- When a person [soul] presents an offering of meal to Adonai, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on it. . . . (Leviticus 2:1)
- When a person [soul] unwillingly incurs guilt in regard to any of Adonai's commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them. . . . (Leviticus 4:2)
- If a person [soul] incurs guilt: When he has heard a public imprecation and . . . he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment. . . . (Leviticus 5:1)
For anyone who has ever read or studied Torah, approaching Leviticus, or Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, often fills one with a desire to skip whole sections of it in search of ostensibly more religious or meaningful verses that hopefully manage to shine through the often tediously redundant narration, with its graphic detail of numerous sacrifices and how and why they are to be performed.
To do so, however, would be a mistake.
True, the opening chapters of Vayikra deal with the minutiae of sacrifices, but more importantly, they also discuss the type of person obliged to bring those sacrifices. All Israel was obligated to offer sacrifices—from the anointed priest (kohein hamashiach) to the country farmer (am haaretz). Every member of Israel, as human beings, sinned in one way or another and, therefore, needed a religious method of showing contrition and repentance—sacrifice.
Throughout the sidrah, the word "soul" (nefesh) appears enough times in place of the more expected word for person (ish) as to cause us to raise an eyebrow and question why. Though the JPS Torah translation in Plaut's commentary uses the word "person" rather than the more literal "soul," the word "soul" implies a greater depth of meaning as to the intent of the message within the verses.
Usually one is tempted to read these chapters on sacrifices with an emphasis on the offering. But by examining the person who brings the sacrifice rather than the sacrifice itself, the verses become more alive and relevant to our lives today.
"A soul who presents an offering. . . ."
"A soul who incurs guilt. . . ."
"A soul who has heard a call for testimony. . . ."
The soul could be anyone and is everyone. Each of us is a living soul with mind and body, whether offering a sacrifice on the altar of the Temple or within our own synagogues today. Each of us is confronted with choices: to sin or to refrain from sinning; to admit guilt or to pretend that a sin never happened; to realize error can be made unwittingly or to act as if we are always right; to answer the call for testimony or to blend into the crowd of anonymity.
By looking at the offering rather than at the one who brings it, we fall into the trap of judging the person not by who he or she is but by what he or she may have to offer to God, or to us. We compare his or her offering with our own and play the "size does matter" game. But by seeing others and even ourselves as souls, we can become better Jews, better men and women, and better members of society, rather than defining ourselves by the labels we normally use—priest, leader, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. By doing so, we may begin to understand the true purpose of sacrifice-that by sacrificing, we are, in reality, only giving back to God what already is God's. Hopefully, from that awareness, we can grow into more sensitive and holy children of God.
By the Way
- Who is it that usually brings a "meal offering"? The poor man. Holy One, blessed be He, says, as it were: "I will regard it from him as though he had brought his very soul as an offering." (Rashi, quoted in Alexander Zusia Friedman, Wellsprings of Torah [New York: Judaica Press,1969] p. 201)
- A king had an orchard containing excellent figs and placed in it two watchmen, one lame and the other blind. One day, the lame man said to the blind one: "I saw figs in the orchard." The blind one said: "Let's go eat them." So the lame watchman climbed upon the back of the blind one and they walked to the figs and ate them. Later, the king entered the orchard and asked: "Where are my figs?" The blind man said: "Can I see?" The lame one asked: "Can I walk?" What did the king do? He placed the lame one on the back of the blind one and said to them: "That's how you did it." In the time to come, when God will ask why did one sin? the Soul will answer: "I didn't, it was the body. Since leaving it, I am like a clean bird flying through the air." The body will reply: "I didn't sin, it was the soul. Since it left me, I am like a stone thrown on the ground." What will God do? He will return the soul into the body and judge both as one. (Midrash Rabbah [London: Soncino Press, 1983], 4:53-54)
- Today, what sacrifices do people offer to God, to their families, and to their synagogues?
- If, according to the midrash, soul and body are to be judged by God as one, what does it mean to lead a spiritual life?
- How does intent affect an offering to God? How does it affect a gift to a friend or a pledge to one's synagogue?
Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592