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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshios Tazria/Metzora 5775 "Two Birds"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman related the following story:

A number of years ago Rabbi Wachsman was in Miami assisting his ailing father. One morning he accompanied his father to a local shul where virtually all the members were retired and elderly, aside for one young man who noticeably stuck out.

After davening ended the young man - who obviously recognized Rabbi Wachmsan - approached Rabbi Wachsman and asked him if he could offer his wife some words of encouragement. They walked to the entrance of the shul where a young woman was sitting in a wheelchair. It was apparent that she had some serious health issues. Rabbi Wachsman felt somewhat uneasy conversing with them in front of his father so he wrote down the man’s number and told him that they would be in touch.

Later that day, Rabbi Wachsman went to meet with them. The woman explained to him that, despite her young age, she had suffered a stroke. [The chances of such a thing occurring are one in a couple hundred thousand.] She had become completely paralyzed on one side of her body and could not speak at all. The doctor had told her that with a great amount of therapy, over time she would hopefully regain most of the faculties she had lost. However, her speech would likely be the last faculty she would regain, if ever.

A group of her close friends decided to undertake a “machsom l’fi” in merit of her recovery. They accepted upon themselves to be extremely vigilant not to speak any negative words, especially loshon hora (gossip) for a few hours each day over a certain period of time.

Incredibly, on the day that their machsom l’fi ended, a half hour after the allotted time she regained complete usage of speech! She herself explained to Rabbi Wachsman (in perfectly un-slurred speech) that she is in constant contact with others who suffer similar conditions and she can testify that speech is always the last faculty to return.

The disease of tzara’as is most unique for although it is a physical malady it is the external manifestation of spiritual sin[1]. One afflicted with tzara’as had to follow a precise protocol. He had to show the afflicted areas to a kohain and then, if condemned, he had to dwell outside the main community in isolation for a defined period of time.

When the tzara’as finally healed, the afflicted individual had to undergo a purification process. Among the other materials and animals that he had to bring to the Temple, he was obligated to bring two birds. “The kohain shall command; and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds…”[2] The Torah explains that one bird was ritually slaughtered. Part of its blood was sprinkled on the Altar while the rest of the blood was sprinkled on the individual. The other bird was then set free in an open field.

Rashi explains that because tzara’as was commonly a punishment for gossiping, the purification process involved live birds who chirp and twitter.

What was the purpose of the second bird; the symbolism of the bird’s chirping could be accomplished with one bird? Furthermore, why was it necessary to bring a bird to the Temple, only to set it free as soon as its companion was slaughtered?

The Apiryon[3] offers a poignant answer: The gemara[4] states, “Rabbi Yitzchok said: What is the meaning of the verse “Indeed silence? Speak righteousness. Judge people with fairness.”[5] What is the trade of man in this world? He should make himself like a mute. Perhaps you will think that even includes speaking words of Torah? This is why the verse continues, ‘Speak righteousness’ [i.e. talk in Torah study]. Perhaps the Torah scholar is permitted to become arrogant? This is why it continues, ‘Judge people with fairness’.”

Ramban explains that the purpose of bringing an offering to the Temple was to create an emotional experience. As the owner of the offering watched his animal being slaughtered, its blood caught and sprinkled, and its limbs burnt on the Altar, he would realize that the innocent animal was merely a replacement for himself. He was culpable of not being vigilant enough in his mitzvah-observance, and therefore it was his blood that should have been sprinkled and his limbs that should be burning on the Altar. That experience would surely penetrate and resonate with him for a long time.

Thus, according to Ramban, the point of offering a korbon was so that it would serve as a symbolic message to the owner, a vicarious atonement for his sin.

If the metzora were to offer merely one bird which was slaughtered on the Altar, he would conclude that speech is dangerous, and that he had to learn to always remain silent. However, that is a mistake. One must realize that although negative speech is extremely detrimental and can literally destroy lives and tear relationships asunder, when used properly it can have the opposite effect as well. Words spoken with compassion, empathy, understanding, and love can offer encouragement, advice, and the expression of one’s innermost feelings.

