Newborns are entirely confused by the world they enter; before they can use their senses, those senses have to be programmed, and then tuned and further optimized as the body grows. Without that programming, we are awash in so much data that we cannot perceive the signal for the noise.
So we start life by finding and honing the signal: making stories out of physical data, of understanding correlation and (sometimes) causation, of figuring out what we like – or don’t.
But people are not amoebas – a full life is not comprised merely of physical stimulus and response. The really interesting stories are the ones that also contain thoughts, and words and dreams. And those things are almost entirely only in the mind, with sometimes no measurable physical manifestation at all.
So when we have experiences – data – we invariably and necessarily run them through our constructed filters, to fit them inside the story lines we expect. Without those filters we would be as lost as newborns – but with the filters, we are often deceived. Our tribal allegiances and hidden biases come into play, so that very few people actually change what they think because they receive new data: instead, they subconsciously find ways to make the data fall inside the pre-existing storylines.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. A truly open mind would be paralyzed by all the choices. But it becomes clear that the storylines we use to filter information become much more important than we might otherwise think. A Hindu, Catholic, Atheist or Jew each find ways to interpret the very same information in radically different ways.
Take, for example, death. In cultures which believe that death is the end of all things, then death of a loved one is seen as an unmitigated loss. In cultures where people believe in an afterlife, there is a bittersweet nature to death – the living may experience the loss, but the dead are going on to their reward in the next world.
In both cases, the physical reality is the same, but the effects on the mourner and their communities are radically different – because the mourner subconsciously chooses to fit the death – and the life that came before it – into a given storyline. To the living, these stories change everything about their future decisions, even as the physical reality carries on either way.
This is where symbolism becomes important – really, the defining mark of any civilization. The symbolism we use to create stories becomes the filter for all new data. If, for example, we understand that we are nothing more than leaves in the wind, then our lives become unimportant and largely irrelevant. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as G-d’s partners, building His world from generation to generation, then our lives become all-important. The symbolism becomes the filter through which our data, our experiences, are passed.
This, to me, helps us to understand all the symbolic commandments in the Torah, the commandments known as chukim. These commandments, while they surely can be followed blindly, scream out for us to understand their symbolic meaning. It is not hard to do so, once we appreciate that G-d created those commandments as way to provide the filters and stories through which we can understand and make sense of the world around us.
Symbolism allows us to create and supplement our stories, stories that are much more about spiritual arcs than they are descriptions of mere physical data. Our thoughts, our dreams and loves are all ways in which we connect the physical data with our own spiritual consciousnesses, a way in which each of us can come to understand our relationship with our Creator and our unique purpose in this world.