Parsha Phil

Recognizing Soulful Giving

In Short

Welcome to Parsha Phil! This new weekly project invites thought leaders from varying backgrounds to read the weekly Torah portion through the lens of philanthropy. We hope this space provides new ways of reading the parsha and valuable insights into how our texts teach us — through statements, suggestions or character behavior — about supporting those in need, donating a portion of our income or giving of ourselves in acts of generosity toward our fellow humans.

At first glance, the book of Leviticus appears quite boring. It dispatches with the engaging narrative to which we’ve grown accustomed these many months with the characters-and-action-packed Genesis and Exodus. And yet, beneath the surface of each turn of phrase within this book is an entire corpus of interpretation adding not only background narrative to each law, but also color to what might otherwise be considered a dull section of the Torah. 

According to the Babylonian Talmud, nearly 1900 years ago, Rabbi Yitzchak was perusing this week’s Torah portion and came across the various sacrifices and offerings (Menakhot 104b). One stood out to Rabbi Yitzchak more than any other: the minchah. We often translate this minchah as grain offering, gift offering, or meal offering. More precisely, it is a sacrifice that did not involve the killing of animals. But when an offering is referred to as a “minchah,” it is a sign that there is a deeper emotional layer there: Cain and Abel’s offering was a minchah; Jacob’s gift to Esau was a minchah; and Jacob’s instruction to his sons was to present a minchah to the leader in Egypt (dramatic irony, when it turned out to be long-lost brother Joseph).

The emotional backdrop is seemingly absent in the charge in our parashah: “When a person presents a meal offering (minchah) to God: the offering shall be of choice flour; the offerer shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on it, and present it to Aaron’s sons, the priests. The priest shall scoop out of it a handful of its choice flour and oil, as well as all of its frankincense; and this token portion he shall turn into smoke on the altar, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to God” (Leviticus 2:1-2).

The instructions seem straightforward, but close attention to the language of the directive — when observed in the context of the rest of Leviticus — begs questions. Though translated above as “person,” the word in this verse is nefesh—soul. Rabbi Yitzchak notices this and wonders aloud: why use nefesh here, instead of adam (person/man, in Leviticus 1:2) or ish (man, in 7:8), as used with all the other offerings? Answering his own question, Rabbi Yitzchak reasons that God recognized that the one who usually brought a meal offering was a poor person, and therefore, God accounted it as if the poor person had actually offered up their own soul.

What does it mean that this individual offered up their own soul? To make an offering, one needs to have financial means. It takes wealth to be able to provide an animal for sacrifice. If a person could not afford an animal, then grain would have to suffice. And if that person were bringing grain, then they were likely giving up a meal from their own meager resources to do so—a sacrifice within the sacrifice. They effectively were offering up themselves on the altar.

Far too often, Jewish communal institutions operate with a “pay-to-play” philosophy. And worse, those who contribute the most quantitatively are most often feted by leadership—they are provided board seats, access to senior staff, their grievances carry heavier weight, and they can even influence the direction of organizations, sometimes negatively. On the surface, this appears to be a sound strategy for a non-profit: keep your biggest donors happy. But what if we are misunderstanding who are the biggest donors?

When we consider only the size of a gift, we neglect those whose offerings may be smaller, but much more qualitatively significant than the seven-figure donor. Someone who makes a modest donation out of the funds they receive from their disability check; serves as a pro bono attorney, accountant, teacher, for an organization or institution;  who leaves their family at home to attend (sometimes unproductive) meetings for organizations where they volunteer; who stands outside in the cold as security — all these represent great contributions of time, energy and spirit.

Many give of themselves – of their souls – to our communal institutions, but because those “gifts” are not entered into the revenue line on an organization’s profit and loss statement, they are overlooked and often disregarded.

For far too long, we in the Jewish community have fallen into the trap of catering mostly to the wealthy. But contributions come in all shapes, sizes, and amounts; if organizations ignore offerings which are perceived to be smaller, they will lose generous donors who are so important to the vitality of their institutions. Without soul giving, what donor dollars will be financing is once-robust organizations which have become empty shells.

Avi S. Olitzky, president and principal consultant of Olitzky Consulting Group, has served as senior rabbi to one of the largest congregations in North America, successfully launched and grown innovative information technology and content-driven (Jewish and secular) production companies, and was a founding board chair and board member for numerous non-profits. He has advised and consulted for multiple camps and youth organizations, synagogues and churches, for-profit executives, and general non-profits. Avi is also the coauthor of New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue – From Traditional Dues to Fair Share to Gifts from the Heart (Jewish Lights).