Parashat Tazri’a details the specifications of Tzara’at, the affliction of the skin which is understood by Chazal as a physical punishment for spiritual misdeeds. The Pasuk mandates, “Kol Yemei Asher HaNega Bo Yitma Tamei Hu Badad Yeisheiv MiChutz LaMachaneh Moshavo,” “All the days in which the affliction is in him he shall be impure, he is impure; he shall sit alone, his residence is outside the camp.” (VaYikra 13:46). As Ibn Ezra points out, the word “Badad,” “alone,” connotes more than mere loneliness. The first Pasuk in Eichah, the book of lamentations over the Churban HaBayit, uses the same language, reading, “Eichah Yashevah Vadad HaIr Rabati Am,” “How does the city that was full of people sit alone?” (Eichah 1:1). The affliction of Tzara’at is so severe that one who suffers from it must necessarily also suffer from a melancholy solitude, a total isolation from his people. This loneliness, which, as the Pasuk emphasizes, removes the afflicted from not only his general community, but from his own family, appears to be the ultimate fulfillment of the punishment. Nowhere in the Pesukim is any physical pain mentioned; this period alone seems to be the extent of his suffering.
Parashat Metzora, by contrast, describes the sufferer’s recovery from his affliction. The process begins with the Metzora, having been issued a “clean bill” by the Kohein, acquiring two birds, a piece of cedar wood, scarlet wool, and hyssop grass. One of the birds is slaughtered, the rehabilitant is sprinkled with a mixture of its blood and water, and the living bird is sent away “Al Penei HaSadeh,” “into the open field” (VaYikra 14:7).
The practice of sending the second bird away is understood in two totally divergent ways by the Mefarshim. On one hand, Chizkuni writes that the bird is a symbol of the Metzora’s newfound freedom. The bird, which was in captivity, is now permitted to go back to its fellows. The metaphor is rather obvious: the Metzora, who was held in isolation, away from his people and family, is now permitted to return to his camp.
However, Ramban and Ibn Ezra both present a much less optimistic understanding of the imagery of the second bird. They both understand that the bird is sent to the open field because no one lives there. Thus, the bird will not carry any of the Tzara’at to other people. Instead of being a symbol of recovered freedom and return to home, the bird is understood as a further step of isolating the Metzora from society.
This ambiguity may illustrate the slow process by which the Metzora works himself back into the camp and out of his crushing solitude. After he completes the aforementioned processes, the Metzora must wash his clothing, shave his hair, and wash himself in water. All of these are clear symbols of renewal. Upon completion of these steps, he is permitted to reenter the camp, but for a seven-day period, he is not permitted to even enter his own tent. He is permitted to reintegrate into the community to a certain extent, but beyond the odd looks he will surely draw for his shaven appearance, he is forbidden from reuniting with his family, for a seven-day period. On the seventh day, he shaves every outwardly visible hair on his body, washes his clothes and self again, and is finally considered pure. However, his process of redemption does not draw to a close until he offers several more animals as Korbanot and has the Kohein perform several further rituals.
At the stage where he releases the bird, it is apparent that the Metzora has not yet fully reintegrated into his normal life. He still has another week to go before he is permitted to totally overcome the isolation which has enveloped him for the past weeks and will continue to dog him until his hair grows back and he overcomes the stigma of having been afflicted with Tzara’at. While it is tempting to suggest that the bird is a message of freedom, that its soaring wings represent the promise of a renewed life that awaits the Metzora, he also must deal with the fact that he cannot allow his Tzara’at to attach itself to anyone else.
Nonetheless, from the start of the avian ritual and onwards, the Metzora is referred to by a different name: the Mitaheir, the one who is making himself pure (beginning from 14:4). Even as the afflicted begins the arduous process of removing himself from his isolation, the Torah identifies him as pure already, or at least one who is on the way to achieving that goal. It is clear that the Torah allows for a middle ground for anyone who is recovering from a malady of any sort: while someone may not yet have achieved his ultimate goal of recovery, he is considered not as one who is still afflicted, but as one who is working his way back to an ultimate state of Taharah.
When a person is working to perfect himself, his path is often long and difficult. Just like the Metzora-Mitaheir, one who is in this process should remember where he came from, but ultimately where he is going.