Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles

(This blog was first posted on April 13, 2010.)

Gird your loins: this is a double blog, covering two weeks, two double Torah portions, two birds, and two goats.

Goats, by Dugald Stewart Walker

The double Torah reading for the week culminating on Shabbat April 17 (Leviticus 12:1-15:33, Tazria and Metzora) deals mostly with tzara-at, a discoloring skin disease.  The double Torah reading for the week ending on Shabbat April 24 (Leviticus 16:1-20-27, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim) covers the rituals for atonement on Yom Kippur, forbidden sexual unions, and a series of ethical and religious laws.

This year I noticed a connection between the two double Torah portions: the first week’s reading includes a mysterious ritual using two birds, and the second week’s reading includes a remarkably similar ritual using two goats.  What does this parallelism mean?

The reading for the week ending April 17 includes this passage about the ritual for making someone with the skin disease tzara-at ritually pure:


Let Go the Living Bird, by Paul Hardy ca. 1900

And the priest will give an order, and he will take for the one who is being ritually purified two living, ritually pure birds, and a stick of cedar, and crimson wool, and hyssop.  And the priest will give an order, and he will slaughter the first bird in a pottery vessel, over living water (water flowing from a natural source).  He will take the living bird, the stick of cedar, the crimson wool, and the hyssop, and he will dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the living water.  And he will sprinkle upon the one who is being ritually purified from tzara-at seven times; thus he will purify him, and then he will send out the living bird over the face of the open field.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:4-7, Metzora)

And the reading for the week ending April 24 includes this passage, part of the annual Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the whole community:

And from the assembly of the children of Israel, he (the high priest) will take two hairy male goats for a guilt offering and one ram for an elevation offering.  He will take the two goats and stand them up before God at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aharon will place lots on the two goats, one lot for God, and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aharon will bring the goat that received the lot for God, and he will make it a guilt offering.  But the goat that received the lot for Azazel, it will be stood alive before God, for making atonement over, by sending it out to Azazel to the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:5-10, Acharei Mot)

Both rituals use two animals, which must be the same species and equal in value.  In both rituals, one animal is chosen randomly to be sacrificed to God, and the other is set free at the end of the ritual, sent out away from human habitations.  In both rituals, the blood of the sacrificed animal is sprinkled seven times on the person or place to be purified.  Other rituals described in the Torah employ sacrifices of birds and goats, and sprinkling of animal blood, but only in these two places does the Torah require that one of a pair of animals is slaughtered and the other set free.

Why are these two unique purification rituals so similar, when they seem to be performed for such different purposes?

Let’s look at who or what is being purified.  In the first reading, the metzora (the person who had the disease of tzara-at) is ritually purified after a priest has declared that the affliction is over.  Since someone with tzara-at must live in isolation, in a tent away from the community, the purification ritual is necessary for the ex-metzora to move back and rejoin society.

In Torah and Talmud, a metzora is not someone who just happened to develop a disease.  The appearance of an unnaturally white patch of skin is considered a physical manifestation of a flaw in the metzora’s moral condition.   Commentators have written that since the “treatment” for tzara-at is segregation from the community, and the ritual restores the metzora to society, the moral flaw of the metzora must be some anti-social behavior, such as slander.  A skin disease is an appropriate sign of immoral behavior toward society because the skin is the boundary between one person and another.

Isolation protects the rest of the community from being infected by the metzora’s bad behavior.  It also gives the metzora time to reflect and repent.  If the skin discoloration shrinks or disappears, the priest knows that the metzora has repented and can rejoin the community safely.  But first he must perform a public ritual establishing that the ex-metzora is now acceptable and accepted back into society.

In the second reading, from Acharei Mot, the blood of the sacrificed goat is sprinkled on the curtains around the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, and on the lid of the ark in the center.  The high priest performs this ritual once a year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to purify the Israelites’ focus of worship from their own cumulative ritual impurity.  This purification also atones for their misdeeds, particularly their pesha-im, their rebellions against the social order.

The implication, I think, is that while only some people are so egotistical that they pay no attention at all to the good of the community (and therefore get the mark of tzara-at on their skin), nobody is perfect.  We all rebel occasionally against the need for good social behavior.  These small misdeeds accumulate, tarnishing the purity of our focus on the holy.  So once a year, according to the Torah, two goats are brought to the high priest.  He slaughters one, and sprinkles its blood on the atonement-lid of the ark in the Holy of Holies.  He confesses the sins and misdeeds of the Israelites over the head of the other goat, and a designated man sets it free in the wilderness.   This public ritual establishes clearly that the whole community is acceptable to God once again.

The details of the two rituals are parallel, and both are performed to address immoral behavior against the community.  But why, in each case, is only one animal sacrificed, while its double is set free?

Maybe the two birds, and the two goats, represent two courses of action for human beings.  We can sacrifice our egos (while retaining the “blood”, the juiciest part, in the pottery bowl over living water) in order to be kind and cooperative; then we will be full members of society.  Or we can refuse to make any sacrifice; then we will be free—but we will also be sent away from the community, like the bird and the goat.  Even today, individuals who are not willing to sacrifice their own egotism, at least enough to avoid doing harm to other people, will be driven out of society.  If they are not kicked out of a group explicitly, they will still find themselves isolated and friendless … out in the wilderness.

And what if the freed bird or goat comes back?  Well, that’s one of the questions “the designated man” asks in my Torah monologue!

4 thoughts on “Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s