And the Kohen shall command, and he shall take for the person being purified: two live birds, cedar wood, a thread of purple wool, and hyssop. – VaYikra 14:4
The Holiness of the Jews
As Jews, we are commanded to be a holy nation. To help maintain our spiritual level, the Torah provides safeguards to protect us from sin. One of these is tzaraas. In the time of the Beis HaMikdash (which should speedily be rebuilt), if a person spoke lashon ha’ra, he contracted tzaraas. While the outer manifestation was a type of skin condition, a m’tzora had entered a stage of tum’ah, which forced him to be removed from normal life. Anything that he then came into contact with became tamei, and he had to leave the encampment of the Jews and remain separated from the rest of the nation until he was purified.
The M’tzora Becomes Purified
To become purified from this state, a m’tzora had to go through a complex, three-part process. After the Kohen looked at his nega and saw that it had healed, the first part began. The Kohen was commanded to take two live, kosher birds, a piece of cedar wood, and hyssop (a branch from a particular bush), and then tie them together with a string of purple wool, and dip them all into the blood from the first bird.
Rashi explains that each of these was part of the kaparah, a correction and atonement for his sin. The cedar wood, which comes from a tall, strong tree, was to signify that his speaking lashon ha’ra was caused by arrogance. The purple-dyed wool and hyssop come from lowly sources, and serve as a message to the m’tzora that he should lower himself. And the reason for the kosher birds is that birds are constantly chirping, and lashon ha’ra is an act of chirping.
Human Speech Cannot Be Compared to Birds Chirping
This Rashi seems difficult to understand. The chirping of the birds doesn’t seem to fit into the equation. If you listen to the sounds of birds chirping on a spring day, you’ll hear an unending stream of sound, much like turning on the faucet in your kitchen sink. The flow begins, short chirps and long chirps forming some type of pattern, but it’s without thought; the birds just jabber away.
What connection does that have with intelligent speech? Speech isn’t merely the formation of sounds; speech is the highest form of communication, a power given to man alone to share his inner thoughts and understandings. Each word or phrase can represent entire concepts and ideas. Man alone can relay a world of understanding in but a few expressions. In what way can that be compared to the chattering of birds, a mindless, thoughtless, automatic reflex?
There Is No Instinctive Urge to Speak Despairingly About People
The answer to this question is based on understanding how lashon ha’ra comes about. The Chofetz Chaim points out that one of the prohibitions that a person violates by speaking lashon ha’ra is chilul Hashem. He explains that if someone has a powerful desire to commit a sin and then transgresses it, it may be a serious offense, but there is a mitigating factor: He fought a battle and lost. Lashon ha’ra, on the other hand, is very different. There is no driving, instinctive force that pulls us to speak disparagingly about other Jews. There is no magnetic pull that tugs at us. Therefore, if a person speaks lashon ha’ra, it can be a chilul Hashem; since he is committing this sin without any powerful desire, it must be that he utterly disregards the command of the King.
Lashon HaRa Usually Is Mere Chatter, Much Like the Chirping of a Bird
What we see from this is that much of lashon ha’ra isn’t purposeful, malicious speech. In fact, it is rare that we engage in intentionally divulging great secrets with the specific intention of ruining another person’s reputation or business. Rather, in the course of conversation, we sort of prattle on. “Hey, did you hear? I don’t know if you know this, but…” Most often, it is simple drivel. Without much forethought, and certainly without regard to the consequences of the sounds that are emanating from the openings in front of our faces, we fill the empty space with chatter.
In that sense, the bird is the perfect atonement. Since lashon ha’ra comes about through prattle, the Torah commands the m’tzora to bring a bird as the atonement for what allowed him to come to this sin.
Preventing Lashon HaRa
This concept has great application in our lives. There are rare occasions when we speak out of malice and desire to avenge a perceived wrong, and in those cases it is difficult to stop ourselves from speaking lashon ha’ra. However, the vast majority of lashon ha’ra that we engage in is senseless gossip – prattling like chirping of a bird. So while it is commonplace, it is much easier to work on eradicating it. By simply being aware of ourselves and by learning the halachos of Sh’miras HaLashon, we can easily prevent much of the damage of our spoken words. As we become conscious of what flows out of our mouths, we stop the mindless prattle that does so much damage to others.
Born and bred in Kew Gardens Hills, R’ Ben Tzion Shafier joined the Choftez Chaim Yeshiva after high school. Shortly thereafter he got married and moved with his new family to Rochester, where he remained in for 12 years. R’ Shafier then moved to Monsey, NY, where he was a Rebbe in the new Chofetz Chaim branch there for three years. Upon the Rosh Yeshiva’s request, he stopped teaching to devote his time to running Tiferes Bnei Torah. R” Shafier, a happily married father of six children, currently resides in Monsey.