Parshat Metzorah: What do the symbols mean?

For the purification ceremony of the miserable afflicted person, the Kohen uses birds.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last week, we read about the person afflicted with tzara’at, he who sinned by speaking badly about another and was punished with this skin disease. When he discovered the affliction on his body, he turned to the Kohen (the priest). The Kohen then sent the afflicted person into isolation for a week, sometimes even two, until the disease passed. This symbolized the emotional change the person went through and his new ability to reenter society, this time as a positive person who sees the other’s merits and not only his drawbacks.
However, to complete the spiritual-emotional “treatment,” the afflicted one must undergo a purification ceremony also performed by the Kohen. We read about this ceremony in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Metzorah.
For the purification ceremony of the miserable afflicted person, the Kohen uses birds, a rafter of cedar wood, wool colored in dye obtained from a worm, and moss.
Clearly, all these serve as symbols meant to teach us about the internal process of purification, and to direct us as well to the same internal process of reentering society; an entrance characterized by a positive outlook on the other. If so, what does this ceremony and its parts symbolize? Our sages directed us toward an understanding of these symbols when they pointed to three qualities that exist in them. The birds symbolize the chirping or chattering; the cedar wood symbolizes height or pride; the worm and the moss symbolize lowliness and humility. Thus, using these symbols, the Torah directs the person afflicted with tzara’at – he who slandered – how to reenter society correctly.
The first symbol is the birds’ chirping. Chirping can be a very pleasant sound, or it can be disturbing.
So exactly is speech. Speech can be a wonderful tool for man to use toward positive things, but at the same time, it can serve as a destructive tool that is offensive, harmful and stirs disputes.
The second symbol is the height of the cedar tree. The cedar tree symbolizes height but the significance of the height can be interpreted in a variety of ways. There is height that is protective, offering shelter and shade, and there is height that symbolizes the opposite – conceit and aggressiveness.
The third symbol is the lowliness of the worm and the moss. Is lowliness a positive thing? It depends. If a person acts with humility, sees himself an equal among equals and does not degrade the other, this is positive lowliness. However, if a person denigrates himself, surrendering his sense of self and erasing his personality, this is negative lowliness.
So, we see that the three symbols participating in the purification process of the person afflicted with tzara’at do not offer clear-cut proof of the direction. Each of these symbols can be interpreted positively or negatively.
And this is exactly what they symbolize.
Humans have the incredible ability to use social contacts to make a better world, as well as the ability to use these same contacts for destruction, slander and upsetting another. This is the lesson taught by the Kohen during the process of purification.
The fact that man has the tools to function in society is something no one argues, but the manner in which man uses these tools is his own personal choice. This is what you, the afflicted who is embarking now on a new social path, must internalize.
True, we are emotionally and culturally far-removed from the Torah portions about tzara’at, but the messages expressed by them are as relevant to us as they were thousands of years ago. And perhaps, with the progress in the world today, they are even more relevant.
Nowadays, every person has the tremendous ability to help, or G-d forbid harm, in a way that is unprecedented. Technological advancement, the fact that every youth holds in the palm of his hand the ability to connect with anyone anywhere in the world, brings tremendous power, which is even slightly frightening.
This unbelievable power is neutral. It can be used for good, or, sadly, for bad. Our role is to harness all this ability in a beneficial way, and thus teach ourselves and our surroundings that there is nothing that cannot be used to benefit society.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.