Metzora – Signs are Overrated

This week’s Torah portion of Metzora discusses the purification of a metzora, one who received spiritual leprosy for one of seven reasons listed in Erechin 16a: lashon hara (slander), murder, swearing falsely, illicit relations, haughtiness, stealing, and stinginess (tzaras ayin). The Torah then relates part of the process of purification: “Then the kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. The kohen shall order, and one shall slaughter the one bird into an earthenware vessel, over spring water. [As for] the live bird, he shall take it, and then the cedar stick, the strip of crimson [wool], and the hyssop, and, along with the live bird, he shall dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the spring water. He shall then sprinkle seven times upon the person being cleansed from tzara’as, and he shall cleanse him. He shall then send away the live bird into the [open] field” (Vayikra 14:4-7).

The Tur HaShalem explains that after the first bird is slaughtered, we sprinkle its blood on the altar seven times, representing the seven types of sins for one can contract tzaraas. The Tur goes on to explain the reason why the metzora has to bring two birds; the bird that is sent away alludes to his tzaraas being sent away, and the slaughtered bird is an indication that the tzaraas shouldn’t come back (Vayikra Rabba 16:9). However, the bird that is sent away also hints to the fact that if one reverts back to his or her prohibitive ways then the tzaraas will come back, just as the bird can fly back. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Rokeach elaborates a bit more on this subject and suggests, “Why does the pasuk say, ‘and the live bird shall be sent away? Hashem gave a sign, that just as the bird that was slaughtered and buried in the ground cannot move from its place, so to the tzaraas cannot return upon him anymore. But don’t say that since [the tzaraas] has left it’s impossible for it to come back so now I will go back to my old bad ways [therefore] focus on the live bird, just as it can come back, so to if you stray away from your repentance, in the end [the tzaraas] will come back upon you. That is why one was slaughtered and one was sent away.” (Click here fore Hebrew text.)
 There is a need for a sign or hint from Heaven through the slaughtered bird, as the poor person just went through a very traumatizing experience, albeit a deserved one. He had this painful, ugly ailment on his body, was shunned from society, and even had to leave his family. He was in a state of mourning and excommunication by Heaven, so the slaughtered bird is a comfort; knowing that Hashem has sent a sign that tzaraas, which afflicted him, is gone and not coming back. But why is the second bird that was let go needed? Isn’t it obvious that if a person sins again he will be repunished? There is no doubt that if a person sins he deserves the punishment of lashes; for example if he eats non-kosher, or wears shaatnez, etc. then he was deserving of lashes each time, even if he repeats the sin. These acts are punishable by the Jewish courts if done on purpose; so why would these circumstances be any different? Why would anyone think that once they are punished once, no matter how severe it was, that they now have an exemption and can do the sin again without any repercussions?

It would seem, though, that what’s different in this circumstance is the hint, or “sign from Heaven,” that the tzaraas is gone. People get all caught up in watching for signs and relying upon them that they come to actually think that they can’t be punished again. They then rationalize that they are doing nothing wrong if they go back to their old ways.

The first sign is needed to comfort the penitent who was so severely traumatized, and the second bird is needed as a hint and reminder that the person can get tzaraas again, which will hopefully be an impetus to not revert back to his old bad ways.