The language we use shapes the meaning we give it, how we feel about it.
Leaders, especially, have a responsibility to check their word choice, as their words influence how others feel about a situation. This is especially true in the midst of challenges, such as the current coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past month, many leaders have described the coronavirus as an enemy, an oppressor, a crisis, a major disruption, a karmic punishment. We are at war.
In the lead-up to Passover, many Rabbis have seized on the theme of the Exodus story to offer other labels: this is a plague, and we are like slaves in home isolation. (More on slavery tomorrow.)
This is something I’d expect from the media; they are in the business of sensationalism. In fact, “plague” feels like something the New York Post would slap on its front page.
I Expected More From Rabbis
I suppose I expected more from Rabbis. I hold them to a higher standard, especially because Judaism treats words as sacrosanct. The commentaries to the Torah (the 5 books of Moses) are often expositions on word choice and meaning.
Three times a day we pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
On Yom Kippur, a good portion of the confessionals relate to words we spoke over the year.
The sin of the spies — for which an entire generation was denied entry to the promised land — was a sin of words: the way the spies described the promised land and its inhabitants planted doubts in the people that they would be able to enter and conquer the land that God had promised.
These and dozens of other examples make very clear: words matter.
And they matter especially when they come from community leaders, who set the tone for how their constituents will react or respond to the situation.
Your word choice can inspire hope, or incite panic. It can catalyze chaos or create calm. It can empower or create despair.
At a time when we are surrounded by death, when many people are questioning “where is God in all of this?” to call this a plague sows the seeds of doubt. It casts us as victims of a force against which we have no hope.
Before I go further, let me be clear: I do not take lightly the thousands of people who are sick or who have died, or the people who have lost loved ones to this virus. I know people who have died. As I’ve written previously, we have yet to address the inevitable grief fallout that will arise from this time.
Coronavirus: Plague or Miracle?
That said, what if coronavirus is a gift? What if it’s an opportunity?
Or, what if the coronavirus is a miracle?
If it sounds far-fetched to call this a miracle, it’s worth remembering that in the Passover story, the plagues were miracles. We give thanks for them.
The difference between a plague and a miracle is a matter of perspective. The plagues may have been tragedy for the Egyptians, but they were miracles for the Israelites. In fact, one teaching about the plagues is that they were as much for the Israelites as for Pharaoh, to show the people that God exists, so they would trust Moses to lead them out of Egypt.
The plagues awakened their faith.
Is the coronavirus a miracle?
The truth is that I don’t know. Nobody knows.
One of the lesson we learn from Passover is that the story is bigger than any one moment. We can’t see the whole picture from where we stand; only the Divine has the master plan.
To have faith means that we trust that the Divine always acts in a way that is for our greatest individual and collective good. It means we trust that everything in life is a miracle. Sometimes — perhaps often — the nature of the miracle is not apparent in the moment, but I trust that it will serve me in some way.
That it may not look like what we think a miracle “should” look like may make it more likely to be a miracle. As Marianne Williamson writes,
We should beware of thinking that we know what a miracle will look like, what shape it will take, or what form it will come in; in fact, the very nature of miracles is that they represent the interruption of a pattern, a discontinuation of the status quo.
Time will tell what this moment is. In the meantime, here’s what I know: thinking of the coronavirus as a plague leaves me feeling depressed and hopeless. Viewing it as a miracle reminds me to look for the gifts it will bring.
That’s reason enough to call it a miracle.