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The Law of Israel.

A Sermon.

by Isaac Leeser

Brethren and Friends!

In our daily prayers which were handed down to us from our forefathers occurs the following passage:

ברוך אלהינו שבראנו לכבודו והבדילנו מין התועים ונתן לנו תורת אמת וחיי עולם נטע בתוכינו׃

"Blessed be our God! who hath created us for his glory, and separated us from those who go astray, and given us a law of truth, and planted eternal life within us."

In these words we return our thanks to the Lord for his mercy in having been pleased to call us to his service, and to separate us from the mass of mankind who are in error with regard to religious duties and doctrines, by bestowing on us the law which contains the true principles which He himself declared to be in consonance with his wisdom and best promotive of the happiness of man. The unbeliever and the gentile will doubtlessly smile when they hear us recite these words. They say, that we have no superiority over any other people; on the contrary, that we are inferior to them in the progress we have made in arts and sciences, and that, as far as moral superiority is concerned, we are far behind many of the different sects which are scattered over the world. Though both these positions, by which an inferiority on our part is assumed, admit of ample contradiction, or at least of explanation, we will for the present admit them as true; and still we will maintain that we have cause for thankfulness in the possession of the true law. Were it that worldly greatness, that progress in arts and sciences could alone stamp a nation as powerful and great, then indeed might we feel ashamed of our littleness; but there are other elements of greatness, and these are the heritage of the sons of Jacob.

Thus also should a heathen philosopher from Egypt, a gentile sculptor from Greece, and an idolatrous conqueror from Rome, have heard a Hebrew of olden days express in the words of our ritual his deep sense of obligation for superior enlightenment, they, one and all, would doubtless have in their inmost soul despised the vain arrogant barbarian whose thoughts were not moulded in the refined fashion of the schools of Plato and Aristotle; who could not carve from the rude marble the noble conceptions of Phidias or Praxiteles, and who walked chained to the car of the triumphing warrior who had defeated the armies of Israel, burnt their temple, and destroyed their towns. Still, my friends, who would have been arrogant? the slave--the chained--the despised Hebrew, or the versatile, the vainglorious, and the haughty heathens? True, if we regard with the eye of admiring reverence the works of human genius, the discoveries of the human mind, or the achievements of human warriors on the battlefield as paramount to the sciences of simple life, to the knowledge of "how to live," then indeed were Egyptians, Grecians, Romans on an elevation which we never attained. But if we take a truer view of all these advantages, if we endeavour to convince ourselves that the works of art are but fleeting monuments which, baseless fabrics as they are, vain man erects to perpetuate a name which is destined to oblivion; if we consider, that the halls of Carnac, the cave of Elephanta, the temples of Athens, and the Coliseum at Rome, are all in ruins, sad mementos of what they have been; if we reflect that despite of the researches of philosophers, of the multifarious systems of Bramins, of Confucius, of the Magi, of the sages of Memphis, of Pythagoras and the later philosophers of Greece, the heathen world had remained uninstructed in the duties of life; if we dwell, with the melancholy which the nothingness of man inspires us with, upon the fact that each conqueror has at last been compelled to give way to a more powerful successor; how the Assyrian, who had overthrown the kingdom of Israel, sunk before Nebuchadnezzar; and his grandson before Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian; how their kingdom fell before the mighty son of Philip of Macedon; that his power gradually decayed after his death, first a prey to contending chiefs, and then swallowed up by the colossus of Rome, which strode triumphant over many a fair land from true shores of the German Sea to the banks of the Euphrates; and that, not to multiply inĀ­stances, this colossus too fell under the repeated blows of fierce barbarians, whose origin is unknown, and who have also passed into oblivion after their mission was accomplished; if we consider all these things, and that the homes of the Pharaohs, despite the great wisdom of the Egyptians; the halls of the Areopagus, despite of the skill of the Greeks; the throne of the Caesars, despite the valour of the Romans, have passed into the hands of warlike neighbours or savage invaders; that their history, their thoughts, their words are veiled unto us in the mist of antiquity which no research of ours can penetrate, we shall surely not accord to either of them the right of regarding with contempt the pretensions of Israel as the benefactors of mankind; they might indeed smile at the captive who, at the moment of the deepest degradation, when the heart of the bravest fails, who knows that barely are the boastful words spoken ere his head will be struck off to glut the barbarous vengeance of the ruthless conqueror, feels a holy consolation that he is better than his captors; that his system is wiser than their fairest philosophies, and that his religion will survive their states, their nations, their creeds, their very names; who is conscious that the name of Israel will be a blessing to many people, that their light will guide the footsteps of unborn nations, though he must now perish for having dauntlessly defended with the blood-stained blade of a shattered sword, fighting in the last entrenchment, on the last day of the independence of his land, the homes that he loved, the temple where he worshipped; yes, the heathens might smile when the Hebrew blessed his God.

