We read in the beginning of Parashat Metzora the procedure required after a metzora, who had been declared impure due to a skin discoloration, is cured of his condition and wishes to regain his status of purity. This process begins with a ceremony involving two birds – one of which is slaughtered, whereupon the second is dipped in the first bird’s blood, and later set free (14:5-7). Rashi (14:4) comments that birds are used in this process because their chirping represents the faculty of speech, and the tzara’at skin infection, as the Gemara (Arakhin 16b) famously teaches, would befall a person as a punishment for the particular sin of lashon ha-ra – disparaging speech about other people
The Sefat Emet (Metzora, 5661), developing this symbolism further, explains that sins of speech come in two varieties – speaking words which ought not be spoken, and failing to speak words which should be spoken. Just as the Torah forbids using our faculty of speech for gossip and spreading negative information about others, the Torah demands that we use this precious asset for mitzva purposes – prayer, Torah study and instruction, and encouraging people through praise, compliments and the like. The slaughtering of the first bird, the Sefat Emet explains, represents the need to “destroy” and eliminate our forbidden speech. The second bird, which is released, symbolizes the obligation to use our faculty of speech the proper way, for positive and constructive purposes.
The Tolna Rebbe suggested applying this symbolic understanding of the two birds to the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Kiddushin (57a) regarding the status of these birds vis-à-vis consumption. The Gemara establishes that the second bird, which remains alive, is permissible for consumption, because, as Rava explains, “lo amra Torah ‘shalach’ le-takala” – “the Torah did not say, ‘send’ as a stumbling block.” The very fact that the Torah requires releasing this bird into the open indicates that it is permissible for consumption, as otherwise, somebody might catch and wish to eat this bird not knowing about its forbidden status. It is inconceivable that the Torah would mandate sending away the bird “as a stumbling block,” in a manner that could lead to sin, and so necessarily, this bird must be permissible for consumption. The Tolna Rebbe remarked that if, as the Sefat Emet explains, this bird represents our using our faculty of speech for mitzva purposes, then the Gemara’s comment perhaps assumes great symbolic significance. It instructs that when we “send” the “bird” – when we use our mouths for prayer, study, and other mitzvot – we must ensure that this activity does not become a “stumbling block.” The Tolna Rebbe gives the example of a devoted student whose scholarly accomplishments lead him to arrogance and condescension, or to belittle others. The Gemara emphasizes that the “bird” we “release,” the mitzvot we perform with our mouths, must not be a source of “takala,” of wrongdoing. As important as it is to actively involve ourselves in valuable and meaningful pursuits, it is no less important to ensure that these pursuits do not cause us to “stumble” and hurt others along the way.