Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )
The twin Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora contend with many physiological phenomena - some commonplace and natural, others rare and sinister: Everything from childbirth and common bodily excretions to skin lesions, leprosy and strange afflictions of garments and homes. Although these are all physical, if not physiological conditions, the Torah prescribes a spiritual response: These phenomena are treated not (or not only) from the obvious physical-medical perspective, but from what may be called a "Temple perspective" as well, in which different physical conditions generate various degrees of distance or separation from the holy epicenter of the Israelite camp.
Of all the phenomena enumerated in these chapters, leprosy engenders the most extreme reaction: The leper is completely separated, not only from society but from the Temple as well. Some rabbinic commentaries explain this quarantine as a safeguard against physical contagion,(1) while most commentaries see it as a means of preventing spiritual contagion: (2) Rabbinic tradition connects the leprous condition with inappropriate speech or gossip, hence the need for quarantine/excommunication. In either case, the Torah maps out the road to back, a ritual that allows the leper to return, step by step, to society in general, and to the Temple in particular. Closer examination of the details of this ritual offers tremendous insight into the Jewish concept of rehabilitation.
An essential element of the ritual is the offering of two birds (Vayikra 14:4). The Talmud explains that the bird and its incessant tweeting is symbolic of the sin of excessive chatter, gossip and idle talk that brought about the leprosy and its resultant punishment of isolation:
R. Samuel b. Nadav, the son-in-law of R. Hanina, asked of R. Hanina (according to others, he asked of R. Joshua b. Levi): In what way is the leper different (than other sinners) that the Torah said: 'He shall dwell alone; outside of the camp shall his dwelling be?' He (through his gossip) separated a husband from his wife, a man from his neighbor, therefore said the Torah: 'He shall dwell alone.' R. Joshua b. Levi said: In what way is the leper different (from others who require penitence) that the Torah said: [He shall bring] two live clean birds so that he may become pure again'? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: He did the work of a babbler, therefore let him offer a babbler as a sacrifice. (Arachin 16b)
The rabbis in the Mishna taught that a specific type of bird was offered in these cases: dror.(3) The word dror means "freedom;" the birds that the leper brings are "freebirds." In Psalms, the dror is identified as the bird that makes its home near the Temple.
How lovely are your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the bird has found a house, the dror a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God. Happy are those who dwell in Your house, ever praising you. Selah. (Psalm 84:2-6)
Here, the freebird is a creature that experiences and is aware of its angst, and longs for rehabilitation, a bird that wishes to return home - to the Temple.
This is a far cry from the "freebird" of popular culture, made famous in the rock ballad by Lynyrd Skynyrd. In this view, the free bird is caught in a never-ending cycle of wandering and rootlessness, isolation and seclusion. Above all else, this "freedom" is achieved through the inability or unwillingness to change:
Lord knows, I can't change
Lord help me, I can't change
Lord I can't change
Won't you fly high free bird - yeah(4)
The Torah's view of freedom is precisely the opposite: Real freedom means the ability to change. Real freedom means the ability to go home - back to the source of life, to a place very close to God. The leper, a habitual gossiper guilty of excessive speech who is forced to leave his home, to exist in isolation, separated from society and from the holiness of the Temple, is capable of change - change that sets him free and allows him to reconnect with family and community, with man and God. Only then does he become truly free, and, like the freebird of the Psalms, he can go home - physically and spiritually.
1. See comments of Hizkuni Vayikra 13:46.
2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah Tum'at Tzara`at - Chapter 16 Halacha 10: "Tzara'at is a collective term including many afflictions that do not resemble each other. For the whitening of a person's skin is called tzara'at, as is the falling out of some of the hair of his head or beard, and the change of the color of clothes or houses. This change that affects clothes and houses which the Torah described with the general term of tzara'at is not a natural occurrence. Instead it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hora, "undesirable speech."
3. Mishna Nega'im 14:1.
4. Songwriters: Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. Freebird lyrics (c)Universal Music Publishing Group.