for the gift of the law--yet was he justified in this joy, which they could not feel; his was the humility of faith in divine things, their derision, the effect of human arrogance; and the event too, has justified him, and rebuked them; for the cause of Israel, though not yet triumphant, is not rejected by the Lord, whilst our conquerors and our oppressors have one by one been cut off from the land of the living, and have left their names and their lands a by-word and a hissing to succeeding generations. It is not to be denied, that our name also has been converted into a reproach, and that the history of our people has been appealed to as exhibiting the striking effects of the awful visitation which follows upon a forgetfulness of God. But then our beautiful law has been adopted by many wise nations as their rule of life; yea, the remnants of the oppressors, who passed like a devastating storm over our once lovely heritage, have thrown off the rules of life they then pursued, and have in their stead taken a few of our moral precepts, and they thus endeavour to show that they are now the favoured nations of Heaven. But let them boast that they are the children of grace; let them triumph in the supposition, that they are more instructed, more enlightened than the sons of Israel are; still, whence did their religion come? was a new revelation vouchsafed unto them? did another prophet, like unto Moses, indeed come into their benighted lands, and proclaim a special announcement of a new code of laws in the name of the Most High? Our opponents themselves do not claim it; they refer to Moses and the prophets as their instructors; understood to our Moses and our prophets, to our law and our predictions. How then could the Romans or their heathen contemporaries have had cause to exult over the captive Hebrew? were they not arrogant when they gloried in their victories which did not save their empires from destruction, and their opinions from oblivion? and was not the captive justified for thanking God for the blessing of the law, which, whilst the name of Jew is despised, whilst the people of Jacob are outcasts in every land, outcasts because not governed politically by their own equitable code, holds its dominion over the minds of men more firmly and more widely diffused than when Israel dwelt securely in their own land?

We will therefore not claim to be more instructed in worldly sciences than our gentile friends, which we are not; we will not say, that as a people we are more moral, more honest than they are, which, though surely true in some respects, is not so in others; but this we will say, we are more acquainted with the basis of all truths than they are, we are blessed with a treasure from which, despite of the pride of human opinion, they have been compelled to borrow most of their moral principles, and that whatever they have of their own, independently of this source, is either not practicable or of a very questionable usefulness.

Let us look a little info the matter. Where do we find the origin of the universal precepts of worship and philanthropy, "love God above all, and thy neighbour as thyself," but in the blessed books of Moses? Did he not teach from the very first commencement of his commonwealth, that the love we are to bear to our neighbour, which should respect his rights and the feelings even which the peculiarity of his position might occasion, should be the first principle upon which the superstructure of our whole state polity was to be founded? Perhaps the doubter may be induced to appeal to the penal statutes which appear rigorous to the superficial observer. But are rigorous laws necessarily cruel in their effect upon society? This would be so indeed if it had been left to the judge to execute bodily punishment at his arbitrary will upon a person brought before him with or without cause. Yet we shall not find the practical effect of the law at all of this nature. The law itself defined the offence as well as the punishment, and publicity, credible witnesses and a searching investigation were all required before any punishment could follow upon any crime whatever, great or small, according to the letter of the law; consequently the rigorous enactments could only reach him who boldly and voluntarily exposed himself to their action; and as the statutes were publicly known, and could not be increased by any subsequent legislation, every member of the state had ample opportunity to make himself acquainted with their nature and tendency. In short, it was a regard for the rights of all which induced the denunciation of punishment against him who either had grievously wronged his fellow-being in person, moral standing, or possessions, or had by a scandalous example defied the laws upon which rested the best interests of the commonwealth; or, in other words, the love for the neighbour should be like the love for ourselves; he was to be restrained from injuring us even if he had the inclination; we had a right to expect from him assistance in our need, kindness if we required it, consolation if we were in trouble; whilst we on our part had the same obligation to him, to abstain from injuring him in the least, and to render him all the services in our power which his situation might call for. This, in brief, was the social love demanded by Moses, and is in truth the only sure foundation of a happy republic. If any subsequent code teaches the same, it is tantamount to the Mosaic code; and if it teaches any thing different, it is impracticable, and cannot in truth become the constitution of a free and enlightened people.

