We hunger for things that we cannot have, or which would be bad for us. We create desires and expectations for ourselves that, ultimately, leave us unsatisfied and unhappy.
Shabbat is a time for letting go of our attachment to outcomes. It is a time for letting go of our desire to direct the universe toward the things we think will benefit us. We make no requests of God on Shabbat because we need to have a time that is just about being—not doing, making and striving.
In truth, our overall happiness—seven days a week—can be improved by using Shabbat as a time to train our minds and our souls to let go. By releasing ourselves from the anxious striving toward outcomes that are not really under our control, we can release ourselves from suffering and the needless distancing of ourselves from God.
And there is also this: Happiness does not come from getting what we want. Happiness comes from receiving the world as it is with equanimity and peace. "Who is rich?" asks Pirkei Avot (4:1) and the answer can only be, "Those who are happy with what they have." When we let go of pursuing outcomes, we allow ourselves to receive God and God receives the pleasing odor of our happiness.