With Passover beginning exactly a week from tonight, many of us are ramping up our holiday preparations. For some, this involves a great deal of “outer work” (deep cleaning the house, searching for chometz/leavened food, etc.), and for others, the focus is more internal (reflective searchings for patterns of arrogance/entitlement/stuck-ness). This holiday – one in which we spend two full evenings (three at Beit T’Shuvah!) re-telling the great story of the Exodus – provides us with a chance to review our tradition’s blueprints for moving from slavery to freedom. As a community all too familiar with the bondage of self, this holiday is an opportunity for us to further re-connect with our role in our own, and the world’s, redemption.
Interestingly, in this week’s parashah we are also provided with some guidance for liberating ourselves from the bondage of self/arrogance. One of the main topics includes a person afflicted with a specific type of ailment, tzara’at, understood to have both physical and spiritual dimensions. Externally, the affliction is identified through the emergence of skin infections/wounds. However, our tradition more so attributes the condition to resulting from unhealthy behavioral patterns, primarily gossiping and slander. Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, associates the underlying cause as a state of spiritual weakness, which he connects primarily with arrogance.
The Torah describes, in great detail, the process and rituals that are to be utilized for dealing with an individual afflicted with tzara’at. Broadly, the process involves separating the afflicted individual from the community for a period of time and working with a priest/spiritual leader to purify themselves before, eventually, re-integrating back home. The purification process is a multi-step ordeal that involves a variety of elements, each with deep symbolic meaning. During the early stages of the ritual, the priest is commanded:
“…to take for the person to be cleansed, two living clean birds, and cedarwood and scarlet thread, and hyssop…” (Lev. 14:4)
While it is common for animals (in this instance, birds) to have a sacrificial role in various rituals, the inclusion of the other elements is significant. A great deal of commentary has focused on these other elements and their relationship to the underlying dimensions of the condition (arrogance in all its forms).
Rashi comments that the inclusion of hyssop is noteworthy because it’s considered a lowly shrub, commonly found growing wild throughout the Middle East. He views the hyssop as a symbol of humility, the exact opposite of arrogance. To be healed, the infected individual must be willing to surrender their arrogance, thus shrinking their self-will.
If a healthier orientation towards the world requires us to diminish our self-will, then the inclusion of the hyssop is understandable. However the addition of the cedarwood is somewhat curious. Throughout our holy texts, cedar trees are associated with height, strength, and vitality. On the surface, it thus seems to be an odd selection in a ritual to help purify someone who is stuck on being prideful, stubborn, and self-centered. Nonetheless, Rabbi Alexander Zusa Friedman (a 20th century Polish commentator) shares: “the cedarwood is used to teach the sinner that they need not think they are required to go about bent over and cringing in abject humility. They can stand erect as a cedar and still be as “bent” and humble in spirit as hyssop.”
Finally, the third element in the ritual is a scarlet thread, which has been understood to represent the thin line/margin between having a right-sized presence and being over- or under-sized. To be “right sized” means to take up an appropriate amount of space in a situation or relationship. Often our arrogance (and the underlying factors contributing to it) causes us either to puff ourselves up or to diminish ourselves too much. We know from experience that it is very difficult to get ourselves “just right” – where we’re able to honor ourselves (needs, interests, desires, etc.) and provide enough space for others to do the same. The line that separates these things can seem to be as thin as a scarlet thread.
Nonetheless, we have a week left to get our households – and ourselves – prepared to interact with the upcoming Season of our Freedom. May we continue to find the strength of cedar to be humble, like the hyssop, on our journey.
Chaplain Adam Siegel