Posted on May 6, 2015 by Jonah P.
Ever a hyper-literate people, even in grief and death, we customarily learn mishnayot in honor of a deceased parent on the anniversary of his or her death. To this end, I would like to share some mishna learning in honor of my biological father, who died 10 years ago today, a man who has had a profound impact on me, the least of which being a lingering captivation with Toraitic, rabbinic, and modern concepts of illness.
While masechet Negai’im is not really about illness—it’s about the now archaic concept of ritual purity and impurity, as manifested through skin ailments—much of its subject matter overlaps with what we would have to call disease, which itself will be subject to change in another generation. (Personally, I look forward to telling my incredulous grandchildren that jabbing needles into people and snaking cameras up their you-know-whats used to be standards of care.)
Keeping this perspective in mind is necessary when approaching the final chapter of Negai’im, which prescribes the ritual through which previously stricken people return to a state of purity and ultimately back to their communities. Not unlike the modern approach, unfortunately, people with certain kinds of ailments in Tanakh times were set aside from their communities as “impure,” their mobility restricted, and their livelihood impinged. Removing the impurity assigned by their ailment was a necessary step for them to re-enter society.
The chapter opens:
כיצד מטהרין את המצורע? היה מביא פילי של חרש חדשה ונותן לתוכה רביעית מים חיים ומביא שתי צפרים דרור
How do we purify the metzora, the person afflicted with a skin disease? We bring a new earthenware cup, put within it a measure of running water, and bring two d’ror birds.
A lengthy description follows of the ritual slaughter of one of the birds, the sprinkling of its blood, and the release of the living bird. The metzora, once outcast and afflicted, is free to return home and resume normal life, thanks to two d’ror birds, one of whom dies, and one of whom flaps hurriedly away over the horizon.
The word d’ror here is eye-catching because of its rarity. It is a Hebrew word with which we are all familiar thanks to the Shabbat zemira “D’ror Yikra,” but which appears in Tanakh only a handful of times—usually, as with our mishna, in reference to birds.
Were it not for a single verse in this week’s parasha, which inspire the lyrics of “D’ror Yikra,” we would have to conclude that the word simply describes a species of bird, perhaps some type of sparrow. In parashat B’har Sinai, however, the word appears in a novel context:
וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל יֹשְׁבֶיהָ
You shall sanctify the fiftieth year; you shall proclaim a d’ror in the land for all its inhabitants. (Leviticus 25:10)
We are then told the details of the jubilee year, this year of d’ror: slaves go free and land reverts back to its ancestral holdings. The ramifications of our proclamation are clear, but what exactly we are proclaiming is not. We are surely not announcing the Year of the Sparrow, are we?
Targum Onkelos renders the word, חרותא, liberty, a word that should sound familiar to anyone who has been to a seder, and which certainly describes the overall theme of the Jubilee year. At the same time, however, the translation sacrifices the midrashic potential of the unusual word choice. The word that we expect to find here is חפשי, a standard word Tanakh employs when describing liberation from slavery, or perhaps חרות, the preferred rabbinic term for liberation. Why is d’ror used instead?
Unusual word choice is a midrashic playground. Rabbi Yehuda takes a turn:
א”ר יהודה מה לשון דרור? כמדייר בי דיירא ומוביל סחורה בכל מדינה
Said R’ Yehuda: What’s the significance of the word choice d’ror? One who dwells in his dwelling place and can engage in trade anywhere in the country. (Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashannah, 9b)
Thus for Rabbi Yehuda, mobility and economic rights are the heart of the freedom Torah bids us to proclaim twice a century. This is not so far off from Onkelos’ חרותא, but the word’s aviary connotations are begging for midrashic exegesis.
Luckily, when Ibn Ezra steps into the game, he can’t resist the word’s bird imagery:
דרור—ידועה שהוא כמו חפשי וכ”דרור לעוף”– עוף קטן מנגן כשהוא ברשותו ואם הוא ברשות אדם לא יאכל עד שימות
D’ror—It is [related] both to חפשי, freedom, and [also] to the דרור לעוף—a small bird which sings when it is in its own domain, but will refrain from eating until it dies when it comes into the possession of man.
Ibn Ezra here has captured perfectly the imagery, if not the etymology, of this word. He has described slavery and economic disparity as a grave social ill, as inhumane and unnatural as caging birds who would rather die than be owned. When the blast of the shofar rings out every fiftieth year, perhaps it is declaring the Year of the Sparrow after all, the time when the cage door opens and we take flight, soaring back to our original homes and nesting where we please.
Now let’s move back to our mishna. The use of the צפר דרור, the d’ror bird, in the purification of the metzora perhaps offers insight into the mishna’s understanding of disease and healing.
Truthfully, the strange ritual is not presented as a healing remedy. Its only purpose is to remove the טומא, the conceptual impurity, from the sufferer, in order to allow him to return to his home and normal life. As with the metzora, the real pain of impairment today is not in its inherent pathology but in the injustices which surround it, as any proponent of the social model of disability will tell you.
According to the social model of disability, to illustrate the principle at work, using a wheelchair for mobility is not an inherently negative or inferior way to move around. The problem comes when people construct barriers against wheelchairs at every street corner, store, or bathroom. The problem is not the impairment itself, but the community’s response to it. Or, in other words, “Society disables people.”
I propose that our mishna hints at this model of understanding the metzora’s plight. (That the mishna helped create the metzora’s plight will have to be overlooked for the time being.) Given the rarity with which both Mishna and Tanakh employ the word דרור, drawing a link between the Jubilee and the purification of the metzora is, I hope, not so far fetched.
In our parasha about the Jubilee, we see how economic disparity and slavery disrupt family ties and land holdings. Once every fifty years we hit reset. People walk free and go back home. Our parasha is indulging in the fantasy of some kind of just, orderly baseline of socio-economic functioning called דרור.
Similarly, in our mishna, we see the effects of disease stigma on the social order: one of our community members has been separated from his home, subjected to mobility restrictions, and prevented from making a living. Moving on from this state is not a matter of physical healing. It’s a matter of opening the door to the cage we created around him, and returning to a just, orderly, and perhaps fantasy baseline, where people, recently stigmatized as diseased, are once again free to return home, live where they please, and make a living as full members of the community.