Think before you tweet.
A most unusual ritual is performed as part of the purification process of a m’tzora (a person stricken with leprosy for speaking lashon ha’ra). Two identical birds are taken; one is slaughtered, while the other is set free (VaYikra 14:4-7). Rashi (v. 4) explains that birds were fittingly chosen for the atonement of a baal lashon ha’ra, because they, too, chatter and twitter incessantly. The person with tzaraas is supposed to view these animals as a representation of what brought about his punishment in the first place: his unbridled gossip and chirping. By taking this lesson to heart, he can move one step closer to purification.
Viewing birds as a symbol of speech may explain why these creatures were chosen, but we still need to understand the deeper meaning of the ritual itself. Why are there two birds, and what are we to make of the killing of one and the release of the other?
The S’fas Emes (5661) quotes from the Zohar that one bird represents the dangers of malignant speech, while the other symbolizes the power of positive talk. Too often, we conceptualize lashon ha’ra as a sin of commission, when, in reality, that is only half of the problem. In addition to perpetrating evil by speaking negatively, a baal lashon ha’ra is also wasting his potential for uplifting speech. Much as a sarcastic or critical remark can shatter someone’s self-confidence or reputation, an encouraging or flattering comment can elevate a person in the eyes of himself and others.
For this reason, only one of the birds symbolizing speech is slaughtered; the other is liberated. The message the m’tzora must internalize before he can re-enter society is not only that he must subdue his tendency for destructive negativity; he must also learn to promote constructive positivity. We are only asking him to “kill” one aspect of speech; his purification is not complete until he learns to “release” the other.
The most efficient way to overcome a bad habit is to replace it with a better one. In recent decades, we have made great strides in raising awareness about sh’miras ha’lashon, the importance of guarding our tongues from gossip, insults, and criticism. The next step is to emphasize the power of compliments, praise, and comfort. Hashem imbued us with a “spirit of speech,” which is the essence of our existence (Onkelos, B’reishis 2:7). To expend all of our energy on shutting it down would be to destroy the potential for life itself.
Parents and educators carry the weighty responsibility of infusing our youth with esteem and purpose. Just as a child can be scarred by a single incident of verbal abuse or humiliation, there is an opportunity to be instilled with optimism and enthusiasm with every word of praise offered by a mentor. Adults, too, crave recognition and appreciation. With dozens of daily interactions at home, in the office, and within the community, we have countless moments to brighten someone’s day, boost confidence, or provide reassurance. We have no way of knowing which lashon ha’tov will stick with someone for years to come.
Shlomo HaMelech was not exaggerating when he remarked, “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21). The ritual of the two birds highlights this dichotomy. Every time we are about to speak, post, or “tweet,” let us be reminded to not only “kill” the deadly words, but to also “release” the lively syllables and emojis that can bring about purity, well-being, and life itself.