The Torah section of this week, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus chapters 12-15), discusses the laws of tzaraas, usually translated as “leprosy.” Tzaraas was a spiritual illness whose identifying mark was a white patch or patches appearing on the skin of a person, the walls of a home or on a garment. This patch, plus several secondary symptoms, determined the person as being temporarily “impure” and required him or her to separate from the public and undergo an intense program of introspection and spiritual healing.
Once the symptoms of the illness were gone, a detailed process of purification would begin, following which the person was deemed pure once again and restored to his untarnished condition.
A unique and strange service was employed for this task. Two birds were brought forth. One was slaughtered with its blood poured into an earthenware vessel of spring water; the other bird, together with a piece of cedar wood, crimson thread (a wool dyed with pigment made from an insect or snail) and a hyssop (a very low plant) were dipped into the blood-water mixture and sprinkled upon the person being purified seven times. The second bird was then sent free “upon the open field.” What is the significance behind this apparently bizarre ritual?
The sages explain(1): Because the plague of tzaraas (leprosy) comes in punishment for evil and malicious talk, defaming another human being which is an act of chatter, therefore birds are needed for his purification, because birds chatter continuously with a twittering sound.”
The question, of course, is why is the chattering of birds symbolic of disparaging talk? And why was one bird sacrificed while the other was set free to continue its life?
What is unique about the chattering of birds is that many of them imitate human speech. Talking birds have varying degrees of intelligence and communication capabilities. Some, like the crow, a highly intelligent bird, are only able to mimic a few words and phrases, while some budgerigars have been observed to have a vocabulary of more than one thousand words. As a young child, each day at 4:00 p.m. when I would return home from school, our resident parrot waited to greet me. As I entered the door, Skoopy – as we named him - would begin jumping around his cage and excitingly chirp my name “Yosef Yitzchak.” Now, Skoopy could not say “Yosef Yitzchak,” my full name, so he would instead call me: “Tsefeetzak.” It was delightful to return home each afternoon having my name repeated some 10-20 times with so much zest!
Yet, like most parrots, Skoopy could only mimic fragments of my name. Even the birds that know how to imitate human conversation could usually learn to chatter only fragments of human dialogue and conversation.
This is why the Torah employs the birds in attempting to heal us from malicious talk. When we speak disparagingly about other people, the conversation may be clever, engaging and certainly “juicy.” Yet the words being spoken are broken, coming from human beings who are themselves broken. Individuals engaged in negative conversation about others are akin to birds: they are mimicking human language; they may even be employing sophisticated verbiage, but in truth their words are not human compositions; they merely imitate human beings. When you are in touch with your humaneness, your words carry a ring of majesty and dignity to them. Your words are candid, real, deep, pure, coming from the humanness within your being. Not accidentally does the Targum (the authoritative Aramaic translation of the Bible) translate the phrase “a living creature”, descriptive of the first man, as “a speaking spirit” (ruach memallelah(2)). To be human is to emulate the Divine who created the universe through words. We too have the power to create worlds, embrace souls and heal hearts through words.
But when we are scared of being human - genuinely human - we resort to malicious talk that defames and degrades other people. In our desperate need to feel better about ourselves, we describe the lowliness of others. In our pressing need to muse ourselves, we cut down others.
It is no wonder why following such a conversation an incurable emptiness sets into our psyche. G-d created the world through words and He gave us the power to destroy it through words. When we employ that power, we ourselves also feel broken.
The Talmud says(3): “Evil speech kills three people: the person who says it, the person about whom it is said, and the person who listens to it - and the person who listens to it is worse than the one who says it.”
So the healing of the leper involves two birds. One bird is slaughtered and its blood poured into a container of spring water. This represents the blood and destruction caused by malicious talk and how it tarnishes the vibrancy and freshness of life.
Now the second bird is dipped into the blood and then sent free to continue to chirp freely. What this symbolizes is that now we must learn how to sublimate our fragmented words and their broken consequences. It is not enough to stop talking; rather, we need to go back and transform our fragmented language into wholesome communication; our mediocre conversations into authentic dialogue.
The second bird teaches us that we are accountable not only for our evil speech; we are also called to task for all the words we could have said but we did not. “The word you had not sense to say, who knows how grand it might have rung?” The second bird is thus sent away to the field in order to chirp and spread the importance of gentle healing and positive speech.
A man who was not careful about his speech came to a Rabbi. He had decided to change and needed advice on how to go about it. The Rabbi gave him a very peculiar answer. “Take a feather pillow into the street and release its feathers in every direction.” The man was perplexed, but his resolve was firm to do as he was advised and change his life. After doing as he was told he returned to the Rabbi. “Now what should I do?” he asked. “Go back into the street and collect all of the feathers to the very last one,” was the reply. Again the man made his way into the street and began the daunting task. At his wits end, he returned to the Rabbi dejected reporting his inability to follow his last words of advice. “Remember,” said the Rabbi, “that your words are like those feathers. Once they leave your mouth they never return. Make sure the words you allow out are ones you won’t have to go chasing after.”
1) Talmud Erkin 16a, quoted in Rashi to Leviticus 14:4. How about the other components used in this ritual? “Because he has exalted himself like a cedar... he should humble himself like a grass” (Midrash Tanchuma quoted in Rashi ibid.). The crimson thread too -- made of wool dyed with pigment made from an insect or snail -- represented the same idea as the hyssop, a lowly bush -- the need for humility and sensitivity (see Rashi ibid.) 2) Genesis 2:8. 3) Erkin 15b.