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The Dangers of Israel

A Sermon.

God of Israel, the everlasting Father! be with us in our waking hours, and at the time when we are sunk in sleep; protect us by the shadow of thy wings when we are living, and shield our spirits under the throne of thy grace when our task is ended. And watch over us with thy paternal care, and give strength to our virtuous resolves, that we may not stumble in the path of righteousness which we would fain pursue, unless prevented and lured away by the temptations of the world and the inclination to evil inherent to our frame. O holy One! establish thou firmly the work of our hands, and cause that through us thy name may be glorified; teach us to see the errors of our ways, so that we may not profane thy blessed service, whilst our selfish ignorance would vainly influence us to believe ourselves actuated by pious motives. Implant in our heart a firm brotherly love towards all Israel our brethren, and remove from us and from them all manner of malevolence and causeless hatred; and those who presumptuously rise up to disturb the peace of thy household, and who wickedly endeavour to mislead the children of thy adorers from the true path of thy law, confound Thou in thy mercy, that the evil they attempt may not take root in the minds of thy servants; and grant that these as well as all other sinners may speedily discover the perniciousness of their doings, and return unto Thee with a sincere repentance, a repentance of love and truth, to be reunited to Thee and thy pure worship in truth and humility. And spread upon all thy people Israel, wherever be their dwelling, the pavilion of thy peace, and cause them to dwell securely in the midst of the nations whither Thou hast banished them; and preserve them entire as one people, to be ultimately restored to the mountain of Zion where thy glory is again to dwell as in days of old, and as in former years, all obeying one law, worshipping in one manner, servants all with one heart, speaking all with one tongue, adoring all the one, I Thee alone, our Father, God, and Saviour. Amen.

Brethren! We read in Jeremiah, 30:7:

ועת צרה היא ליעקב וממנה יושע׃

"It is even a time of trouble unto Jacob, and therefrom he shall be saved."

Let us apply this saying of the great prophet who viewed with his own eyes the downfall of Jerusalem's glory, a downfall which others had merely predicted, which he, however, had the misfortune to witness as well as to foretell, to the present situation of our people all over the world. It is not to be concealed, that for many years past there has gradually sprung up a feeling of restlessness under ancient rules, and a striving after innovations, which at times threatens the subversion of the ancient landmarks, has been enkindled, which are full of evil portents to our existence as a separate religious community. What compared with this danger were the persecutions of ignorant ages? Then indeed thousands of innocent victims were led forth to the slaughter, and loudly exulted the adversaries of Jacob, as the flames consumed the many noble martyrs who voluntarily surrendered themselves to a painful death, to seal with their life's blood their devoted attachment to the law of God. But these slaughters brought no danger to Jacob's faith; for, though many fell off, though many, too feeble or too worldly to choose death, preferred to join themselves to the nations of the earth: still the holy example of the glorious sufferers stimulated the multitude to love the more ardently the religion which their friends had sanctified with their last expiring breath. And the greater the danger was each incurred for the profession of the law of Moses, the greater became the ardour to preserve untouched the holy birthright of Jacob; and with every effort of the enemy the blood of circumcision became a more willing sacrifice, the weekly Sabbath became a more refreshing day of rest, and the acknowledgment of Adonai Echad became more ardently the watchword of the house of Israel in all their dwellings, despite that the enemy stood near, eager to seize every opportunity to wreak his hatred upon the unoffending sons of Abraham. 

O noble indeed were those devoted spirits who preserved, amid all the great tribulations they had to encounter, the holy inheritance which was theirs from their forefathers; and noble was their reward, for their unresisting perseverance has at last overcome the malevolence of their opponents, and the name of Israel is now more respected than it has been since the dispersion of our nation, and we are called a people who nobly sustained themselves as the preservators of Heaven's holy gift to the children of man, under such trials and difficulties as would have broken down every other people save it be the descendants of him who went forth at the bidding of his Master, from Ur in Chaldea to be a stranger in a strange land, himself and his descendants, for a period of four hundred years.

It was thus, beloved friends, that the means relied on for our extermination have wrought the opposite effects, and have made dear and precious to us the fruit of the tree of life, which flourished abundantly, nurtured by the blood of those who strove to preserve it from the rude assault of unholy hands, and to seek shelter under its wide-spreading branches. But now and of late we have dwelt in comparative peace; our opponents, despairing of destroying us by the sword, have changed their mode of attack; they open wide their arms to receive us in their fatal embrace, and to make us forget our destiny, whilst we are invited to revel in luxuries and pleasures, even literally, in luxuries and pleasures forbidden by our holy laws, and death-bringing to our national existence. 

