Yom HaAliyah, which recalls the ascension of Messiah into the sky on the fortieth day of the Omer, is preceded seven days by the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer, a memorial to Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai.

In honor of these two sacred days, I would like to reflect on an idea found in the Zohar attributed to Shimon Bar-Yochai, which sheds light on many aspects of the life of Messiah including his ascension.

Messiah the Bird

The Zohar and other Jewish mystical writings drawing from its text relate Messiah to a “bird.” In fact, at the beginning of his commentary on Torah portion Metzora, The Or HaChaim explains that one of Messiah’s names is Tzippor (“Bird”). It states that the soul of Messiah exists on the outskirts of the garden of Eden in a place called the Heichal Ken Tzippor (“bird’s nest”). This term speaks of the Shechinah, which both envelopes his soul and flies about the garden. From his abode in the bird’s nest, he lifts his eyes and sees the patriarchs returning to the ruins of the Temple. The tear-streaked face of the matriarch Rachel repeatedly flashes before him. Messiah cries out, and the garden of Eden is shaken from one end to the other. The voices of all the righteous joining his lament shakes the heavens beyond the garden until it reaches the highest throne.

Descending from the Nest

The sages understood that the redeemer of Israel would be revealed only after this messianic soul made its descent from the Bird’s Nest, coming to rest upon the revealed Messiah. This is spoken of as the “crowning” of the redeemer and marks the point in his life when he would begin his messianic mission (Igeret Teyman 4).

Nearly two millennia ago Yeshua traveled from the Galilee in northern Israel to be immersed by John, a relative who had been instructed by a heavenly decree to immerse the sons of Israel until he saw a “dove” descend upon one of them. This holy Jew was the Messiah. When our Messiah rose from the water, the Spirit of God was seen descending on him like a dove.

That the revelation of the identity of Messiah was through water is significant. The first time the soul of Messiah was seen interacting with the chaos of this world was at the beginning of Genesis. The Torah relates that while the world was yet formless and void, covered by darkness on the face of the deep, the Holy Spirit hovered [like a mother bird shielding her young with her wings] upon the face of the waters. This Spirit of God is said to be that of Messiah (Genesis Rabbah 2:5).

After his crowning with the messianic soul, Yeshua spoke of himself using the language of a bird. While standing upon the Mount of Olives, Messiah lamented over Jerusalem saying, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34). Here Messiah speaks of his desire to gather the exiles of Israel. He is detained only by our refusal to be redeemed.

Two Birds, One Messiah

To better understand this process of exile and redemption as it relates to Messiah, who is called Tzippor (“Bird”), we look to the previously mentioned Torah portion Metzora. We learn in this portion that one who has contracted a certain spiritual disorder called tzara’at (“biblical leprosy”) is to be expelled beyond the walls of the city. We can understand the complex nature and role of Messiah as a gatherer of exiles through the ritual relating to the purification and returning of one who is stricken with this affliction.

Tzara’at is a spiritual disorder generally believed to be brought on by evil speech. It appears as a discoloration on one’s property and person. The metzora (one who has contracted tzara’at) would first notice “something like a plague,” a discoloration upon the walls of his or her home (Leviticus 14:35). In a worst-case scenario, a priest would declare the house unclean—ordering its destruction. The stones of the house would be dismantled and removed. Again, the metzora, having a discoloration in his or her flesh, would be exiled to the wilderness beyond the city walls.

These rituals concerning the metzora and his house are described as relating to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people. Messiah prophesied regarding this destruction in relevant terms. He said, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). This description can be compared to the dismantling of the stone house of the metzora.

The law given by HaShem for the cleansing of a metzora reveals his redemptive plan for Israel and describes the process through which Messiah would carry it out: his death and resurrection. HaShem commands the use of “two birds” (shetei tziparim; Leviticus 14:49). In his commentary on this subject, Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky notes that the numerical value of tzippor (“bird”) is 370 and corresponds to the words “this is the Messiah” (zeh Mashiach). He says, “This [passage regarding the “two birds”] refers to Messiah son of Joseph [who will die] and Messiah son of David [who will rule the Earth].

During the cleansing of the metzora, the priest killed one of the birds over living water in an earthen vessel and dipped the second bird along with other elements into the mixture. He sprinkled the metzora with the blood seven times, and then released the living bird into the open field. That the living bird flies away covered in the blood of the slaughtered is significant. This aspect of the ritual creates a connection between the two birds and hints at the notion that Messiah son of Joseph, the suffering servant, and Messiah son of David, the reigning king are two natures of one individual. Although this may be a novel idea to some, it is not a new one.

Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) was the foremost student of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, and is responsible for the transcription of his master’s famous teachings. In an autobiography written by this renowned authority he explains that Messiah son of Joseph and Messiah son of David are only terms reflecting two aspects of a single man (Sefer HaChizyonot, 106).

In hindsight, it is clear that while the releasing of the living bird by the priest foreshadows the resurrection of Messiah, its flight into the open field depicts his ascension into heaven. Concerning this Rabbi Chaim Vital again writes, “Messiah [who will be largely unknown] will thereupon rise to heaven just as Moses ascended to the firmament, and will subsequently return and be revealed completely for all to see. The entire Jewish people will then perceive him and flock towards him” (Arba Mei’ot Shekel Kesef, 68). Our Master ascended into the clouds in precisely this way. In comparing the event to Moses’ ascent into the clouds on Sinai’s heights, we are reminded that we must not lose hope of his return.

Sending away the Mother Bird and the Ascension of Messiah

Messiah was born into a generation unprepared for his kingdom. Rather than immediately gathering the tribes back to their land, he desired to suffer, bearing the transgressions of the world upon his shoulders. The Zohar explains the need for Messiah to give up his life in no uncertain terms, “Because this lower plateau lacks manifestation of Godliness, this Messiah must die … he will remain dead until this plateau receives ‘life’ from the higher plateau, at which point he will rise and come to life.” (Balak, 203).

After having risen from the dead, Messiah spent forty days strengthening his students, clarifying their understanding of his mission. Then, ten days before Shavu’ot, Yeshua was lifted into heaven covered in a cloud. We have been awaiting his glorious return ever since. Questions arise,” Why was the complete redemption delayed; why must we suffer further exile; and why did Messiah have to leave us?”

To better understand this, we search out one of the most obscure commandments: sending away the mother bird. The Torah obligates, “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young” (Deuteronomy 22:6).

Baseless hatred saturated the generation that witnessed the destruction of the Temple. At this time even the very religious were often plagued by hatred for fellow Jews. A heavenly judgment was passed, and Israel was expelled from her land. Sadly, the remedy for this kind of hatred could be found only in exile. While exile creates difficulties regarding ritual observance, it promotes a true sense of ahavat Israel, love for every Jew. Living in dispersion encourages a longing for peoplehood and a desire to connect. To remove the blemish of hatred from the Holy Nation, HaShem chose to remove the children of Israel from their “nest.” Messiah, like the mother bird, needed first to be sent away before his children were carried off into exile. The Zohar explains that when the mother bird returns to find her nest empty, she flies throughout the forest searching for her young. Messiah is now searching for his children throughout the world, calling to them, desiring to gather them back to himself.