Lessons for Humanity
from the Weekly Parshah
LEARNING HOW TO SPEAK
It is appropriate that our parshah, METZORA, with its deep lessons about the purity of speech, is always read shortly before or after the festival of Pesach, whose name signifies, "The mouth speaks". Sefer Yetzirah teaches that the human faculty associated with the month of Nissan is speech. The Seder night, climax of so many arduous preparations, is an exercise in speech: HAGGADAH, "telling". The story we tell -- the story of our people and of our own inner self -- is at the furthest remove from self-aggrandizement. The story starts with shame, tracing our descent into the depths of degradation, pain and anguish before our miraculous delivery from Egypt. For this, we glory not in ourselves but only in the Holy One, turning our night of "telling" into one of song and praise to G-d.
During most of the recital of the Haggadah, the MATZAH -- the "Bread of Humility" -- lies exposed before our eyes. This is to impress upon us that we must take a humble view of ourselves and our place in G-d's great scheme, for this the key to using our faculty of speech, man's defining faculty -- in holiness and purity. "Not for our sake, O G-d, not for our sake but for Your Name's sake give glory.!"
Speech is truly a double-edged weapon, a "tree of good and evil" the "taste" of which is literally in our mouths. Words can do so much good -- to shine the truth, to encourage, build and strengthen those with whom we live and work... But words can also be used for so much evil -- to deceive, to confuse, to hurt, denigrate and destroy. It is when we are puffed up with CHAMETZ, the "leaven" of our own self-importance and rectitude that we are liable to use words aggressively, angrily, without sensitivity. But when we remove the CHAMETZ of self-importance from our hearts in the knowledge that we are G-d's creation -- no more and no less than everyone else -- we can learn to use our amazing faculty of speech with wisdom and love. Then we can join G-d as partners in the work of creation and the revelation of His truth. Words literally rule over our lives. Can we rule over the words that leave our mouths? Will we rule with arrogance or with humility?
The METZORA, literally the "leper", is symbolic of one who abuses his power of speech, being MOTZI-RA: "bringing out evil". The previous parshah, TAZRIA, presented an elaborate pathology of the diseases of the soul, such as the "leprous" mark of SE-EIS, inflated pride, or BAHERES, the shining white light in which some people constantly seek to present themselves. The first step in the cure for such illnesses of the soul is to receive an objective "diagnosis" from the Kohen-Priest, a clear statement that the mark is TA-ME, impure. Until we name our negative traits correctly, we cannot begin to heal them. Only when we acknowledge the impure for what it is can we take the first step towards purification. As we saw in last week's parshah, healing of the wounds of the soul requires heart-searching and contrition, which is why the METZORA was sent for a period of into isolation "outside the camp".
This week's parshah of METZORA begins with the highly picturesque ceremony with which the healed leper begins his process of purification so as to be able to return to normal life "in the camp" with other people. The ceremony required two sparrows together with a block of cedar wood, red-dyed wool thread and hyssop. One of the birds was slaughtered into an earthenware flask of living water. Then the other bird was taken with the cedar, the red wool and hyssop, and together they were dipped into the blood and water in the flask, which were sprinkled seven times on the leper, after which the living bird was sent free (Lev. 14:4-7.).
Can you imagine how hard it was to catch the sparrows in the first place in order to carry out the ceremony? As cats and anyone else who has ever tried to catch a sparrow all know, it is terribly easy for sparrows to fly away. This is why the Hebrew name of the sparrow is DROR, "freedom". The very difficulty of catching these birds, which are notorious chatterers, comes to impress upon the METZORA the great importance of catching our speech and chatter BEFORE they fly off. We must learn to take control over what we say, in order to use words intentionally, productively, lovingly, to good effect. Rashi in his commentary on our parshah explains that the wood of the lofty cedar tree was brought "because leprous plagues come on account of arrogance. What is the remedy? The person must lower himself down from his pride like a worm [from whose blood the red dye of the wool thread was derived] and a hyssop" (Rashi on Lev. 14:4).
The use of the two birds in the ceremony is bound up with the double-edged nature of speech, which can be used for either good or evil. The METZORA had to watch as one of the chattering birds was slaughtered in front of his very eyes, teaching him that he must simply kill his evil talk for all time. However, this does not mean that he may not speak at all in future. On the contrary, once he has learned the lesson of humility contained in the cedar, the hyssop and the scarlet thread, the second bird goes free! When we release ourselves from the bonds of pride and arrogance that enslave us, we are freer than ever to explore the great power of pure speech -- "over the face of the field".
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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