I spent a semester in Cameroon, West Africa with the School for International Training in Brattleboro, VT, when I was an undergraduate. I lived with a host family in the northwest city of Dschang. The family had a few chickens that they raised as a food source. One afternoon, before dinner, we were in the backyard. My host-sister took a chicken and butchered it, slitting its throat and draining the blood out of its neck, its life force slipping away. My host family sacrificed the animal so I could eat. I will never forget that meal; it nourished my body and my soul.
I cannot help but think about that chicken every time I read the detailed descriptions of animal sacrifice in the book of Leviticus. But this week, I noticed something compelling about another kind of sacrifice. This time it was the meal-offering that caught my attention, an offering which consists of flour, oil, and frankincense.
The second chapter of Parashat Vayikra, begins "V'nefesh ki takriv korban mincha …" When a person [or soul] presents an offering of meal to the Eternal, the offering shall be of choice flour; oil shall be poured on it, frankincense laid on it." (Lev. 2:1) While the Hebrew word nefesh is understood in this context to mean a person, it also can mean "soul."
Scholars believe the word nefesh originally meant "neck" or "throat" and later came to imply the "vital spirit," or anima, in the Latin sense.
What can we deduce from the use of nefesh in this context? Why does the text employ nefesh and not adam (person) as it does in the opening chapter of Leviticus 1:2 in which we read:
"Adam ki yakriv mikem korban l'Adonai..."
"When anyone presents an offering of cattle to God..."
The Medieval commentator Rashi teaches that the word nefesh is used specifically for the meal offering to emphasize that these offerings were usually brought by people of limited means. Rashi goes on to say "nowhere is the word nefesh employed in connection with free-will offerings, except in connection with the meal-offering. For who is it that usually brings a meal-offering? The poor person! The Holy One, blessed be God, says, as it were, I will regard it for that person as though they brought their very soul as an offering." (Menachot 104b)
Rashi's teaching makes me think of my host family once again. They had the means to afford a few chickens, but it was a stretch to purchase them, and I was grateful they had sacrificed one to feed me.
Leviticus is all about sacrifice. Whether it is the slaughter of chickens or the gift of grain, it becomes a true sacrifice when we give "everything we've got" -- when we pour our heart and soul into the matter. When describing the bringing of sacrifices, the Torah rightly refers to a person as "a soul" because every sacrifice we make in our lives needs to take a piece of us -- needs to take a piece of our soul.
A few years ago, I was visiting with a woman in my congregation who had a terminal illness. She shared with me her fear of dying. She was a highly respected physician and while she knew that her pain could be managed, she was fearful of what would happen to her spirit upon her death. We sat in her kitchen and prayed: "The soul that you have given me God is a pure one." She found great comfort in knowing that the soul's essence was pure, and that somehow that purity could become one with an Eternal Source.
Upon waking, we thank God for restoring the soul. Moreover, we give thanks to God for the purity of our souls as I prayed with my friend in her kitchen: "Elohai neshama shenatata bi," or "the soul that you have given me O God is a pure one." During kriyat sh'ma (recitation of the sh'ma) we say the words from Deuteronomy declaring that we love God "with all our heart and all our soul."
As a Cantor, I rejoice in the fact that, among all the skills attributed to the soul, the Psalmist reminds us that the soul can sing. We read in Psalm 30: "So that my soul may sing hymns to You endlessly, Adonai my God, may I thank you forever." (Ps 30:13)
It is singer and songwriter, Tracey Chapman, who reminds us: "All that you have is your soul." That is precisely what Leviticus reminds us as well. Leviticus is a challenging book. The sacrificial system is an archaic, intricate, bloody affair. But according to Jewish tradition, our children are supposed to begin their Biblical studies by first opening to the Book of Leviticus. Now we know why.
Bernard J. Bamberger writes: "For centuries, Jewish children have begun their Bible studies with the book of Leviticus. This choice was justified by the contention that pure young children should first learn about the sacrifices that were brought in purity."
Children should first learn about purity of intention and the purity of the soul. Every soul. If children can grasp that concept, so can we. I learned all about the purity of the soul by witnessing a child who made a sacrifice, lovingly, for me. It is not only possible, but true. The soul that God has implanted within each and every one of us is pure.