The Symbolism of Sin (Tazria-Metzora)
The essence of all immorality and sin is making ourselves the center around which we subordinate all interest. -Cecil J. Sharpe
The Torah reports regarding an unusual skin disease called Tzaraat (popularly mistranslated as leprosy). The person who suffered from Tzaraat was called a Metzora. The Talmud discusses what the causes of Tzaraat might be. While all are in agreement that Tzaraat is a physical manifestation of some internal, spiritual malady showing the Metzora that he or she did something wrong, the prime suspect as to the cause of Tzaraat is gossip.
One of the repercussions of being diagnosed with Tzaraat was that the Metzora was expelled from the camp (or the town) until they had recovered, and after a clean bill of health and a purification process, they were allowed to return to their home and community.
What is perhaps more interesting than this unusual disease itself and everything it may symbolize is the ritual involved in declaring a Metzora purified and able to rejoin the community.
The Torah prescribes that the officiating Kohen take two live sacrificial birds, some cedar wood, red thread, hyssop, and a clay vessel filled with fresh water. One of the birds was slaughtered over the fresh water of the clay vessel. Then the live bird, together with the cedar wood, red thread, and hyssop was dipped in the vessel and used to sprinkle the mixture on the Metzora. The live bird was then set free.
The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 14:4-5 details the symbolism of the various components involved:
The cedar is among the tallest of trees, while the hyssop is among the lowest of plants, to represent that the Metzora has fallen from the highest heights to the lowest lows, but can return to those heights. And what caused this fall? Sin. The sin is represented by the red thread. The challenge of sin often starts as slim as a thread. The dead bird represents the Metzora whose sins have in a certain spiritual sense caused him to die. Mixing the live bird with both the fresh water and the blood of the dead bird represents the possibility of the Metzora’s rebirth and rehabilitation. He can leave his sordid past behind and become a new, sanctified person. Releasing the live bird to freedom, to rejoin its flock, symbolizes the former Metzora’s ability to both leave sin and rejoin his community.
However, the clay vessel symbolizes the fragility of his repentance. Just as a clay vessel is easily broken and cannot be mended, if a Metzora were to damage his hard-earned repentance, it may be that much more difficult for him to abandon his sins.
May we always have the strength to avoid both old and new sins.
To the memory of Israel’s fallen sons and daughters, as well as to Israel on the 73rd anniversary of its rebirth.