SALT - Tuesday 29 Nisan 5777 - April 25, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The purification process required of a metzora, as we read in the beginning of Parashat Metzora, includes the slaughtering of a bird, and then dipping a second bird in the blood, after which the live bird is set free.  Rashi (14:4), citing the Gemara (Arakhin 16b), comments that this process includes birds as a symbol of lashon ha-ra – gossip and negative speech about others, the sin for which tzara’at is generally seen as a punishment.  The bird’s chirping symbolizes the chattering of the gossip, and thus the metzora must bring birds as part of his process of atonement for this offense.

            We might also add another dimension to the symbolic significance of these two birds.  Setting the second bird free may perhaps symbolize the metzora himself, who is now being “set free” after his period of isolation.  The process of becoming declared a metzora often involves a period of hesger, during which the individual must remain quarantined, and once he is declared a metzora, he must live in isolation until his infection heals and he completes the entire purification process.  Now, as he regains his status of purity, he is being “set free” from this long period of seclusion, symbolized by the live bird being released from captivity.  However, the live bird is not set free until it is dipped in the blood of the slaughtered bird.  The bird flies away with a bloodstain, as though reminding the bird that whereas it is given the opportunity to continue living, its partner, so-to-speak, was killed.  Symbolically, perhaps, this bloodstain carried by the live bird reminds the metzora that although he is being “set free,” and will now be allowed to live normally, he will carry with him a “stain” of the “blood” he has shed, the pain and harm he has caused others.  Just as the live bird flies away with a reminder of the death of the other bird, similarly, the metzora is allowed to resume ordinary life – but on condition that he remains ever mindful of the full extent of the harm he had caused.

            Significantly, the Torah prescribes a weeklong waiting period following this ritual, after which – on the eighth day – the metzora brings special sacrifices to complete his purification.  We might suggest that after seeing the image of the bird flying away with the blood of the slaughtered bird, the metzora must spend some time reflecting upon the long-term consequences of his misdeeds.  Before he is “set free,” he is required to take the time to understand the full extent of the harm he caused, thus ensuring that once he is “released” from the “captivity” of tzara’at, he will live with greater awareness and sensitivity, and avoid all forms of harmful speech and conduct.