Where Is The Soul?
The Link Between Souls And Animal Sacrifice In The Bible
When we hear the word soul, we tend to think about angelic, spiritual kinds of images. And when we think about where the soul can be found, our minds wander to some lofty, Godly realm. But the Torah has its own ideas about the soul, and it’s quite different from what we'd expect. Most surprisingly of all, this concept of the soul even has something to do with the sacrifices that were brought in the Mishkan. Join Ami as he explores these questions and finds answers that have relevance for us, even today.
Hi, this is Ami Silver, and you are watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Vayikra.
When you hear the word “soul,” what do you think of?
What Is the Soul According to the Bible?Something of a spiritual nature? Something amorphous and ethereal? When I ask you, where is your soul – what would you say? In your heart? Hovering above you? With God?
Well, the Torah has its own ideas about what the soul is and where it can be found, and I think that for most of us, it’s not what we’d expect. And what’s even more surprising, is that this concept of soul plays a central role in – are you ready? – animal sacrifices. So we’re going to look at the laws of animal sacrifice in order to get a glimpse into the Torah’s view of the soul. And believe it or not, in these ancient laws of korbanot we may even find some wisdom for how we can connect with God more deeply, even today, in a world far removed from the Mishkan and sacrifices. Let me show you what I mean.
Biblical References to Animal Souls and Our SoulsThe book of Vayikra opens with step by step instructions of how to bring sacrifices in the Mishkan. It begins (Leviticus 1:3) with the laws of an Olah – a burnt offering. First, a person brings a cow to the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting. Then (Leviticus 1:4) they press their hands onto the head of the cow, and (Leviticus 1:5) it gets slaughtered. Then: והקריבו בני אהרן הכהנים את־הדם – the Kohanim take the cow’s blood – וזרקו את־הדם על־המזבח סביב – and they throw it all around the altar. Once that’s done, (Leviticus 1:6) the cow is prepped, (Leviticus 1:7) the Kohanim start up the fire, and (Leviticus 1:8-9) they burn parts of the animal on the altar.
Now, did you notice something strange there? Something unexpected, and… well, kind of gross? This whole thing with the blood. For some reason, when the Kohanim brought a sacrifice, they would collect the animal’s blood and throw it all over the altar! What is that? I mean, I get that animal sacrifices are a messy business, but this just seems grotesque! Just imagine, you come to the Mishkan, the holiest place on earth, ready to approach God in utmost purity. The Kohen is there to help you humbly bring your offering. And then, splat! There’s blood everywhere! “Oh sorry, did I get some in your eye?”
And it’s not just this sacrifice. As we read on, the parsha talks about different kinds of sacrifices, and in each one, blood is either thrown, poured, or sprinkled onto the altar. So regardless of what type of sacrifice you’re bringing to the Mishkan, there’s one thing you can be sure of: blood will be flying.
And beyond the gross factor, why make a big deal out of this? You’d think that if you want to sacrifice an animal to God, you can just kill it and offer it up on the altar! But as we read through Vayikra, each korban requires its own special blood ritual. The blood is so important, in fact, that the Mishnah considers collecting the animal’s blood, bringing it to the altar, and throwing it, as essential steps in the process of bringing a korban. So why is zrikat hadam – throwing blood – such an important part of this ritual that a korban is incomplete without it?
And if that’s not weird enough, this strange blood throwing ritual actually plays a central role in an an earlier scene, in what’s perhaps the single most defining moment in our national history: the revelation at Sinai. In Shmot chapter 24 (Exodus 24:4-5), Moshe builds an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai, and commands some young Israelites to sacrifice Olot and zivchei Shlamim. And then (Exodus 24:6):
ויקח משה חצי הדם וישם באגנת
Moshe takes half of the cows’ blood and places it into basins
וחצי הדם זרק על המזבח
and he takes the other half and throws it onto the altar.
There we have it – the first instance of zrikat hadam. But it doesn’t stop there. Moshe goes on to address the nation (Exodus 24:7): ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם – he reads from something called Sefer Habrit, the Book of the Covenant, which is understood to be some portions of the Torah. The people hear these words and give a rousing response: ויאמרו כל אשר דבר יהוה נעשה ונשמע – everything that God has said, we will do and we will listen! And then comes the shocker (Exodus 24:8): ויקח משה את הדם – Moshe takes the remaining blood from the sacrifices, the blood he had stored away in basins – ויזרק על העם – and he throws it onto the people! ויאמר הנה דם הברית – he says “this is the blood of the covenant – אשר כרת יהוה עמכם – that God has established with you – על כל הדברים האלה – upon all of these words and commands.”
We thought throwing blood in the Mishkan was gross; this takes it to a whole other level! Moshe is splattering the people with blood! I bet your first grade teacher never told you that when the people received the Torah they had spots of cow’s blood all over them!
Most of us don’t think of Judaism as a religion that places a heavy emphasis on blood rituals, but when we look at the Bible there’s no denying it: In the Mishkan, blood was thrown or poured or sprinkled, every time someone brought an animal sacrifice. And at Mount Sinai, blood was thrown on the altar and on the people when they entered into a covenant with God. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? Why does blood of all things, play such an important role?
I think we can find a clue into the meaning of blood throwing in both of these episodes, in a verse that shows up a bit later in Vayikra, that talks about blood and its function is on the altar. Surprisingly enough, this verse can also help us answer our opening questions about the nature of the soul, and can help us gain a new perspective on it.