Therefore, the metzora must bring a second bird to the Temple and then set it free. As the owner watched the bird soar upward chirping its melodious song, it would symbolize to him that he must utilize his ability to speak properly to create, build, and elevate.

The pasuk in Mishlei[6] expresses this idea when it states, “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue”.

One bird was led off the slaughter, the other bird was set free. It is indeed a powerful analogy to the power of words and speech.[7]

The commentators call attention to the fact that the aforementioned gemara refers to silence as a ‘trade’. Rabbi Avorhom Erlanger shlita[8] quotes the gemara Kiddushin[9] which details the responsibilities that every father has in regards to his son – circumcise him, redeem him (if he is a firstborn), teach him Torah, marry him off, and teach him a trade. Rashi explains that if a father fails to teach his son a trade the son will have no means with which to support himself or his family, and he will invariably resort to abusing and stealing from others.

Rabbi Erlanger explains that it is in this sense that the art of silence is called a trade. Just as one must learn a trade in order to have means for physical sustenance, so too must he be provided with the necessary means to sustain himself spiritually. One who is not taught how to utilize his powerful ability of speech is no less a danger to society than one who lacks physical sustenance. In life there are countless examples of people who destroy lives (their own as well as the lives of others) because they lack verbal restraint.

Just as parents are willing to expend tremendous amounts of money and resources towards the education of their children, so must they invest energy and resources to teach their children how - and when - to speak!

The Chofetz Chaim[10] wrote that in order to learn a trade and become a professional one must have experience and a great deal of training and practice. To learn the “trade of silence” one must also have practice, training, and experience.

The message to the metzora is that he must not only learn how to curb and restrain his speech, but he must also learn how to use it properly. If one chooses to remain silent at the wrong time the results can be damaging, if not downright disastrous.

During his fierce battles for racial equality, Martin Luther King Jr. once quipped that, "In the end, we will remember, not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

His words ring true in the ears of the Jewish people. A very moving song from the first JEP album[11] captured this idea with the haunting words of its chorus, “For six million tears fell to the ground; the world stood still… didn't make a sound!”

Time and again we have been subject to horrific cruelties at the mercy of our adversaries, and virtually no one has stood up in our defense. Indeed at times silence is anything but golden.

On the other hand, we are all too aware of the tragedies that have occurred, and occur, on account of slander and gossip.

In the haggadah we state that our patriarch Yaakov descended to Egypt, “forced based on the word”. Most commentators explain that Yaakov was compelled to descend to Egypt against his will by “the Word” and Instruction of G-d. The Plotzker Maggid[12] however, offered a novel interpretation. He explained that Yaakov was forced to descend to Egypt as a result of the words of slander that Yosef had spoken against his brothers. [It was those slanderous reports that set the trajectory in motion which eventually landed Yosef in Egypt as viceroy and Yaakov’s ultimate descent to Egypt to meet his forlorn son.]

The message to the healing metzora is that as he resumes his place in society he must learn - not only the art of silence, but also the art of speech.

Words! Speech!

To build, or destroy!

To slaughter, or to soar above the horizon!

“The trait of man in this world”

“For the person being purified two live clean birds”

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[1] Rabbi Hirsch explains in detail that the common translation of tzara’as as leprosy is completely erroneous.

[2] Vayikra 14:4

[3] Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886)

[4] Chullin 89a

[5] Tehillim 58:2

[6] 18:21

[7] The Apiryon adds that the reason why the bird is set free specifically in a field is to allude to an idea expressed in the gemara (Eiruvin 21b). The Gemara compares a Torah scholar to a farmer. Just like the farmer ekes out his living by the sweat of his brow working in the field, so too the Torah scholar often sacrifices material comforts, in his relentless pursuit to achieve success in his Torah studies.

The bird was set free in a field to symbolize this metaphor. Speech is a vital and invaluable gift when it is used for Torah study by scholars who are tantamount to the farmer in the field.

[8] Birchas Avrohom –ma’amarim, vol. 3

[9] 29a

[10] Shmiras Halashon 2:1

[11] JEP (Jewish Education Program) sings “Reach Out”, released January 1980

[12] “Maggid Tzedek” (quoted in Tallilei Oros haggadah).

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