Have you ever been so burnt you decided to avoid something altogether? Have you ever been so hurt you chose to steer clear of something that was part of your life for the rest of your life? This week’s Parsha offers a compelling insight into how to deal with feeling burnt. We are told of someone we seldom think of as a victim: the Metzora—a person with ritual leprosy.
The Torah tells us that if a person is diagnosed by the priest—the Kohen—and has leprosy, they are to go out of the camp and isolate. This part is easy to understand. The rabbis explain that since the punishment of Tzra’at comes as a result of a person being slanderous or pejorative—a sin which must have caused division and isolation among others—they too need to isolate and experience that feeling. As the Talmud states (Arachin, 16b)
“…What is different and notable about a leper, that the Torah states: “He shall dwell alone; outside of the camp shall be his dwelling” (Leviticus 13:46)? He replied: By speaking malicious speech, he separated between husband and wife and between one person and another; therefore he is punished with leprosy, and the Torah says: “He shall dwell alone; outside of the camp shall be his dwelling.”
The correlation is clear: isolation for isolation. The slanderer inflicted loneliness on others; he is therefore treated to solitude so as to reflect on his actions and change. But then comes the cure, with little explanation.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzara’at, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the kohen. The kohen shall go outside the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzara’at has healed in the afflicted person. Then the kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop.”
Nowhere else does the Torah prescribe such an odd and unharmonious mix for as a sacrifice. What to birds, cedar, crimson, and hyssop all have in common? I would never be able to guess. The Talmud (ibid) ventures to explain this as well:
Rabbi Yehuda ben Levi says: What is different and notable about a leper that the Torah states that he is to bring two birds for his purification (Leviticus 14:4)? The Holy One, Blessed be He says: He acted by speaking malicious speech with an act of chatter; therefore, the Torah says that he is to bring an offering of birds, who chirp and chatter all the time.
So, did everything fall into place? The birds represent chatter, the exclusion, represent the exclusion inflicted on others, the cedar (according to Midrash Tanchuma, Vayikra 8) represents arrogance and haughtiness implicit in gossiping and mocking others. The low-growing hyssop weed represents the humility the metzora needs to embrace as part of reinventing himself. Yet, then comes a twist in the plot. The Torah says:
“The kohen shall order, and one shall slaughter the one bird into an earthenware vessel, over spring water. [As for] the live bird, he shall take it, and then the cedar stick, the strip of crimson [wool], and the hyssop, and, along with the live bird, he shall dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the spring water. He shall then sprinkle seven times upon the person being cleansed from tzara’at, and he shall cleanse him. He shall then send away the live bird into the [open] field.”
If indeed the bird represents excess “chirping” and gossip, why is one bird sent free? Why is the bird set free into the open field? Did we not say the whole purpose of this whole ritual was to make sure the gossiper recognized the need to stop gossiping? Was the purpose not to make clear how devastating the impact of speech might be and how much it can harm others? What lesson is being taught then by the other bird being sent out to freedom?
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886), a prominent Hungarian rabbi and author of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, a synopsis of the code of Jewish law, in his book Apiryon—a commentary on the Torah—suggests the following: the lesson taught to the person with tzara’at is a difficult one. It is traumatic. He is expelled, isolated, humiliated, and excommunicated. There is no lack of clarity in the message he gets: his speech has been destructive. His words have been harmful and divisive. Going through this traumatic lesson, the person with Tzara’at may conclude that they ought never to speak again. Why should they? They have learned the lesson the hard way. This is where the living bird flies into the picture. We tell the metzora: speech can be harmful and destructive, but it can also be positive. There is so much good power in your words. Don’t stop talking. Change your talking. Realize what your compliment, recommendation, encouragement, and caring can do for others. Use that power. Let that power go free, like the bird flying over the field.
We live in an age where we have realized the power of hurtful words to evoke pain halfway around the world. We recognize how divisive social media, excess communication, and thoughtless comments can be. Let us not completely disconnect. Let us make sure that we use that power for good. Let us unleash that chirping bird across the field and unleash the power of kindness.