Moses and Lockdown 6.0
Updated: Apr 10
In recent times I had the opportunity to attend a Pentecostal Church in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. I had never thought that I would do this. Still, in between lockdowns – I forget which ones now – I had the good fortune to meet an extraordinary girl who attended this Church and so found myself traveling across Melbourne to experience the Pentecostal way of things.
This Church had an interesting background in that its formation was the result of Italian migration to Melbourne. The Richmond Temple, a Christian denomination, had been reaching out to Italian migrants, and as a result of those efforts, in 1959, the first iteration of the Church I now found myself attending came to be. The idea that Italian migrants to Melbourne, or anywhere for that matter, would turn away from their Catholic heritage was notable for the courage such a move required, and as I would learn, many were ostracized from their community for doing so.
During a sermon made during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, the head pastor spoke about perseverance as practiced in the Bible. It was a timely message. The pastor had given this sermon in an empty church - only himself and a small handful of singers were allowed to attend the building each Sunday - to an online congregation that had by now cultivated a very modern and Melbourne type of perseverance.
Of course, with restrictions being what they were at that time, the online sermon was necessary. Still, as Moses would remind us often, God has always been a social creature whose covenant with humanity was communal. No doubt Moses would have approved of the online version of our faith given the circumstances, but as he and the Bible taught, one of the most critical theological foundations of the Torah and service to God was that of real community - the kind that did not require a Wi-Fi connection.
The nurturing of community has always been a difficult task given the frantic rhythms of the modern world. To state the obvious, the pandemic has only added further strain to this at the exact moment when human interaction has been needed most. While the government has put its best PR pundits to work selling this new socially distanced reality, to state the situation as it really is, the government has now mandated that one, no matter their conscious objection, symbolically bend the knee and be vaccinated to gain entry into a society that now celebrates segregation as prudent morality and is managed by a totalitarianism dressed as a necessary virtue. How to engage with this type of community has since become an enigma for many people.
Naturally, there has been much angst about this new way of doing community. Despite all the emotions however, for people of faith, I have come to believe that at the heart of much of this agonizing has been a more fundamental issue regarding how a person of faith balances both being of this world, yet set apart from it as God commands. To put it into contemporary context, not all of us have been afforded the opportunity to thumb our noses at the very society we rely on for keeping a roof over our heads.
The idea of separation has always been connected to that of community - one does not separate from the world into an existence of isolation, but does so to re-connect with something else - with of course some rare exceptions. While we have always strived for community, and all things considered done it as well as well as one could, for the most part, we have enjoyed a fairly privileged sense of separation. Instead, I suspect that what has occurred is that we have conflated our differences with our secular brothers and sisters with our being separated from them. No doubt the two concepts are related, set apart is after all different, and to be fair, this has probably been inevitable given the freedoms we have been blessed with and the gulf between secular and religious word views in the modern age. Still, despite what our modern sensibilities may have taught us, Biblical separation has always been a separation of totality. Moses did not give his farewell speech to Israel until after a forty year process of separation in the wilderness and our earthly father Abraham left his country, home and family.
Of course, a definitive answer to this juggling act will be notoriously difficult to come by. Yet, for many believers searching for just that, the natural inclination thus far has been, as far as I have observed, to either descend into the false sense of autonomy granted by the conspiracy world or to bunker down and cry Jesus take me now. The issues with the former are too vast to mention here, and regarding the latter, like all talk of the Rapture, focusing only on heaven is something Moses warned against in Deuteronomy 30 and was perhaps best surmised more recently when some wise person of faith noted that focusing and waiting entirely on Jesus to whisk us away renders one's faith useless on Earth.
Nevertheless, while Moses did not have the foresight to give Israel instructions on how to live "with the virus," as they now say, his final goodbye did hint at answers. What made his farewell speech perhaps the most interesting was that it was he, Moses, who renewed the covenant without any prompting by God. At this moment, to put it another way, the training wheels were off and it was now up to Israel to initiate action, to take charge and take up its destiny as co-creators with God. God would be there as always, but Israel would now no longer simply respond to the pillar of fire that had guided them previously. It is in this context that Moses said those most potent words in Deuteronomy 30;
Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it”. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
Moses was teaching that the Torah was not esoteric, not philosophy, but accessible to all and practical for the task at hand – that of drawing near to Him by building the community and kingdom of Israel on this Earth. Rabbi Sacks would echo this sentiment; for him, Judaism made no extraordinary metaphysical claims. Torah was done right when and only it was firmly rooted in the everyday life and experience of believers, a perspective that is absent in the conspiracy theory world that has bombarded us all of late. Deuteronomy 30 would also serve as a warning to the type of Gnosticism that would emerge in Roman and particularly Greek societies and of which the disciples and the New Testament writers would warn against. Moses would probably, in fact almost certainly, have also objected to many aspects of the Kabbalah, of which mysticism and a rejection of the immanence of God was the pathway to the divine.
There are no doubt more storm clouds on the horizon - there always is. But if there is one thing I hope we have now all learnt throughout the previous two years, it is that we need more than sermons that only seek to make us feel good or reminders that all we need is faith - Moses had faith, but he still took the initiative.
Instead, it is hopefully now not unreasonable to assert that these times have called for a shift in our thinking towards a more purposeful and practical application of Biblical teaching. At some point, and who knows when, we will be required to make an Abrahamic type split with everything we have come to rely on for our sense of identity, purpose, and livelihood - that we now live in a society that almost celebrates the segregation of those that have made conscious objections to government mandates would testify to this point. While the idea of separating from all that we know is daunting, to say the least, much like those Italian migrants who left their Catholic heritage, it is simply a matter of having something else to connect to - a real and proper community led by Jesus.