Friday, April 24, 2009

The Metzora's Freebird (Derashah Metzora 5769)

The American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition) defines “comeuppance” as “A punishment or retribution that one deserves; one's just deserts.”

I think the appropriate comeuppance for the participants in Durban II, the UN’s sequel to its 2001 “World Conference on Racism,” would be the tzaraat described in our parshah. Since tzaraat is supposed to punish slander, and since a great part of the Durban II agenda is to slander Israel, it would be great to see the conference participants, especially those who applauded the Iranian president’s anti-Israel diatribe, come down with a nice tzaraat rash across their foreheads.

Unfortunately, tzaraat doesn’t happen anymore; since the dying days of the first Beit haMikdash more than twenty-five hundred years ago, no one has experienced the rashes and discolorations that warn people away from a person who speaks harmfully about others.

However, the metzora can still teach us an important lesson about our response to the Durban II conference.

The mystical Zohar asserts, “Every word that a person produces from his mouth ascends upward and pierces heavens and enters a space higher still!”

So imagine the debasement of such power when a person uses it to malign others, to mock others, to undermine others. This is the crime of the metzora, and a Jew who commits such a crime is evicted and ostracised from the community until he repents.

As part of his purification, after repenting, a metzora brings two birds to the Beit haMikdash. One of them is schechted, and the other one is released, to fly away.

The gemara explains that the metzora must end his impurity and conclude his repentance with birds, specificallly; we bring chattering birds to atone for abusing our power of speech. But the fact that the metzora releases one of the birds is odd, and unique among korbanot.

Rav Moshe Isserles offered the beginning of an explanation, outlining symbolism for each bird:
• The schechted bird represents the yetzer hara, one’s inclination for evil.
• The freed bird represents the yetzer hatov, one’s inclination for good.
• The birds are identical in all ways, showing that these inclinations are equally part of human existence, but we schecht the bird that represents evil, and we release the bird that represents good.

Rabbi Dov Weinberger of New York goes further, though, explaining that the yetzer hatov, represented by the freed bird, must play its own role here because the yetzer hatov was a crucial part of the sin. Lashon hara involves more than just slander; it relies, also, on the absence of good speech, on our failure to say positive, helpful, encouraging things at the right time. Were we to use speech more positively, there would be no room for lashon hara:

• Were we to encourage others, praising them for their successes and consoling them for their losses, we would construct relationships which would not allow for lashon hara.
• Were we to use speech to organize people for mitzvot, we could create positive community, strengthening bonds that would defy destructive slander.
• Were we to use speech to correct wrongdoing, helpfully enabling others to right their wrongs, then there would be nothing for people to criticize.

So the very existence of lashon hara testifies to a deficiency in our yetzer hatov, a corrosive lack of positive speech. And when the metzora releases this bird to fly away safely, he declares his understanding that schechting the yetzer hara, ending lashon hara, is insufficient; he must also unleash his yetzer hatov, speaking positively.

Which brings us back to international slander against the State of Israel. This past week brought a perfect media example of such evil speech:

During the Gaza War, anti-Israel media claimed that Israel was using white phosphorus against civilian populations, savagely burning people and breaking the international laws which limit its use to open, non-urban areas. Despite the fact that the Red Cross could find no evidence of wrongdoing, newspapers and blogs and UN personnel insisted that Israel was guilty. Indeed, at Durban itself, this past week, the claim was again lodged against Israel.

But also this past week, the IDF concluded investigations into five separate allegations of misconduct, and found, among other things, that white phosphorus was never used illegally. To quote the report, “The probe… revealed that white phosphorus weapons were used strictly in open fields and not in urban centers.”

And yet, the Times of London titled its coverage of the report, “White phosphorus in Gaza: from flat denial to final admission,” and a leading critical blog titled its article, “Israel admits mistakes, use of white phosphorus in Gaza offensive.” And so on.

This sort of slander has dominated Durban II, as well. Ahmedinajad was only part of the show; all of those nations who applauded him, and the supporters who called Elie Weisel a Zionazi, are symptomatic of the much stronger trend against Israel among these United Nations.

Certainly, we can use lashon hatov to combat the lashon hara of Durban, highlighting all that is wonderful about Israel, including the morality of its army and the way in which the army investigates, publicizes and corrects its errors. This would leave no room for the lies of those who would tear down our country.

Certainly, in a week when we celebrate the 61st anniversary of the founding of this great country, we would do well to find a few moments to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, or send out an email to friends, or take advantage of conversation opportunities to play up all that Israel has achieved in its history.

As part of his repentance, the metzora also brings two sheep as sin offerings – a chatat, and an asham. Rav Ovadia Sforno, writing in 15th century Italy, explained that two offerings are required because two sins are involved: The metzora sins once by speaking slanderously, and he sins a second time by using slanderous speech to aggrandize himself.

All of us are guilty, at one point or another, of lashon hara, of corrupting and debasing that tremendous power described in the Zohar, to elevate ourselves. Our teshuvah should match that of the metzora, schechting the yetzer hara and unleashing the yetzer hatov, using positive speech to build up ourselves, and those around us as well.

1. Vayyikra Rabbah and Gemara Erchin (15 or so as I recall) are some of the sources linking Tzaraat to slander.

2. The Zohar quote is from Metzora, pg. 55a. Rav Moshe Isserles's comment is in Torat haOlah Vol. 3, chapter 68. The gemara on using birds because they chatter is in Zevachim 88b. The Rambam notes that the birds are identical, but I think that is actually talmudic, I just can't remember where at the moment.

3. One also sends away the sair la'azazel (scapegoat) on Yom Kippur, but many authorities do not consider that a korban at all, but a separate ritual.

4. The quote from R' Dov Weinberger was given to me by Rabbi Naftali Lavenda, and appears in a dvar torah by Rabbi Frand at

No comments:

Post a Comment