In our lives, we can find ourselves between two extremes: freedom and imprisonment. We feel free when we have control, over our decisions, emotions, lives. Captivity is the contrast — restricting, debilitating, and uncontrollable. Our minds gravitate toward the pole of freedom, craving its limitless opportunities, repulsed by the constriction opposing it. In “Easy in the Harness: The Tyranny of Freedom,” Gerry Spence explores this very instinct. Against common understanding, Spence insists that freedom is something that, in truth, we fear. “Pure freedom is pure terror,” he asserts. At the heart of Spence’s argument is centered on redefining what we want because, he writes, too much freedom leaves us helpless and endangered. In that vein, Robert Frost’s quote works well for Spence: “Freedom is when you are easy in the harness.”
In Parshat Metzora, the Torah provides detail on the purification process for the metzora, an individual with tzaraat. The instructions are interesting: The kohen shall take two live and pure birds, along with select supplies, and slaughter one bird while releasing the other “free in the open country” (Vayikra 14:4-7). This process catches the eyes of many commentaries who write extensively trying to unpack the deeper meaning operating behind the scenes. Why two birds? Why kill one and set the other free? What about the process in between? Why release the free bird above an open field?
The Midrash, as well as Masechet Arakhin 16b, point to the metzora’s sin as the significance of the birds. The metzora protracted tzaraat from gossiping about other people — also known as lashon harah — which mimics the behavior of chirping birds, which as Rashi puts it, “chatter, as it were, continuously with a twittering sound.” This view may provide a basis for us to explore further how to understand the purification process more meaningfully.
The Torah’s process, as written, tells the kohen to “order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on the one to be purified of the eruption and effect the purification” (ibid.). Then, the live bird is set free. While we will not extrapolate from the specifics, we can certainly derive a powerful take on why the kohen must purify the metzora in this way.
If the birds represent the chattering the metzora undertook, then perhaps the birds also represent two types of “twittering,” if you will, that an individual engages in. One is destructive and detrimental, spreading negativity and suspicion while sowing division. This is the bird that is killed. There is no place for a talebearer-attitude in society. Gossip should be uprooted — full stop. But then there is another type of twittering that one does. This is the way of the world, to discuss ideas and politics, thoughts and feelings, opinions and critiques. It is constructive to some degree, and it spans all walks of life. This is the free bird we set upon the field, but before then, we dip it into the blood of the other bird, reminding it of the risk it bears.
Birds epitomize freedom, soaring across empty skies. Yet, once trapped, birds cannot escape — they lack the power to do so. Perhaps this is what the Torah is telling us. The two birds that lie within us must find their balance, their place in the harness. Some birds must die, and other birds must soar. Freedom and fortitude are the secret to healing for the metzora, and so, too, for us.