Birds in Flight

Welcome to the Or Shalom New Member Shabbat and the Half-Torah Celebration.

Today we welcome all those who chose to formally join Or Shalom in the last 12 months. And we pause to contemplate a teaching that sits right at the centre of the Torah.

Literary scholars say that in most ancient texts, the main point is found at the center. Of the Torah’s 54 parshiyot, Tazria is the 27th parashah, and Metzora is the 28th parashah. Which means: the main point of the Torah is found in Parshat Tazria-Metzora.

Let’s detour for a moment to a section of Torah that, in many people’s minds, expresses the main point: The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments define a holy community where there is

•spirituality (I am God)

•humility (Do not become attached to false images of God)

•intergenerational respect (Honor your Father and Mother)

•economic equality and labor protection (Everyone gets a day off for Shabbat, even working animals)

•decent interpersonal behavior (Do not steal, kill, commit adultery)

•the rule of law (Do not bear false witness)

•and personal self-control (Do not covet).

The Ten Commandments offer a beautiful theory of inclusive community. And it’s just a theory.

In real life, community is messy. Many things can disrupt the way people relate to one another, leaving individuals feeling isolated and the community feeling torn. Illness. Disfigurement and loss of function. Family changes and transitions. A person accused – or convicted — of a crime. Housing problems, leaving someone temporarily homeless. Even someone blurting out the wrong words at the wrong time, words that come from a part of them they didn’t know existed.

Tazria-Metzora, right at the center of Torah, addresses the reality of community. Tazria-Metzora talks about disruptions to community, and how a community heals.

Much of the parashah focuses on one example of disruption: the metzora, the person with psoriasis. Psoriasis is a disfiguring but not life-threatening auto-immune skin disease that mysteriously appears and disappears. Seeing someone with psoriasis can make you feel awkward about recoiling. It can make you feel guilty because you don’t know the cause or the cure and can’t fix it even though you want to. It can make you feel angry because you invest time doing unhelpful stuff which you sort of know annoys the person, but too bad, you’re just trying to help. Embodying psoriasis can make you feel ashamed and confused about upsetting everyone else. It can make you feel angry because it’s not fair that others should treat you oddly for something that is not your fault. These are familiar emotional patterns. We can recognize them in our own responses to illness, disfigurement, family transition, homelessness and more.

Torah offers a way to interrupt this pattern. The person who introduces the disruption needs some time alone for healing, without the added burden of all these social emotions. They get to spend some time at the edge of the camp, possibly with others who are facing similar issues. When the person has achieved a measure of healing, the cohen, presumably a highly respected priest and spiritual counselor, welcomes them back to the camp with a public ritual.

The cohen himself supplies all the items for the ritual, so the person being welcomed is not burdened with any preparatory errands. The cohen brings two live kosher birds, a piece of red cedar wood, a crimson-red thread, a red clay bowl filled with clean water, and a brush-like branch of the hyssop plant. The cohen slaughters one bird and lets its blood drain into the bowl of water. Then the cohen tosses the red cedar wood and the red thread into the red bowl. He dips the live bird into this mixture of bright red dyes. With the hyssop branch he brushes the person with the bright mixture. The bird flies free, and the welcomed person covered with dye takes a bath and washes their clothing. Exactly eight days later, the authoritative cohen walks the person to the center of the camp and declares that they have returned.

Most of the symbolism of this ritual is obvious. And, except for the bird that eventually gets eaten, it’s a beautiful ritual. The two birds represent a person’s old self and new self. The bright red liquid mixture represents life. The old self dies, but still it supplies some of the ingredients of this life mixture. The life mixture touches this new self and animates it, as it struggles and eventually succeeds in flying free. The person whose body bears both the old self and the new self is also brushed with this life mixture. He or she takes seven quiet days to reintegrate and readjust before metaphorically flying free in the community.

This ritual responds beautifully to the needs of the individual who re-enters the community. But it does not say much about the role of the community. I’ve wondered how they respond to the re-integration ritual, how they make it their own. And I’ve wondered about the bird. Our traditional commentators do not agree on what species of bird the Torah has in mind for this ritual. My own research on this didn’t tell me anything the learned commentators don’t already know. So my subconscious got to work on the two questions and I had a dream.

In the dream:

I have a pet moth, small, light grey, and fragile. We are close, and he comes with me everywhere. A large butterfly with a strong black body and slightly damaged bright orange wings swoops down and carries off my moth. I am very angry and I want to chase down the butterfly, but I realize, if I do that, I will end up with two dead insects instead of one. But I’m angry on behalf of my moth, so I do it anyway, and the inevitable tragic end comes to be.

It’s Passover, so to seek some healing, I go to a special service out in the desert wilderness, which looks a lot like British Columbia’s semi-arid Osoyoos region. I step out of the train station and right into a dry field of brushy plants. Suddenly, thousands of birds lift off together out of the brush. Hawks and sparrows, golden eagles and rock doves, birds of prey and their prey, flying off together as a single flock. I am amazed.

And then I wake up.

And I realize: Of course the Torah doesn’t specify what kind of bird represents the self, because the self keeps changing. A self represented by a fragile moth gives way to a self represented by a colorful butterfly, which gives way to a self represented by a fearless dove. When we live in community, all our selves are changing all the time. We are a cacophony of flying birds.

All our lives are presenting learn-as-you-go challenges and transitions.

Everyone in the ancient Israelite community must have gone through the ritual of the birds many times. When they witnessed a person welcomed with this ritual, they must have known exactly what the inner experience of identifying with a bird was like. Sometimes we justifiably feel like birds of prey fending for ourselves in difficult times and sometimes we justifiably feel like prey, hunted or wounded. But ultimately, we all fly together, no matter which bird we are on a given day.

And, if we are a Jewish spiritual community, which we are, we know that, whatever mistakes we may make, we share the beautiful vision of community expressed in the Ten Commandments: spirituality, humility, respect, equality, self-control. Even in the challenging crazy chaos of life, we all agree to try to live this vision. I like to think that we realize in some small way the vision of the prophet Isaiah, where the lion and lamb, the sparrow and the great horned owl share their territory in peace and love.

Welcome to spiritual community: glorious, imperfect, and flying ever higher.

We hope that all of you will fly with us for a very long time.

— Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2010


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