One of the remarkable characteristics of our computer-dependent society is the way we've fortified the metaphors of our lives to the extent that they can replace the lives that we lead in reality.
Unlike the tangible, "brick-and-mortar" bookstores, we can browse the stocked "shelves" of Amazon.com in the middle of the night, dressed only in our pajamas. Social networking sites and e-mail allow us to establish and maintain relationships without ever meeting face to face.
This new world allows us to access events and information that otherwise might never have been part of our lives before. On the other hand, it also provides us with an escape from the physical world around us. How many times have you seen someone in a sports stadium with a portable television, watching the broadcast of the game unfolding on the field just below him?
Nevertheless, there's something satisfying about living in a representation of our lives, rather than in our lives themselves. It allows us to learn without consequence and to experience drama in a way that's safe.
What did we ever do before the Internet and modern media?
We practiced Judaism. We experienced the virtual world of the Torah as we read it over the course of any given year, whether experiencing liberation from Egypt or heralding our heroes.
We experienced the drama of our holidays: celebrating our acceptance of Torah on Shavuot, dreading our final judgment on Yom Kippur and appreciating God's presence in the natural world around us as we dwelt in our Sukkot, which were the precursors to SimLife versions of the homes where we reside.
Judaism allowed -- and continues to allow -- us to live and learn through simulations of Jewish history and representations of our own spiritual landscapes. The lesson of this week's portion, Tazria, though, is not to confuse the metaphorical landscape of our heritage for the very real world in which we live.
Tazria is a confounding section of the Torah. It sets forth the laws of tumah and taharah, usually translated as "purity" and "impurity," although they mean something much richer.
When people are in a state of tumah, they are not permitted to participate in ritual, to touch ritual objects or even to enter the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary in which the biblical Israelites offered their sacrifices to God. The end of such a period is marked with the presentation of specific sacrifices and carefully described rites, after which the individuals return to their natural state of full participation and of being tahor.
What are the conditions that render someone excluded from Judaism's symbolic world? They are the most profoundly real and immediate states that a human being can experience: coming into physical contact with death, going through the miraculous processes involved in forming life and giving birth, experiencing the vulnerability of our mortality when we suffer from illness.
Judaism is nothing if not a structure through which to view life. It provides us with separations between what is kosher, or acceptable, and what is not. It differentiates the sacred time that is Shabbat from the sacred time that is the rest of the week.
This week's reading from Leviticus teaches us to recognize the distinction between Judaism's virtual world of text and ritual, and the sacred moments we experience in the real world.
In Judaism, there's a tradition that we do not get married on holidays, so that we can differentiate between the joy of the wedding and the joy of the holiday. Similarly, by stepping outside of the world of Jewish ritual during the most sacred times in our lives, the Torah teaches us not to conflate the two -- to remember that the metaphors of our tradition prepare us for and enhance appreciation of real life. They do not replace it.
Rabbi Eric Rosin is the religious leader of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.