The Judgment Of The Birds
“…and for the person being purified there shall be taken two live, clean birds…and the one bird shall be slaughtered…as for the live bird…set free upon the open field.” (Leviticus 14:4-7)
Every time I study this portion, which describes the purification process of the Metzorah, who has been shut away from the world, I recall the following story and essay by one of my all-time favorite writers:
I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump. Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly. The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some cornmotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was like some vast cathedral.
I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak. The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestlings parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern.
But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.
No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.
And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang, from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.
Loren Eiseley – The Immense Journey
Eiseley’s story is the judgment of life over death. The two birds, one that is slaughtered, and one that is set free at the conclusion of the process, are also the judgment of the birds, the judgment of life over death. They celebrate the healing and purification of the Metzorah. They celebrate his Teshuva, which allows him to be reintroduced into the community. The second bird, the one that goes free over the open field, is a symbol of the restored physical and spiritual life of the Metzorah.
No matter what one may feel about the State of Israel, it too is the song of life that overcomes the murderous Germans. It is a statement of life, beauty and rejoicing after 2,000 years of Crusades, expulsions, pogroms and ghettos. We, like the Metzorah, were the outcasts of society. The world was silent. Then we began to sing again, a song of life that will continue to echo in our hearts and souls until the final redemption.
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