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The Torah

Our readings this Sunday are about the Law or the Torah. Literally, the Torah means law, guidance or directive, and pertains to God’s revealed teaching for humankind. In its restricted sense, it refers to the first five books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch) which are traditionally ascribed to Moses, the recipient of God’s revelation on Mt. Sinai.

The Torah is the source of Israel’s national pride. The Israelites are aware that they are just a small nation and cannot boast of great political power, like Rome, or philosophical and artistic brilliance, like Greece. Nevertheless, they see themselves standing above all other nations. “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole Law…?”

Inadequately translated as “law”, the word Torah, primarily means “a light that shows the way.” Hence, it is not so much a legal code, but a guide that leads to God. The Jews regard the Torah not as a burden, but as a gift from God, something beautiful and precious, a body of wisdom that teaches them how to live as a covenant people.

Thus, the Old Testament is profuse in its praise and gratitude for the Law. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure…the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…More to be desired are they than gold, even fine gold; Sweeter also than honey, than the drippings of the honeycomb.” (Ps 19: 8-10)

Bishop Barron makes an interesting observation that the more we reverence something, the more we surround it with laws. He gives the example of a museum with all its valuable historical artifacts and masterpieces. In the museum there are many rules (no talking, no touching, no eating, no picture-taking…) for reasons that are obvious. In contrast, there are no rules in an open field where you can freely jump, shout and do whatever you want.

Because the Jews hold the Law as their most precious possession, they prescribe practices and customs meant to protect and promote the Law. Through time, however, the original Law gets lost in the multiplicity of human decrees which have become onerous and unbearable. In effect, the added precepts have only succeeded in frustrating the very purpose of the Law which is to bring man to God. What happens is very much like the case of an armor which is meant to protect the knight in battle. But if the armor is overweighed with unnecessary trappings, it can become cumbersome and even fatal. (David had to take off the armor so he could freely fight Goliath.)

In the gospel, the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of not observing the purification rite of the washing of hands before meals. In response, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites because they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” Jesus refers to the cleansing rituals in the temple that the leaders have extended to everyday Jewish life, making traditions equal to, and as binding as, the Torah.

Obsessed with the external observance of man-made prescriptions, the Pharisees forget that the original intent of the law is holiness, and that holiness starts with conversion of the heart. Jesus rightly points out that what makes a person unclean does not come from outside but from within – from a heart that is impure.

In the end, Jesus teaches that the whole law consists in love since the Torah is given to lead man to God, who is love. Hence, St James tells in his letter that true religion (union with God) consists in this: “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

A woman once complained of having lost her handbag while attending Mass in our seminary chapel. Upon checking, the CCTV identified the man who stole the woman’s bag from behind her pew. The footage also showed that before lifting the bag, the thief made the sign of the cross, and then left the church.

Indeed, we too can be fastidious in our observance of religious rituals to the neglect of what matters most in religion – a life lived in holiness and in accord with the law of love.*

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