June 22, 2024

Mesirus Nefesh: The Mitzvah of Soul-Sacrifice for The Greater Good

Rebbe Giving Charitable Donation to Soldier

There’s a concept at the heart of Jewish communal life called Mesirus Nefesh (or Mesirat Nefesh, depending on pronunciation differences among communities). It’s intrinsic to both spiritual devotion and interpersonal relations in Judaism. The mitzvah of Mesirus Nefesh embodies the ethos of selflessness for the sake of others. 

What Does Mesirus Nefesh Mean?

It’s common to see Mesirus Nefesh translated as “self-sacrifice.” After all, that’s what we call it in English when someone goes out on a limb for another person or cause. However, Mesirus Nefesh literally means soul-sacrifice (Mesirus = sacrifice of, Nefesh = soul). That may sound like mere semantics, there’s a spiritual message in how the Hebrew language defines putting one’s self aside to show up for the collective.

Are We Expected to Give Our Lives?

The concept of giving up the soul may sound extreme, so let’s be clear: we’re not talking about sacrificing one’s life here. Yes, there’s plenty written on how putting one’s own life on the line sometimes is called for. Torah-based law does injunct a Jew to give up their life if faced with committing any of the three “cardinal sins,” and death would be the only way out of it. (Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 74a).

Sacrifice for the Greater Good – And a Jewish Future

The Mesirus Nefesh we’re talking about here is more metaphorical, but no less important. The mitzvah simply asks Jews to put our family’s or community’s needs (whether our local community or the global one) ahead of our own. More specifically, it’s about standing up for Torah-true values, justice and compassion for our fellow people, and protecting a Jewish future for generations.That’s putting your soul into it.

It’s Our Livelihood

We all know the most common way people give of themselves involves sacrificing either of two important things: time or money. And as the saying goes, time is money. We tend to hold those two things so dear, that we refer to how we spend time and earn money as “livelihood.” It’s not our life, but our livelihood – and it’s extremely valuable. That’s why in Judaism, giving to the needy either by contributing funds or by volunteering one’s time fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity), and is required of us all. 

Origins of Mesirus Nefesh

The Mesirus Nefesh concept derives from the Medieval commentator Rashi’s notes on Leviticus 2:1:1 in the Torah. The original verse says “When a Nefesh presents a meal-offering to G-d, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on it…” From context, the verse clearly uses the word Nefesh to refer to a person.  Rashi translates scripture and comments citing the Talmud, ““...and when a person (or “a soul”) will offer…” — 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 man! The Holy One, blessed be He, says, as it were, I will regard it for him as though he brought his very soul as an offering.” (Talmud, tractate Menachot 104b). It’s a relatable concept, even in modern times; that when resources are scarce, the act of giving is all the more selfless. In this way, “soul-sacrifice” is an apt way to describe any kind of offering. Whether it be in the ancient Holy Temple, or in the smaller “temples” of our homes, neighborhoods and social networks.   

Importance of Mesirus Nefesh

Acting with Mesirus Nefesh is deeply important to helping Jewish life thrive. Particularly, on two levels: Firstly, it’s about sacrificing or giving our own life in order to literally save others’. Pekuach Nefesh (saving or preserving life – and we mean this literally here), is the most crucial priority in the Jewish religion. Every day, people become homeless, go hungry, lose financial security, lose loved ones, fall sick or need support for their kids. The charitable programs Colel Chabad puts forth to help people in need literally saves lives.  And those lives go on to form our future as a community. Secondly, Mesirus Nefeish perpetuates an ongoing culture of giving. A cultural norm that’s endured thousands of years and holds hope for generations ahead. This foundational Torah principle is based on a notion discussed in Kabbalah and Chabad Chassidut. Namely, that G-d Himself expresses a quality of Chessed (loving-kindness) and virtue of Gimilus Chasadim (acts of kindness). Tzedakah (just, charitable acts), of course plays a huge role here. The more we as an Israeli charity set this example, the better chance the Jewish nation has of thriving for generations to come.

Your Donations Go Where They’re Needed Most – with Colel Chabad’s Help

The daily, ongoing work of non-profit charitable organizations like Colel Chabad keeps this Jewish tradition and value alive. Every piece of our mission is rooted in Mesirus Nefesh. While on the job, employees and volunteers put aside their own needs. They’re here to focus on doing what they can to secure people’s medical, educational, seasonal and childcare needs, ensure nutrition security and support widows and care for orphans.   In fact there’s likely no better way to donate to a Jewish non-profit charity organization in Israel.  Directing Jewish philanthropic dollars and individual ma’aser money towards our causes is so crucial. Not just because of what we do, but how we do it. We provide the necessities all humans need to thrive – and we deliver them straight from the soul. And you can too.

Yizkor Donation

בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁבְּלִי נֶדֶר אֶתֵּן צְדָקָה