Now the Jews are called brothers, yea the elder brothers of the new recipients of the law in the manner it was modified to suit a gentile world! But is the Jew as such more loved? or his law more prized? O no, but it is a time of trouble to Jacob, and may God in his wisdom and mercy save him therefrom. The seeming security is a fatal delusion, my brethren! the haters of our name wish to induce us to give up to flattery that which force could never obtain. They therefore pretend to mourn over our blindness, over our literal attachment to the word of the law whilst, they allege, we are unmindful of the spirit and essence of religion. They therefore tell us, that the Jew is unwise to preserve his separate position and his distance from his gentile friends; they wish to make him believe that it is of no moment whether he eat of one sort of food or the other; they tell him, it is of no moment whether he observe the first day of the week or the seventh as devoted to rest and worship; they tell him it is of no moment whether he wed a daughter of the stranger of a maiden from the children of the faithful; they tell him these absurdities and many others; and shall we yield to these advances? or are we to stand idly by and make no effort to counteract the evil which is thus impending? Believe me, that theoretical religion is but a mockery of Judaism.

Ours is not a system of faith merely, it is far more, it is a system of actions which are to regulate our conduct as individuals, as members of the community, as children of the everlasting Father. For so we read in Deuteronomy, vi. 2, 3: "In order that thou mayest fear the Lord thy God, to observe all his statutes and commandments which I command thee, thou, thy son, and thy son's son, all the days of thy life, and that thy days may be prolonged. Hear then, Israel, and observe to do, in order that it may be well with thee, and that ye may greatly multiply, as the Lord the God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in a land flowing with milk and honey."

In what then does our religion consist? Surely in actions, in individual piety, in neighbourly love, and in devotion to the Supreme Ruler of the universe. Is there then not danger in listening to the advice of strangers, in even weighing for a moment whether their arguments be of weight or otherwise? For to doubt even of the necessity of our duties as we have received them is incipient treason, and is the next step to rebellion against the Lord! And has it come to this that we, the first inheritors of the law, are to be guided by those who borrowed some of its precepts from us? are Israelites to govern themselves by the erroneous ideas which the gentiles have engrafted upon our simple mode of interpreting Scriptures?

Some may say, that they will take reason for their guide, and apply the light of an enlightened modern philosophy to teach them the proper explanation of the law! But this is the very danger which now threatens the house of Jacob, of which we have been speaking. It is false reasoning to ask: "Why are we to kill our beasts after the prescribed mode of the ancients? why are we not to mingle at the friendly board with our gentile friends? what harm can there arise from my marrying the woman whom I love, although we differ in speculative opinions? what good can the Lord devise by my impoverishing myself by an observance of the festivals and the Sabbath? what good can result from our fasting on certain days to commemorate the destruction of the Jewish empire? for are we not free, not equals in the eyes of the law? are not offices open to us no less than to other citizens? can we not boldly profess our religion? what need is there then to look forward to a restoration to our ancient land, a country which we neither desire nor think equal to the land of civilized nations where we live?"

But let us reply to these false positions: The law was given to render us a separate people, in order to make the glory of God known ultimately to all nations of the earth; therefore we were to be separate in our manners and habits no less than in the superior knowledge which was given to us of the UNITY of God. And to prevent our uniting with those by whose opinions ours might become corrupted, by being inmates at their houses and partakers of their food, we were ordered to observe certain formalities with the food we are to take for our sustenance, in order to be even in mere bodily matters reminded of the high destiny which is ours, and of the great goodness of the Creator in selecting us to be the instruments of his grace and love to all the children of men, and to set an insuperable bar to a too close intimacy with persons differing from us in their rule of life.

And the fair daughter of the stranger attracts us, and our desire is kindled, and we hasten to sacrifice at her feet our attachments to the law and our parental command. Ay, is this obeying the voice of the Most High? Tell me--can Israel remain a people when her sons swerve from the law drawn away by the ties of unholy kindred? Or say you, we wed not by forswearing, as of old it was wont, the religion of our fathers; but tell me then, does the daughter of the stranger worship with you at the same shrine? does she too bend the knee to the One, who is Israel's God, as to the daughters of our people? or does she teach her children to acknowledge the pure faith, and to pray to none save the Creator, to acknowledge no law save the law which He ordained? or rather will she not endeavour to lead them to her mode of thinking, and to educate her children in tenets and ceremonies which are and ought ever to be foreign to our people? and say truly will not the evil spread, and bring a canker into our vitals, and destroy the remnant that has escaped the many bitter persecutions and trials we had to encounter? No, brothers of the house of Israel, the gentile blood must not mingle with that of Jacob; for too many of the patriarch's sons and daughters have already been sacrificed to this destructive intercourse, and too many families have already been cut off from the community of the faithful, as our own eyes have seen.

