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When you put it that way…

03/05/2020 11:13:42 AM


When I became first aware of Covid-19, I heard that it was called Coronavirus. However, I quickly learned that corona means “crown” Latin, and that there are many types of human coronaviruses. This novel coronavirus was a strand that wasn’t seen before, and thus was called Novel Coronavirus. However, diseases don’t respect borders, cultures, or nationalities, and thus instead of naming the virus something relating to geography (as was the case with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – MERS), the healthcare community settled on the term Covid-19.

In Parshat T’tzaveh, we similarly see careful attention to naming differences with the priestly headdresses, or “crowns”. While there aren’t a lot of details given to the specifics of these headdresses, the Torah instructs that the High Priest should wear a mitznefet, a term relating to a turban of royalty (Leviticus 28:37-39). Regular priests on the other hand, are instructed to wear migba’ot, which also are turbans (Leviticus 28:40). To a modern English speaker unfamiliar with the priestly garb, these two words don’t contain symbolic meaning. However, for an ancient Israelite, these two types of headdresses would convey the appropriate status and holiness of the High Priests, and the lesser but still holy status of the regular priests who served God in the holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The way we refer to things has meaning and can affect our relationship to those things, just as the different names for the priestly turbans conveyed particular ritual significance to the Israelites. Along those lines, the way we name a virus can have an effect on how people relate to the disease and those who are infected with it. If the name of a disease singles out a specific population or culture, then there is the potential for a rise in stigma and discrimination against those individuals. With Covid-19, we have already seen individuals and businesses that have been targeted because of a false cultural association between them and the virus, like the student who was beat up in school, or the countless ride-share customers who can’t catch a ride because of drivers’ prejudices. But this virus isn’t the problem of a particular country, nationality, or race. It belongs to all humans. Our language and attitude should reflect that. As we read Parshat T’tzaveh and consider the semantic significance for all of the priestly clothing, let us similar reflect on the power of words, and how we must be careful in how we classify and label things. For if we are not careful with our naming, our judgments and labels can quickly spiral out of control and bring our human family further apart, instead of bringing together.

Shabbat Shalom

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784