The Torah in Parashat Metzora outlines the process of purification required of a metzora after his infection has been cured, which includes the slaughtering of a bird over an earthenware utensil containing “mayim chayim” – literally, “live waters” (14:5). The simple meaning of this expression is that the water must have been drawn from a live spring or stream, as opposed to a body of still water. Torat Kohanim specifies that the term “mayim chayim” excludes four kinds of water: mayim meluchim – salty ocean water; mayim poshrim – heated water; mayim mekhazvim – water from a spring which occasionally stops flowing; mayim menatfim – water that drips slowly, rather than flowing in a steady current.
Malbim explains this definition of “mayim chayim” by noting that the adjective “chai” – which usually means “alive” – can also mean “healthy.” For example, a verse in Sefer Yehoshua (5:8) refers to Benei Yisrael’s recovery from circumcision with the term “chayotam.” And in Sefer Yeshayahu (38:21), the healing of King Chizkiyahu’s boils is described with the expression “ve-yechi.” Accordingly, Malbim writes, Chazal deduced that the “mayim chayim” required for the metzora’s purification ceremony must be “healthy,” and may thus be neither salty nor altered through heating. Secondly, the term “chayim” has the connotation of movement and vitality, and thus Chazal excluded water that does not constantly flow, or that drips slowly.
As for the reason underlying this aspect of the metzora’s purification, Chizkuni and Rabbeinu Yosef Bekhor Shor suggest that the bird is slaughtered over this water because of the symbolism of the blood mixing with “live” water. The blood of the slaughtered bird symbolizes death, and thus represents the metzora himself, who is considered to have “died.” (The Gemara in Masekhet Nedarim (64b) famously lists a metzora among those who are considered, in a sense, “dead” during their lifetime.) The mixing of this blood with “mayim chayim” thus signifies the metzora’s reentry into society. Upon being declared impure, the metzora is required to live in quarantine, outside his city (13:47), and now, by undergoing his process of purification, he becomes eligible to rejoin society, to once again be part of the “live waters,” the vital, bustling community to which he had belonged. And thus the slaughtered bird’s blood is mixed with “mayim chayim,” representing the “dead” individual’s “resurrection,” his return to “life” by reentering his city and his community.
This symbol might perhaps be seen as a powerful expression of people’s ability to rebuild and rehabilitate themselves. Even the metzora, who is regarded as “dead,” is later “resurrected,” brought back to life, by being welcomed back into the society from which he had been ostracized due to his misdeeds. The metzora’s rehabilitation assures us that we, too, are capable of “resurrecting” ourselves, of growing and rebuilding after periods of decline. Even in times of hardship or failure, when we have fallen into a state of “lifelessness,” we must trust in our ability to recover, revitalize, and become “mayim chayim” once again.