The Torah Text
Twice in the opening chapters of Leviticus (Vayikra), the text refers to a human being as a nefesh (soul). In each place, Abraham ibn Ezra brings out different nuances of what the word intends to mean.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
ונפש כי תקריב. נפש אדם והזכיר הנפש שהמנחה נדבה גם הנפש תקרא נדיבה ורוח נדיבה תסמכני
Leviticus 2:1 AND WHEN ANY ONE BRINGS. The word nefesh (any one) means a person. Scripture mentions nefesh because the meal offering is a free will offering and nefesh is called “willing.” Compare, “And let a willing spirit uphold me” (Psalms 51:14). (Translation Strickman and Silver)
נפש כי תחטא. לעשות בשגגה אחת ממצות לא תעשה שיש עליהם כרת או מלקות. ומלת נפש כלל לישראל ולגר כי כן כתוב. ואחר כן פרט והחל מהכהן הגדול והוא הכהן המשיח
Leviticus 4:2 IF ANY ONE SHALL SIN. … The word nefesh (any one) takes in Israelites and strangers, for it is so stated (e.g. Exodus 23:9). (Translation Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
The first use of nefesh indicates a willing orientation in offering sacrifices, which in the deeper sense means a willing desire to restore integrity and relationship. The second use of nefesh indicates an inclusiveness – not just Israelites, but anyone who might be living and practicing among them.
Nefesh, from this perspective, reflects a human soul identity that is willing and universal, that quality within us that yearns for connection beyond the boundaries of ought and insider. In this particular moment, as COVID-19 has both reminded us of the power of our particular relationships and the way in which all of us are in this together, may our nefashot bring us closer together in ways that transcend shelter-in-place and isolation.
For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.