The love of God above all things is also the very life of our religion. What does the Scripture say: "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." Can we love Him more ardently than this precept demands? Is there any other mode by which we can demonstrate our love than by yielding all our energies, all our possessions, nay our, very life in the service of our heavenly Father? He who knows all our thoughts asked no more--He accepts the services of man according to the strength He has endowed him with. What more then could we add thereto?--Is it, perhaps, that we should cease to be human? that we should withdraw ourselves from the walks of life in the seclusion of a cloister? in the caverns of the desert? live with wild beasts, or with men more savage than the brutes of the forest ? that we should shun the intercourse with beings like ourselves, devote our days to fasting, our nights to useless meditations? If this had been requisite, it would have been so taught us; the absence of such ordinances clearly proves that the law contemplated the love of God to be exhibited in the midst of social enjoyment, in the walks of every-day life; we should hold all we possess as subject to his will, even whilst the mirthful laugh is heard in our dwellings, whilst little children play on our knees; whilst youths and maidens stand around their parents to ask for instruction or to share their domestic happiness.--What think you, that such a love of God is something impracticable? something too refined for a mortal to attain? O no! look at the many righteous fathers and mothers of our race from our very origin, from the birth of Abraham to the destruction of our temple and even since: and you will see that their social happiness did not prevent them from following the path of the Lord though it led them to death, to tribulation, or to captivity; yes, they who love the Lord, love also all the beings whom He has created, they feel that they have duties to perform on earth towards those who like themselves bear the image of God; but they feel more deeply yet that to Him who lives to eternity their whole duty is due, and they are therefore prepared to follow the Call of Heaven, like Abraham, to sacrifice, if need be, their only child on whom all their earthly hopes are centred; to go out, like Elijah did, into the wilderness, without provision for the journey in their bags, without a drop of water in their cruets; or to die, like did the many martyrs, in the defence of their faith; preferring to yield their spirits in innocence and truth sooner than accept the bribes and offices of the enlightened barbarians, who, professing to possess a religion of peace and good-will to mankind, doom to the stake and the scaffold those who cannot honestly agree with them in religious opinions. Such a love of God our law teaches, such a love our history proves to have frequently animated its followers. Can any system show a more consistent one? is there in fact any other demanded by the creeds of enlightened men ? Now say, where was this beautiful virtue first taught--in the law of Moses or elsewhere?

But one more instance will we cite. Human experience has proved the usefulness, nay the necessity of a day of rest; I do not believe that any people of antiquity had any such institution as a regular weekly recurrence, although among some nations several days of lawless festivity were allowed once a year to their bondmen; ; nor has modern paganism any thing resembling such a weekly respite from toil. Still modern civilized nations all recognize it in one shape or another. Now say, whence was it derived? We acknowledge that priestcraft has succeeded to induce a large proportion of the world to rest on the first day of the week, a day which the Lord has not ordained, which He has not sanctified, nor blessed above all other days. Nevertheless where did the idea spring from to require that the workshops be closed, the labourers be permitted to abstain from constant toil, and even the beasts of burden to rest? Is it not from the law of Moses? Was it not there written, before any where else, that the Lord had been pleased to give rest unto his people Israel on the seventh day of the week, on the holy Sabbath, the day which He had blessed and sanctified, which He had instituted as a sign between Him and Israel for ever, that He had created the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them in a period of six days?--And where, again we ask, is the revelation which teaches a different lesson? Believe me one thing, and we challenge those who differ from us to the proof, that there is not a tittle of evidence even in their authorities. to prove in so many words that any, Sabbath was ever instituted except the Mosaic or Jewish day of rest; and that there is consequently no reason to glorify any system, because of this blissful ordinance, above the law which Israelites consider their rule of life.