The festivals and Sabbaths too we are to deem of no importance: we fear being impoverished by our forsaking our daily toil. But are we believers, are we the descendants of those who followed the guidance of Moses into the trackless wilderness, fed for forty years by God's providence, without ploughing the soil, or reaping a harvest? And did not millions upon millions rest on the Lord's holy days, and yet obtain bread to eat and raiment to put on? and are we to doubt, to hesitate whether it be prudent to obey? to ask, "what is this day more than other days," as once a heathen did of one of our ancient sages? What is this day? Even the day ordained by the Lord, instituted by his providence to bring peace, and rest, and refreshment to the labourer wearied by toil, and to bid the soul rejoice in a renewed love to her Maker. For so we read (Exodus xvi. 28, 29): "And the Lord said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to observe my commandments and my laws? See, that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread for two days: abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out from his place on the seventy day." It is want of faith, a wicked doubting of the goodness and of the truth of God, to suppose that any injury can result from the observance of the holy rest; for He who provided manna for two days to those who came forth from Egypt, can and does send his blessing upon our labours even at this day, and we may truly say with David (Ps. 37:25,) "I have been young and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his children begging bread."

And admit for a moment that our keeping Sabbath should absolutely deprive us of an opportunity of acquiring a large share of wealth: still then would we be more likely of enjoying the portion of worldly goods which we have lawfully obtained, than we should be in consuming the immense hoard which unlawful striving should have brought. And as regards the notion, that the Creator cares not about the particular day, provided one out of seven is set apart to his service, we must say that such a mode of arguing would be subversive of every thing like positive religion. The Scriptures are emphatic as to the precise period which has been commanded; and even that period, or no other, must we sanctify and set apart as devoted to the service of our Creator.

Then as to the fasts commemorative of our national downfall. O say not that our captivity is ended! we are scattered, not gathered together; we are divided, not united; we are severed, and not yet are Judah and Ephraim one on the mountain of Israel. And say where is the glory of the law which is to enlighten all nations? where is the light of truth which is to guide all the families of the earth? and are our hearts one in the service of the Most High? are there no dissensions in the midst of our scattered communities? has Elijah come, and are the hearts of parents turned to the children, and the hearts of children to their parents? And can Judah awaken her harp to hymns of praise in every land, unawed by the threat of the adversary? Alas! alas! our harps are still hung upon the willows, and the souls of the sons of Jacob are still grieved because of the burning which the Lord has burned. O! yet is desolate the beautiful Jerusalem; yet is captive the daughter of Zion; and over every land her sons are  scattered, and they wander from clime to clime to seek rest for their weary foot, and to provide sustenance for their little ones; with anxious care oppressed, scorned not rarely for the sake of their belief, for their unswerving truth and faithfulness to God's ancient law, they lift their eyes on high and ask for that protection which they so much need from their God, who yet never forsook his people. O! let us then fast and pray to our Creator on the days which are devoted to the memory of our national downfall, and let us not forget in our prosperity those of our brethren who yet languish in sorrow and oppression; and let us in our exultation over the liberty we enjoy not forget, that it is not our own strength of arm nor our wisdom which has furnished us enlargement, but the mercy of the Lord, extended to us not for our righteousness, but only because He is good, and for the sake of the covenant which he swore unto our fathers.

These are some of the views which hastily have presented themselves to my mind in dwelling on the subject of the erroneous ideas which an intercourse with friendly gentiles and the false reasoning of a miscalled improving philosophy, have of late forced upon our observation. I mean not that we should discard all instruction which gentiles may offer us, to discard the light of reason in entering upon religious investigations; but to impress upon your minds, brothers and sisters of the house of Israel! to take the light of our own ancients, the manner of interpretation which has been handed down to us, to abide by the customs which long and well-established usage has sanctioned, in your mode of thinking and in your manner of acting through life.

The opposite tendency, to mark out new ways, to fly after new customs, is the danger which threatens the peace and the unity of the house of Jacob. But as great dangers almost,--for I believe this to be the greatest we ever encountered,--have passed over us, without permanently injuring the vineyard of the Lord, the house of Israel; and guided  by his mercy let us hope that this cup of bitterness and confusion too will pass away from us, and leave us, as after every danger hitherto, more devoted and more united in the cause of the law of God.

Brethren! stand firm by the arms which the Lord has given you! be firm in the defence of the right! be indifferent to the taunt that you are not sufficiently enlightened, that you fall behind the improvements of the age, of an age clean in its own eyes, yet being unwashed of its filth. Yes, be united and firm in supporting the cause you believe just; and may God prosper in his mercy the right which, we believe, we are firmly pursuing. Only be strong and of good courage, be not terrified nor dismayed; and may the Lord God of Israel be with you and all Israel wherever you go, from now unto eternity. Amen.

Charleston, Shebat 28, 5601
February 19, 1841