Parshat Metzora: “Free As a Bird Now”


Judaism is a religion of passages. A religion of transition. From one space to another, from one time to another - together, we all experience moments of change - Sociologically. Psychologically or Physiologically (there's a lot of "ologies," and I can keep going, but I think you get the point). We go from students to instructors - from cancer patients to cancer survivors - from married to divorced - from prison inmates to free peoples - Hired to fired. Homeless to housed. Every single one of us experiences the crossing of one threshold into another. And these changes in our lives, in turn, change us. They transform the very core of who we are. How we see ourselves and how others see us. Further, this notion of “a people in transition,” embodies the very essence of our liturgy, rituals, and theology, manifesting in our understanding of “Jewish peoplehood”*

Rabbi Eli Kukla, an expert in the field of transition and its accompanying prayers, writes:

‘The Transforming One’ as a name for God appears in the traditional blessings of gratitude that are recited each morning. The Hebrew verb root of this word, avar, has multiple layers of meaning within Judaism. Most literally it means to physically cross over; however, it also implies spiritual transformation in High Holiday prayers. It lies at the root of the word Ivrim, Hebrew people. We are the Ivrim, the crossing over people, because we physically crossed over the Jordan River to escape from slavery and oppression and spiritually transformed ourselves. At its core, our ancestral sacred memory holds this moment of painful and yet redemptive, physical and spiritual transition.

And while I can personally recall so many moments of transition, the problematic piece is how we demonstrate to ourselves and to others that we have “crossed over.” That we have gone from this to that. In Parshat Metzora, we encounter the moment that the individual affected with tzaraat, a radical illness/skin disease, is welcomed back into the community after being deemed “cured” or redeemed according to the priest:

“This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean be brought for him who is to be cleansed.. and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.” [1]

Now, if you’ve begun singing to yourself Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” you’re on the right track. Literally, the rabbis were thinking the same thing:

“For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there's too many places I've got to see…
Cause I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change…

Lord knows, I can't change”

“This is a symbol of the purity signifying that the tzaraat has ‘flown off’ the owner of these birds who had suffered the affliction. Seeing that he had been forbidden any contact with human society, now he had miraculously been readmitted to civilization and all its advantages.” [2] Meaning, in addition to this Free Bird tribute, there’s a symbolic ritual of release. A public expression that we are no longer caged, imprisoned physically and socially - that we are now free. But unlike the song lyrics, this bird has changed. And to mark this transition of change, there’s also a personal ritual:

“The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair...of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean.” [2]

So why the hair? Is it solely a contagion factor, belonging to the category of contamination and purity? In my opinion, “No. It’s more than that.” Like a phoenix, the famously mythological free bird, we free ourselves from the elements that characterized the old “us” - the strands of our identity that have withered and died. And thus, altogether, we transform into a new person. Because I believe that in order to really transition, we need a physical demonstration of it - a severing of the past self. Like a snake sheds its skin, we purposefully shed our hair as a radical act of transformation. “We’re free now.” Free to move amidst the world.

Once those ever-so-shiny silver scissors snip away at our split, broken ends, all that has been damaged and abused in our lives falls onto the salon floor, gets swept up and tossed into the garbage alongside our old hair, never to be seen again. It’s akin to the feeling of checking heavy baggage at the airport and finally being free to run around with just your coin purse. It’s like pushing a reset button on your life.
— Zara Barrie

When we chop off our hair, the bodily elements that characterize our identity in so many ways (rock ’n’ roll hairstyles included), we arrive back into the community possibly unrecognizable to others - maybe even to ourselves - the person in the mirror looks different. And in turn, it allows us to be different. We declare to the community and to ourselves as well: “I am not that person you once knew. I don't want to be that person anymore.”

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, explains, “The person at this moment of transition is a ‘liminal’ or ‘threshold’ person. The liminal state is common to virtually all persons and societies, ancient and modern, and it marks a move to an altered status or to a life transition. Entering adulthood from adolescence, for example, requires a tunnel of time, a rite of passage, a liminal state that acknowledges by symbolic acts the stark changes taking place in one’s self-identity, behavior, and attitude.”

As someone who doesn’t have hair to begin with, I can’t exactly rally for this cause in any meaningful way. I regularly shave my head and beard (eyebrows not so much). But I think this idea speaks to everyone, bountiful Samson-esque locks or not. Because how else do we begin to move on from a place of toxicity and disease? I’m not saying that going bald is the only option…

But when moving on from a place of illness, darkness, or other tumultuous experiences - when our lives have been radically changed - we need something. More than anything else, our outsides should match our insides. And inside, we all deserve to be free.

But oh, to be free. Not have to go poof! What do you need? Poof! What do you need? Poof! What do you need? But to be my own master, such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.
— Genie, "ALADDIN"

[1] Leviticus 14:3-4;7
[2] Chizkuni, Leviticus 14:7:3
[2] ibid 14:8-9

*"Peoplehood is not a means but an end that brings together a concern and connection for Jews from all walks of life, affiliations, and points of commitment...Peoplehood means sharing a mission or a purpose with an extended family with whom we have a collective history and a shared language of faith, ritual, and culture. If peoplehood was merely about shared history, it would always be retrospective, [but] this is rarely true in the creation of collective identity. A definition of collective identity must also be futuristic in orientation, and it must be meaningful” (The Case for Jewish Peoplehood, p. 3)

Aaron Sataloff