But what shall we say concerning the doctrinal part of our faith? If the moral and religious parts are so perfect as our brief exhibit has proved them, the ideal of our belief is not less so. What does it teach of God? That He is the Creator with whom there is no being to share the dominion, without whom there is no god. That He is supreme, over all things; that He is true in his word, faithful in his promises; that He is unchanging in his essence, perfect in his happiness; that He is merciful and forgiving, desiring the welfare of his creatures, and ever intent on giving them opportunities to retrieve the errors which they have committed, and to propitiate their God by an amended line of conduct; that He is the Creator, the Ruler, the Saviour, the Father, the Friend of all that has life, and that everything that is has been framed for a wise, useful, and benevolent purpose. Is this exposition of our doctrines beautiful, animating, consoling? Assuredly it is; for in it we find ourselves the special objects of a wise Providence, who watches over us, and loves and protects us; who desires our happiness, and forsakes us not even when we have wickedly rejected his mercy, but benignantly calls to us by means of the instruments so accessible to his omnipotence to bethink ourselves concerning our deeds, and to come back to his paternal embrace, where we shall find peace without end, blessing without measure.--This is our belief; this is the doctrine of the law of life. But are the doctrines of other systems equally pure, equally simple?--No, they deny the mercy of God to all except to the comparatively few who profess a certain set of ideas; they, some at least, imagine a complication in the person of the Deity, and fancy, and so teach, that there can be no happiness, no peace, no salvation without the intervention of a being neither God nor man, according to some, or, as others have it; by a divine being, who had to become a sacrifice for the sins of man. And if we ask for the proof that the Bible ever inculcated such a doctrine, we are referred to a number of passages which, not one of them, teaches any such doctrine in so many words; on the contrary, all insist that the Divine Being who spoke to Moses is one, sole, eternal, merciful God, who hears prayer, and forgives the sinner who returns from his evil and acts righteously.

If then the gentile or the unbeliever smiles over our arrogance, as it sometimes is termed, in calling ourselves a peculiar people, a favourite race: we will point out to him the many excellencies and beauties which are either derived from our law, and thence transferred to other systems, or which are as yet alone our guides and our doctrines. Well may we then say in the fulness of our gratitude: "Blessed be our God who hath created us for his glory and separated us from those who go astray, and given us a law of truth, and planted eternal life within us!"--Yes, beloved friends, it is the mercy of God alone that has wrought this wonder, that has set Israel apart, blessed with truth, blessed with life, blessed with a law distinct from the multitude of the gentiles, who see a light which they do not know, and hear a voice which they do not understand. May it then be our study to make ourselves familiar with this heavenly treasure, to endeavour to understand it in all its bearings, and to fulfil all the duties which this knowledge demands at our hands.

And you,. who are teachers in this blessed undertaking, of the school the happy fruits of which we have beheld this day, remember what it is you have undertaken. You have avowed by your presence and by your labours, that you have a firm belief in Israel's God, in Israel's law, in Israel's hopes. Israel's God is the everlasting Father, from whom all that is has sprung into being; Israel's law is that blessed code which He announced to our Fathers as his everlasting will and covenant; Israel's hopes are the bright days of a happy future which in God's own time will dawn upon the world, dispel the mists of darkness, of doubt, of superstition, of unbelief, and establish the kingdom of God over the hearts of all men from sea to sea, and from pole to pole; in which days the Lord will be called one, and one shall be his name: Remember this! hold to this truth firmly! and use your influence, your authority, all the arts of persuasion flowing from a holy enthusiasm, to impress the same belief and hopes on the minds of those who come unto you to drink through your means the waters of the fountain of life which was opened unto us on Mount Sinai; and let your virtuous example prove to your charges that in following your steps they are treading safely and firmly the path that leads to everlasting happiness and salvation.

Parents! you whom the Lord has caused to become fathers and mothers in Israel, to you we look confidently to be the spiritual guides of your offspring. The law says: "And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and speak of them when thou sittest in thy house; when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." Remember this duty; let religion be a frequent subject of conversation in the presence of your children, not the one, God forbid, which should call in question the truths of the law, or throw discredit upon its precepts, but one of encouragement, which should endeavour to explain in a familiar manner the doctrines which have been handed down to us, and the duties which we should observe; and if the proper information is wanting in you; omit no opportunities yourselves to acquire a due knowledge of divine things, under the persuasion that this course is one of the greatest duties which you owe to yourselves, to your children, to your fellow Israelites, and above all, to your God.--But be especially watchful that no act of yours should teach your children to neglect religion, or to despise the religious instruction which they obtain at school or from men who speak to them in the name of the Lord; and thus only can you fulfil the obligation which you admit to rest upon you by desiring that your offspring should be instructed in the word of God.

If all thus combine, if teachers, fathers, and mothers all contribute to make the law of life understood and obeyed: how readily will then the children who are the objects of this holy care respond in their knowledge and their conduct to the wishes of their own immediate friends and all Israel; the blessed truths of revelation will then flourish in their hearts; their deeds will correspond with the spirit which animates them; and they, their teachers, their parents, and they who are their fellows in the only true religion, will rejoice with songs of thanksgiving at the time when the spirits of the blessed will stand to judgment before that adorable, unending, only God who alone in his wisdom separated us from the nations, and planted in our midst the law of life, his truth, his everlasting, unchangeable word. Amen.

Veadar 17th, 5603
March 19th, 1843.