Since last week we only scratched the surface in our discussion about Torah and Law, we’re spending some more time looking at it this week. The Bible Project gives us a helpful summary of the Hebrew books of Law.
The first five books of the Bible are sometimes called, “The Books of Moses”. Moses was given the law (Torah) by God while the people were wandering in the desert, before they entered the promised land. Most Biblical scholars believe that the books weren’t written entirely by Moses (the final chapter of the five books tells of Moses death… hard to write when you’re dead) it seems likely that sometime after the death of Moses these laws and stories were compiled and chronicled into the final product we have in our Bible today. But the final chapters of the book of Deuteronomy are a kind of “Commencement Speech” by Moses to the people of Israel, as they are about to “graduate” from wandering into the desert and entering the promised land. They serve as a very good summary of the purpose of the law Deuteronomy 30:11-15.
It makes me think of one of the better commencement speeches I’ve ever heard. David Foster Wallace was a novelist and writer, and though his personal life was very troubled and his faith was never less than messy, he thought very intently about life and its meaning. He gave a commencement speech at Kenyon University about 10 years ago. You can listen to it below, or read most of it here.
Here are a few essential quotes from the speech.
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real-you get the idea…
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars-compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.
I think this gets to the heart of what Torah is. God gives his people the guidance and instruction they need to make the choice to be people not preoccupied with the individual, but to see that they are part of something much bigger. This gets to the essence of the law and love (Mark 12:28-29). Because everybody worships something. To obey first commandment, worship the Lord your God and put no idols before him, is to say that my self-perspective is incomplete and broken, I need the guidance of God.
As we talked about last week, the word torah really means “life”. Deuteronomy 30 sums up the stakes of how we will chose to live: the ways of God lead to life, the alternative leads to destruction.
- Summarize in your own words the challenge Joshua gives the people of Israel.
- What kind of difficult choices have you had to make recently?
- What daily activity might help you make good and wise choices? (Hint, see Deuteronomy 6:6-9)