Our 21st century minds may find the purification process of the metzora unsettling.
“Take two live birds, cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop. Have one bird killed in an earthen vessel over running water. Dip the remaining items (including the other live bird) in the blood of the first bird. Sprinkle the mixture on the one being purified, then let the live bird go free.” (14:4-7)
It is obviously a highly symbolic formula, and each ingredient carries a deeper message for the former metzora looking to rejoin society. What most fascinates me is the live bird that goes free.
Every other Torah ritual that involves an animal results in the animal’s death. Only the effort to remove tzara’at of the body and of the house utilizes a bird that is released, alive and well, with a mini bathing in blood to serve as a memory of his experience. Why is its life spared?
On a very simple level, it could represent the idea that just as the bird’s life is spared and it goes free, the metzora could have been punished otherwise, perhaps losing his life, but he is now free.
The Kli Yakar takes the significance of the two birds to a much deeper level. He explains that a person experiences two types of speech — prohibited and mitzvah-oriented. The prohibited speech, which includes lashon hara, is represented by the chirping bird that is slaughtered over the earthen vessel under running water.
If he is a real person, he will have a weakened spirit at the sight of the bird that is taking his place.
The bird that lives and is set free represents the words of Torah and prayers that a person may have uttered. They are to be combined with cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop which represent one’s submission and humility. Even when studying and praying one’s heart should have that feeling of being broken and submissive.
The sprinkling of the blood-soaked living bird upon the healed metzora is meant for him to see the possibility of repenting for past deeds, and taking upon himself a sincere effort to improve in the future.
Picture the image of a bird that is released from captivity. Imagine it spreading its wings as it flies away. This is what the live bird is meant to represent to the metzora.
Previously published in 2011.