Giving one’s very soul

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

As one enters many synagogues throughout the country, even throughout the world, one notices that they have something in common. Plaques are on everything! 

I remember that after my grandmother died, my father and his family endowed the religious school principal’s office and, every time I entered, I saw my grandmother’s name and my family’s name on a plaque on the door. There were plaques on most of the office doors and on the walls. Most of them were in memory of a loved one donated by that person’s grieving family.

At even higher levels of giving, people are recognized publicly for their large donations. Rooms or wings often are named for them; perhaps, if the gift is large enough, the entire building. In other instances, they are recognized at special events and presented with a piece of art, a plaque, a certificate or some combination of those. 

All of this recognition serves a purpose. It not only recognizes that people with wealth are utilizing their resources for the good of the community, but it inspires others to do likewise. Without such donors, there would be no building, no staff, no programming. 

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And yet, many more people of lesser means volunteer their time, donate their resources and go unrecognized: no plaques on the walls, no artwork in their homes, no dinners in their honor. What of their contributions, which may be proportionately larger compared with their assets than those of the large donors?

Apparently, this is not a modern issue but one that is mentioned in the Talmudic Tractate Menahot (meal offerings) 104b in a description of the Temple service. Rabbi Isaac, quoting a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, taught: Why is the meal offering distinguished in that the word “soul” is used in connection with it (Leviticus 2:1)? Because the Holy One said: Who is it that usually brings a meal offering? It is the poor person. I account it for that person as though that person had offered that person’s very soul to Me. 

This point is reinforced in the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 3:5, which tells of a woman who once brought a handful of meal as an offering. The priest despised it. He said, “What sort of offering is that? What is there in it for eating or for a sacrifice?” But in a dream it was said to the priest, “Despise her not; but reckon it as if she had offered herself as a sacrifice.”

The sages looked to Vayikra to provide for another type of recognition for the less affluent and poor members of the community. Their heartfelt offerings were viewed as if they offered their souls, their very selves. To be viewed in such a manner may be the highest recognition.

Shabbat Shalom!

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