One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.
"How ugly you are," said the startled rabbi. "Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?"
The man responded calmly, "What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly."
Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town's people called out: "Welcome, rabbi."
The man asked the people, "Whom are you calling rabbi?"
The people pointed to Ben Elazar.
"If this is a rabbi," said the man, "let there be no more rabbis among the Jews."
Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.
I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: "This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me."
But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.
He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: "Did not He who made me in my mother's belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?"
What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the "ugly" man. So who is a truer image of God?
The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?
We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.
In this week's parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that "the priest shall order two live clean birds ... to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered ... and he shall take the live bird ... and dip ... in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered ... and he shall set the live bird free in the open country."
This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.
The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.
Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird's-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.