What is the substance of a smell? The scent of a delicious food does not provide any material comfort. Instead of satisfying our hunger, the smell of roasted coffee or baking bread has the opposite effect: it whets our appetite, adding to our cravings. Indeed, a sweet savor is not filling: it is something that makes us excited and anticipatory for the meal to come.
The very first time that G-d refers to a “sweet savor” is when Noach offers an elevation-offering from the animals on the Ark. The aroma must have been sweet, indeed, because G-d follows the offering with no less than 19 verses of promises and blessings for mankind.
Those blessings do not come because mankind inherently deserved them (if we had, there would have been no need for the Flood in the first place). The blessings come as a direct result of Noach’s sacrifices: of connecting the earth to the heavens by sacrificing kosher animals. It is that act of sacrifice (which seems to be Noach’s own invention) which shows that at least one member of the human race understood that the purpose of mankind is to seek a connection between man and G-d, to elevate the natural world into the spiritual plane.
The sacrifices are not the purpose of mankind’s existence, which is why G-d is not satisfied by Noach’s offerings, just as our hunger is not sated by the scent of tantalizing food. A sacrifice – any Torah sacrifice – does not complete our lives. The fact that G-d finds our sacrifices to be “a pleasing aroma” tells us that G-d views our offerings not as the meal, but as the anticipatory scent that promises wonderful things to come. It means that we are on the right track, not that we have reached the destination.
So when we make an offering because we have sinned, the offering does not make the sin “go away” – but it shows G-d that we are contrite, and that we aim to do better in the future. The only part of the offering that goes “up” to the heavens is the smell, after all, and that is all that G-d desires from it. G-d benefits from knowing that we are seeking the relationship, that we are craving the connection, and that we understand that a fundamental purpose of our existences in this world is to dedicate ourselves toward spiritual ends. When Noach built the ark he was saving life. But when he made elevation-offerings afterwards, Noach showed that the value of life is not inherent: life exists so that we can choose to connect with G-d, to complete the creation of the world by connecting heaven and earth.
This point is hardly a side-note in the Torah: the phrase reiach nichoach, or “pleasing aroma” to G-d appears 39 times in the Torah. And it is there to remind us that G-d wants us, above all, to be moving in the right direction. An offering, like a pleasing aroma, is not a product in itself; it is a step in the process, a promise of even better things to come.