Even before I turned the key in the keyhole, I was able to discern the acrid odor assaulting my nostrils. Of course! I had completely forgotten about the stew. I had left the chicken and potatoes simmering on a low flame, sure that I'd be back in time to shut it. Well, well. Somehow, the alleged ten minute sprint to the hardware store had turned into a fifty five minute excursion. And now I was smelling the consequences.
I know in the scheme of things, burned stew is a pretty minor aggravation, but when it's six o'clock p.m. and you should have been home an hour ago, the thought of supper having gone to pot can loom rather large. I knew I could expect a delayed bedtime, some grumbling over an improvised menu, and a badly burned pot to salvage. What I didn't expect was to find was my two daughters complacently shmoozing in the kitchen, not two yards away from the offending pot.
The look on my face as I dashed into the kitchen told them something was amiss, but they didn't seem to have a clue as to what that something could be. I really hate to greet my loved ones with criticism, especially not after I've been out and they've been holding the fort, but this time I just couldn't contain myself.
"Didn't you smell the potatoes burning?" I asked in disbelief. "You kids are right here in the kitchen! I smelled it all the way out on the front steps."
The younger one stopped talking and dropped her stationery album, while the older one turned instinctively to the stove, a look of sincere contrition spreading over her features. She spoke for both of them.
"I'm so sorry, Ma, I really am. I didn't realize that there was a flame that had to be shut."
"Didn't realize? Didn't you smell?"
Shaking my head in frustration, I muttered something about the irony of supper burning under your nose, as I lifted the lid to assess the damage. A flood of smoke escaped, nearly choking me.
"Please open the window", I said flatly. Both of them jumped at the request, relieved to be able to do something tangible to make amends. "And take out some pizza. Rochel, you can cut a salad." I tried to keep my voice calm and constructive, but I'm telling you, it took iron discipline not to keep repeating the rhetorical reproof: "You were right here in the kitchen! Didn't you smell the potatoes catching?"
Seeing my daughters' miserable, apologetic faces, I realized I was being far too somber about so trivial a mishap. So I told them it was alright, and it wasn't their fault, and let's forget the whole incident. Which we would have done happily, if not for the annoying fact that whoever entered the doorway considered it his personal duty to bring the smell to our attention.
"Hi Ma, something's burning, you know?"
"Hi Yitzy. Yes I know, it was supper, and it's over with. How was your day?"
"Heeeello! Hey, what smells? I think something's burning."
"You'd think something burned in the front hall," I joked. Inside the kitchen, our noses seemed to be providing us with automatic shut off service, a service which we all appreciated. It's one of those tiny but awesome wonders of creation that any odor, no matter how unpleasant, becomes bearable, even unnoticeable, after a few minutes of exposure. It usually takes a stranger coming in from the outside to point out that the house smells from fried fish, or that someone must have been using a permanent marker. And that's fine.
But if the human power of distinction is the nose of the mind, then that shut off mechanism scares me. It frightens me to think that no matter how discerning and how intelligent we might be, when something is burning in our own kitchen, we may remain oblivious to the fact. Not in spite of our close proximity to the problem, but because of it.
We may be able to dispense the most sensitive and sensible advice on child rearing, on time or money management, on tips for an effective relationship. We may know all the virtues of seeing things from the other person's point of view, of not being judgmental, and not getting on the defensive.
But when the stew begins scorching on our home front, in our community, in our family, or our school, we fail to smell the smoke. We're either so emotionally entangled, or else so accustomed to the situation, that our hearts and minds become desensitized to the odor calling for our attention.
How many times have I caught my heart lurching with pity for a ten year old boy being publicly chastised for having left his brand new jacket in yeshiva? Somehow, when that ten year old is mine, I fail to see the tenderness of the situation.
And the same holds true for teenagers, spouses, students, and in laws. The same is true of our lifestyle, our dress code, our speech and our habits.
We humans were endowed with the lofty ability to distinguish right from wrong, discord from harmony, admirable from disdainful. Our moral sense of smell is what guides and directs us, helping us to exercise our power of bechira (freedom of choice). It is also what tells us when something is amiss. But we've got to be tuned in, or our mechanism will shut off. And we've got to install spiritual smoke detectors in the form of nightly, weekly, and yearly cheshbon hanefesh (personal introspection). Aside, though, from our own periodic introspection, it's important to listen to those who are coming in from the outside. As annoying as it is to have our flaws pointed out, an objective opinion, especially one infused with Torah wisdom, can sometimes salvage a precarious situation just in the nick of time.
So from time to time, whatever you are in the middle of doing, step back and look around. There may be a pot smoking. And it may just be your supper inside.