This week’s Parsha describes the complex set of sacrifices offered by a Metzora after he has been cured from the spiritual disease of tzaraat/leprosy: 2 birds, a combination sin-burnt offering, concluding with an Asham lamb with extra oil. The Metzora emerges from quarantine with one of the most complex sacrificial orders in the entire Chumash, demanding an explanation how to interpret the complex, multi-stage ritual of his return to society and the camp after his great ordeal. The Talmud (Arachin 17b) explains that his sacrifices describe three stages of return and engagement: Me-Taher (purification), Me-chaper (atonement), and Machshir (readying for a higher purpose).
The Parsha opens with the Metzora bringing two birds to the priest; one is slaughtered, and its blood is sprinkled on the Metzora. (14:1-8). This “sacrifice” is conducted outside of the Temple, and the blood never reaches the altar; “Sacrifices” of this type are really cleansing agents; they remove an impurity and are not sacrifices per se. These birds are like Parah Adumah, the red calf, offered outside the temple to produce Tahara. They symbolize the ex-Metzora rising from the highest level of impurity, to a low level of impurity (Kelim1:1-4).
The Parsha then continues (14:19-21 for a rich person, 30-32 for a poor one) to describe the sacrifices the ex-Metzora offers a week later, after his purification has completed. The Metzora brings two typical sacrifices, an olah (burnt offering) and a chatat (offering normally brought to be cleansed from sin). These animals allow him to enter the temple and return him to a neutral state as any other Jew is. When he was unclean he could not enter, but now he can, purified from all sin and all remaining residual impurity. The distancing from G-d that is part of his ordeal has been solved with the sin and burnt offerings.
Yet then, the Metzora brings two additional sacrifices which lack strong parallels in the Jewish sacrificial order. An Asham is offered, and the blood of the Metzora’s Asham is placed on the right ear, thumb, and toe-thumb of the Metzora; a rare ritual, indeed. The Metzora also brings a log of oil, which is unusual: most of the time that oil is brought as a sacrifice, it is meant to accompany a meal-offering; however, the Metzora does not bring a meal-offering together with this oil.
The Mishna in Negaim (14:4) relates an interesting comparison, focused on another unusual part of the Metzora’s ritual. “Three types of people had their hair cut: An initiate Levi, an ex-Nazir, and an ex-Metzora.” Closer inspection reveals many more similarities between these groups. An initiate priest also has blood and anointing oil placed on his right ear, thumb, and toe thumb, and a Nazir also offers an Asham-lamb. It is clear that the common thread for all these individuals is their initiation into a new service. It isn’t enough to purify and to atone, we must also initiate the new future.
First two birds are brought to remove impurity (me-thaer). Then, a chatat an olah are brought to remove the sin and the blockage from temple entry (me-chaper). Finally, an Asham and oil sacrifice are offered to initiate the Metzora into a new, higher level of service (machshir).
Our sages teach us that tzaraat comes for seven of the worst sins and character deficiencies (Arachin 16a). It is a painful process which teaches humility and perspective to a sinner (see 13:45-47). Yet, the lesson from the sacrifices is that leprosy is less a punishment and more an educational process to catapult an individual into future service of G-d. When the lesson is learned, the person is the better for the experience.
The Metzora is quarantined outside the camp (alone and away from his or her family) until he or she is healed, and many of us have undergone and are continuing to undergo a similar experience in our lives. But the lesson of the Metzora is that G-d intends the process to be focused less on the past sins, and more on the initiation to a more complete and fuller future. Initiated, he or she emerges like a priest or Levite, into a higher level and plane of service. Having achieved greater perspective and appreciation of the importance of life, community, and faith, as he or she emerge from his or her ongoing ordeal with more perspective, and more depth & commitment, stronger moving forward.