A couple sits anxiously in the therapist’s office, unsure how to begin talking about their problems at home. “Why don’t you start,” says the therapist to the woman.
“My husband is a jerk!” she blurts.
“Please’” says the therapist, “Only ‘I’ statements. Don’t tell me about him, tell me what’s going on with you. You can start by saying, ‘I feel…’”
“Okay,” says the wife, “I feel like he is a jerk!”
Differentiating between your actual feelings in the present moment and your impulse to accuse, judge, or blame, is no easy matter when your emotions are inflamed.
But making this differentiation is crucial.
There’s a world of difference between “I feel like he is a jerk,” on one hand, and “When he comes home late, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach...” on the other.
The first one is an attack- it’s accusatory. The second one is truthful… and vulnerable, exposing the actual experience of what happens when he comes home late.
And of course, if you’re feeling punched in the stomach, the last thing you want is to be vulnerable. You want to attack back, accuse, blame. But ultimately, it’s a self-defeating impulse. Your negative words create an effect, and the ripples of that effect continue on in time.
There’s a Jewish proverb of unknown origin-
“A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will never return.”
This week’s reading also involves setting a bird free.
It begins describing the ceremonial purification of a person afflicted with tzara’at- a skin disease that afflicted those who had committed negative speech.
“Zot tiyhyeh torat ham’tzora b’yom taharato-
“This is the law of the afflicted one on the day of purification…”
The ceremony uses two birds, a piece of cedar wood, a crimson thread, and some hyssop.
One bird is slaughtered into an earthenware vessel filled with “living waters.” The live bird is then held together with the cedar wood, the crimson thread and hyssop, and dipped into the bloody water. The bloody water is then sprinkled on the afflicted person seven times, and the live bird is set free into an open field.
What does this mean?
Medieval commentator Rabbeinu Ephraim explains the symbolism of this ritual in transformational terms:
The first bird represents negative speech- gossip, slander and so on. This “bird” must be “slaughtered” into an “earthenware vessel.” The vessel represents the “home” of our bodies- fragile, temporary, of the earth. By contemplating the temporary nature your bodily home, you free yourself from arrogance and allow the impulse toward negative speech to be “slaughtered.”
The “living waters” represent Truth, which fills the humble “earthen vessel,” once the arrogance is gone.
The bird that’s set free represents the disease- just as the bird flies away, so should the disease depart. But, just as the bird might return, so too can the affliction return if you allow yourself to fall back into your patterns of negative speech.
Why is it so easy to fall back into negative speech? Why is it so hard to stay present with what you’re actually experiencing, and be nourished by the “living waters” of the vulnerable truth?
Because the truth can be painful and ego crushing.
And yet, if you constantly project blame and judgment, without fully being with the truth of what you’re experiencing, healing cannot happen. You become the disease- a disease of living on the surface, holding back from your own inner depths, out of fear that your depths are too painful. That’s why tza’arat is a skin disease.
It reminds me of the times my family would return to our house after a few weeks of being away. All the windows and doors would have been shut, and there would be a kind of unpleasant smell from the stagnant air, until we opened the windows and doors and let the air flow.
That’s what it’s like- your inner world is like a shut up house, festering.
But open the doors and windows- speak the truth, and healing begins! As it says in Psalm 30:
“Shivati elekha vatirpa’eini-
“I cried out to You and you healed me…”
This is the true potential of prayer and meditation- to give yourself the space to go into your depths every day, feel whatever needs to be felt there in meditation, express what needs to be expressed in prayer, and tap the renewing and healing power of the Presence that is ever-present. The "living waters" will fill the “home” of your body and renew your spirit.
There’s a story of Reb Mordechai of Pintchov, that his poverty was so extreme, he could barely support his household at all. His wife would nag him incessantly to tell their woeful situation to his rebbe, the Seer of Lublin.
Time after time he would travel to Lublin, but never once did he mention his troubles to the rebbe, because on arriving there he would forget them completely.
Being a practical woman, his wife decided to say nothing more, but to make the journey there by a separate wagon immediately after he had left home. When Reb Mordechai arrived at Lublin, he was confronted by the fact of his wife’s presence. There was no way out- and he told the rebbe all about their state of affairs at home.
“Why did you never mention this until now?” asked the Seer.
“Rebbe,” answered the hasid, “I assumed that my situation would be known to you through Ruakh Hakodesh (Divine inspiration), through the holy spirit that rests upon you.”
“Not so,” answered the rebbe. “It’s true, the Torah says- ‘A person whose skin has the plague of tza’arat shall be brought to Aaron the priest, and the priest shall see the plague.’
“That is to say: As soon the ailing person is brought before the priest, the priest will be able to see the the malady for himself, without being told.
“But, in the case of plagues that affect houses, the Torah teaches otherwise: ‘And the house owner shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘Something like a plague seems to be in the house!’
“From this we see that for plagues affecting houses, one should come before the ‘priest’ and tell him about it!”
On this Shabbat Metzorah- the Sabbath of Affliction- may we fully feel and truthfully express our inner afflictions- not with judgment and blame, but as prayers of healing; may we not shrink from the "bitter herbs!" And just as our ancestors tasted the bitterness of slavery before their liberation from narrowness into the Presence, so may it be for us.