People are often unaware that the reader of a text is, in some sense, a second author. When we read something, we filter what we read through who we are, and consequently, we project onto the text meaning beyond the meaning intended by the original author. This phenomenon is evident in the rabbinic reading of a verse from our parashah dealing with inadvertent sin: “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘When a person (nefesh) unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them…’” (Leviticus 4:2)
The word “nefesh” in biblical Hebrew is a synonym for the word “adam” – a person. Consequently, the pshat or plain meaning of this verse clearly speaks of a person’s liability for unintentional sins. The word “nefesh”, however, underwent a change in meaning in post-biblical times and came to be understood to refer to the spiritual element found in a person, what we call the soul and while the sages were certainly aware of the peshat or plain meaning of the verse, this innovative understanding of the word “nefesh” presented them with a textual problem which they turned into a theological opportunity.
When we read this verse with the new understanding of the word “nefesh”, we are faced with a theological dilemma. How can it be the divine element found in a human being can be found liable for sin? Clearly, one might think that only the earthly part of person, the body, is the source for sin. This way of thinking about things follows the train of thought of certain schools of Greek philosophy.
In the following parable, the sages provide one possible rabbinic answer to this question:
Why does the verse use the word ‘nefesh’ [and not the word ‘adam’]? – To punish the ‘nefesh’. It was taught by Rabbi Yishmael: A parable about a king who had a pardes (an orchard) which had beautiful first fruits. And the king set up as guards for the orchard one man who was lame and another who was blind and said to them: ‘Guard these first fruits carefully.’ The king left them there and went on his way. After some days passed, the lame man said to the blind man: ‘I see that these fruits are mighty fine.’ The blind man replied: ‘Bring them and we will eat them.’ The lame man said: ‘But am I able to walk?’ The blind man said: ‘But can I see?’ The lame man climbed onto the shoulders of the blind man and they ate the fine fruit. Afterwards, they went and sat each man in his place. Some time later, the king came to visit the orchard and said to them: ‘Where are the beautiful first fruits?’ The blind man said: ‘My master, the king, can I see?’ The lame man said: ‘My master, the king, can I walk?’ What did the king, who was a discerning fellow, do? He put the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders and they began to walk. He said to them: ‘This is how you ate the fruit!’
So, in the future, the Holy One Blessed be He will say to the soul: ‘So why did you sin before Me?’ The soul will answer Him: ‘Master of the worlds, I did not sin. It was the body that sinned. From the moment I left it, I was like a poor bird flying in the air. What was my sin before You?’ God said to the body: ‘Why did you sin before Me?’ The body replied: ‘Master of the worlds, I did not sin. It was the soul that sinned. From the moment it left me (the body), I was like a potshard on a trash heap [for I could not sin without it.] So, how could I have sinned before You. What did the Holy One Blessed be He do to them? He took the soul and cast it into the body and judged the two of them as one. (Adapted from Vayikra Rabbah 4:5, Margulies ed. pp. 87-90)
What we see here is a rabbinic rejection of the dual nature of human being in favor of an understanding of the human being as a united whole. You and I are not who we are without both body and soul. The responsibility for what we do right and what we do wrong cannot be explained by blaming one element of who we are over the other. (Incidentally, this idea plays a role in the belief in resurrection of the dead, but that is for another time.) For the Jew, then, there is no separate spiritual self and another, earthy sinful self. I guess you might say, we are a package deal.