A Word of Torah - Parashat Metzora

A few years ago I passed the age at which my mother died. Doing so changed my perspective on my own life. I still want to think of my continuing good health as an entitlement, but it’s hard to do so when you have lived longer than the one who gave you life. Indeed, if there is one prayer that I utter more than any other, it is the one about the nikavim-nikavim, halulim-halulim - the complex of passageways and orifices that make up the human body, the proper functioning of each one being necessary for our existence.

I thought about that passage while reading of the purification ritual for one who has been cured of tzara-at. Often mistranslated as leprosy, I long ago gave up trying to understand what disease or collection of diseases tzara-at might be. Instead, it has become for me a stand-in for any serious illness that threatens our being. As such, the purification ritual is a kind of celebration of deliverance. It requires cedar wood, hyssop, crimson thread and two birds, one of which is slaughtered and its blood collected. The priest is instructed to “take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson thread and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the running (literally, living) water. (Lev. 14:6) The contrasts here - between strength and weakness (the cedar and the hyssop), between life and death (the two birds, the blood and the water) - compel the attention.

They also bring to my mind Ramban’s description of the purpose of the animal sacrifices. The process of making the offering, he contends, should remind us of the manner in which we have sinned. In offering these sacrifices, says Ramban, one “should realize that he has sinned against his God with his body and soul and that his blood should be spilled and his body burned were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator.” (Ramban on Lev. 1:9)

Ramban’s analysis has a little too much Puritan hell-fire in it for my taste. Nevertheless, if we see ourselves in the sacrificed animals, the two birds of this purification offering create a new kind of person - a living being who has, nevertheless, been immersed in life’s fragility. In the Talmud (Bavli, Sotah 16b) Rabbi Ishmael argues that, in the mixture of blood and water into which the living bird is dipped, the blood must remain visible. Thus the live bird is marked by its encounter with death. The life force that courses within it now can be seen on its outside. So too are we changed by illness. Like the bird, our life force is no longer merely hidden away inside of us.

Whether by illness or by the death of a loved one, we all at some point in our lives, come face-to-face with life’s fragility. I want to say that such an encounter should impress upon us the idea that each day of our lives is a gift. But that sentiment is cliche, and it is also, I think, a bit too much to ask for all but the tzadikim among us. For the rest of us, “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Kohelet 1:8) The idea that we are due a certain number of years, or that we are owed a certain set of life experiences, is difficult to surrender. Perhaps, then, the mark that illness leaves upon us, the vulnerability that loss imparts to us, is enough to tame our strongest sense of entitlement, and touch our certainty of what we deserve with contentment for what we have.

Bruce Alpert