In Vayikra, chapter 17 (Leviticus 17:11) we’re told that if someone slaughters an animal to eat, they may not eat its blood. And there’s a reason given for this: כי נפש הבשר בדם הוא – because the soul of the animal, is in its blood. The verse then goes on to explain the role of blood on the altar. ואני נתתיו לכם על המזבח – God says, I have [therefore] placed blood for you on the altar – לכפר על נפשתיכם – to atone for your nefesh, for your souls – כי הדם הוא בנפש יכפר – for it is the blood that atones for the soul.
The Bible's Definition of Where Souls Come FromSo, it seems like the nefesh, the soul of the animal, is in its blood. And its blood gets put on the altar, so that it can atone for our souls. Let’s try to unpack this: What does it mean that the soul is in the blood? If anything, the blood and the soul seem to exist on totally opposite ends of the spectrum! Blood is the most primal, physical thing there is. And the soul? It’s completely spiritual and Godly! Why is the Torah equating them here? Is this just weird Biblical pseudo-science? How are we supposed to make sense of this?
So, this certainly does seem strange at first blush, but if we think about the body, and about the function of blood in the body, maybe it isn’t so crazy after all. Our blood literally keeps us alive. Red blood cells carry oxygen that allows our heart and brain to function. White blood cells protect us against invasive diseases. This wondrous red liquid fills every inch of our body, every skin cell and organ receives the precise amount of blood it needs to function and live. On its own, the body is nothing more than an empty shell. It isn’t alive. But the current of life that animates the entire body, and reaches into every one of its pores… is the blood.
So in the Torah’s conception here, where is the soul? Where is this Divine life force that keeps us alive at every moment? In the most basic, physical sense, it’s in the blood that runs through our veins. This isn’t some angelic, otherworldly concept of the soul. It’s very visceral and embodied. The nefesh is as close and immediate to us, as the pulse in our body, the beating of our heart, and the blood in our skin.
What Is the Bible Saying About Our Souls and Animals?So our blood contains our souls, our very essence, it keeps us alive. But, on the flipside, blood also reminds us of just how precarious our lives are. One small glitch like an aneurism – the tiniest of blood clots – and the blood can stop running properly. Or, a cut or wound in the wrong place, and the blood can quickly start running out of our bodies. Either of these things can spell our end within minutes. It’s terrifying to consider just how delicately this whole system is held together. I think this may be part of the reason that blood makes a lot of people queasy. It’s not so pleasant to see just how vulnerable and fragile our lives really are.
So with this in mind, let’s go back to Sinai for a moment, and imagine what it must have felt like to be there. First you hear Moshe read God’s words, and the entire nation erupts in devotion – na’aseh venishma – we’re all in! We accept God’s Torah! And then, all of a sudden, there’s blood everywhere. It’s on you… it’s on the people next you! What’s happening? Why is there blood on me? Blood is supposed to inside my body, not outside! Am I dead? Am I alive? It must have been a shocking and harrowing experience. In one moment everyone’s proclaiming their loyalty to God, and in the next moment they’re splattered with blood, staring their mortality in the face.
And maybe this was exactly the point. Because remember what’s going on here. Moshe is establishing a covenant between the people and God. And there are two steps to this process. First Moshe reads from Sefer Habrit – the book of the covenant, the Torah. He lays out God’s laws and tells the people God’s expectations for entering into this relationship. But then there’s one more step – there’s the dam habrit, the blood of the covenant. And this blood accomplishes something that words alone could not. Because it’s one thing to hear God’s rules and proclaim that we’re ready to be God’s partners. But it’s something entirely different to fully acknowledge who God is to us, and what the true nature of our relationship is about. We depend on God for survival, for life, at every moment. Our blood, our nefesh, our very souls, come from God and belong to God. When Moshe threw the blood on the people it drove this message home and, in doing so, it sealed the deal of their covenant with God.
And the Israelites were reminded of this covenant every time they brought a korban in the Mishkan with zrikat hadam. When they saw the animal’s blood hurtling through the air, splashing onto the altar and dripping down its sides, it was abundantly clear: “This blood looks just like my blood. The nefesh that sustained this animal, is the very same thing that keeps me alive.” Just like at Mount Sinai, the blood brought them face to face with their own mortality, and it reminded them of their dependence on God, and their fundamental connection to their source of life.
And despite how far we are from all of this, aren’t we still participating in that same relationship today? When Moshe threw the dam habrit on the people, he said it was על כל הדברים האלה – it covered all the mitzvot of Torah. Even the mitzvot we perform today, and the relationship that we cultivate with God, are part and parcel of that very same covenant!
But we’re so far removed from Mount Sinai and the Mishkan. We don’t see God’s hovering cloud, we don’t offer sacrifices on the altar. How are we supposed to touch that same kind of awareness that korbanot were meant to bring us to? To recognize that our lives, our ability to function and achieve anything at all, come from God and depend on God at every moment?
Understanding the Meaning of Our Souls TodayWhile it’s true that we don’t have korbanot, maybe they can give us a sense of where to look. The soul lives in our veins, it’s in our blood. Can we take the time to pay attention to this gift of life? Can we start to search for a connection with God through this most basic, primal encounter with our Creator? If so, we may find ways to bring that awareness into our lives, into the way we pray, the way we learn, and the way we treat one another. And we may indeed find that we’re not so far away after all.
Thanks for watching, I hope you enjoyed this video. Something we didn’t get to address in this video is the difference between throwing blood on the altar in the Mishkan, and throwing it on the people as well at Mount Sinai. I actually think that this has implications for how we relate to God over time, and what it means for us today. If you want to go deeper, check out my blog post in the link in the description. And please share with your friends.
Thanks for watching! I hope you enjoyed this video. To learn more about korbanot and the meaning they hold for us today, check out this Vayikra video from Rabbi Fohrman. And please share this with your friends!
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