Diaspora Reading: On the Metzora

In addition to two paradigms of one’s spiritual fate, there are also two paradigms of one’s spiritual life.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism ציפורים באגמון החולה
ציפורים באגמון החולה
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Purification of a Metzora Muchlat, a person with a more acute manifestation of Tzora'at, features the taking of two birds, slaughtering one of the birds and sprinkling its blood seven times on the hand of the Metzora, and sending away the other bird, never to return. (Before being sent away, this bird is held together with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson fabric, and they are utilized to commence purification of the Metzora.) This procedure bears a striking similarity with Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim, the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur, which features the taking of two goats, slaughtering one goat as a Chattat (sin offering) and sprinkling its blood seven times inside and then outside the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim (Holy of Holies), and sending the other goat to the desert, never to return. Additionally, the Halacha is that the two birds used to purify the Metzora should look identical and be purchased together, each for the same price as the other. This exact same rule applies to the two goats of Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim as well. What is the significance of this unmistakable resemblance between purification of a Metzora Muchlat and Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim?

The two goats of Yom Kippur represent two spiritual extremes of the human persona. An individual can dedicate himself toward the service of God, such that his being and deeds are saturated with kedushah and taharah (holiness and purity). Such a person is symbolized by the goat of Yom Kippur that is offered as a Chattat, for the person has chosen to draw near to God in sanctity and has conducted his life in a meritorious fashion. Such a person is inscribed in the Sefer Ha-Chayim, the Book of Life, on Yom Kippur. Such a person is welcomed by God in His inner sanctum, where any sin committed by the person will assuredly be erased. This is the message of the Chattat.

On the other hand, an individual can become comprehensively enmeshed with sin and thereby become alienated and distant from God. This is represented by the goat of Yom Kippur that is sent to the desert. The only hope for such a person is dramatic repentance.

In addition to two paradigms of one’s spiritual fate, there are also two paradigms of one’s spiritual life. A person can conduct his life as one grand selfish competition, seeking to promote himself even at the cost of others, putting down and taking advantage of his fellows as deemed necessary to get ahead, viewing himself as against the world in all that he does, and always looking over his shoulder to make sure that others do not take away success that could have been attained by him, with his lifelong goal being that of “coming out on top". This attitude and trajectory are sure to permeate and critically impact both one's performance of Mitzvot Bein Adam La-Makom, mitzvot that are centered on one’s relationship with God, as well as one's performance of Mitzvot Bein Adam La-Chaveiro, mitzvot of interpersonal relationships.

Alternatively, one can conduct himself as a giving person, viewing others with favor and love, happy when everyone succeeds, and doing his utmost to facilitate the wellbeing of the community as a whole. Being satisfied with what one has and experiencing joy when both he and others accomplish is the attitude of such a person.

These two approaches are represented by the two birds of the Metzora.

The bird that is immediately slaughtered represents the person who cannot get along with others, as his goal in life is to get ahead of others in all spheres. Such a person's spiritual life is actually one of spiritual death. Condemnation to a life of spiritual death is the lot of the unrepentant Metzora, who besmirches others and does not hesitate to inflict damage in his selfish quest for personal, exclusive success. (The Talmud [Arachin 16a] enumerates a list of sins and character traits that invite the affliction of Tzora'at. All of these sins and character traits manifest selfishness and harm to others in fulfillment of self-centered aspirations.)

The second bird reflects the opposite values. Adjoined with three other objects, this bird is used to purify someone. The hind section of this bird, along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson fabric, is dipped in blood and water in order to bestow taharah, purification, on a person who is afflicted with Tzora'at. This bird is joined in cooperation with other articles and is sullied, so that someone can experience a mitzvah and become tahor (pure). This bird represents the graciousness and sacrifice of one who works with others and seeks their wellbeing, centered not on self, but on fulfilling his divine mandate and calling - on humbly serving God rather than his personal drives. This is the bird that soars away alive and to freedom, for it is not laden with negativity and is not focused on keeping anyone down.

This is the beautiful, positive and liberating message of true taharah. May we all aspire to its realization.