Vol. I, No. 6
By the Rev. Abraham Rice, of Baltimore, on the Sabbath Before Passover, 5602.
The Lord be with you all, beloved brethren!
To many of you the question must often have been asked, Why did the Almighty deny to the greatest of our prophets, our teacher Moses, that which is precisely of the greatest importance to man? Why did God furnish him with defective organs of speech, as we find recorded that Moses himself replied to God, when he was ordered to carry his first message to King Pharaoh "I am no man of words; I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue?" Why was a man, of whom the Deity himself testified that he was and should remain the noblest of mortals, as it is said: "And there never arose in Israel again like unto Moses, who knew the Lord face to face," a man who was not alone prophet, but also the leader of an entire nation—why was he above all others crippled in his power of speech? Difficult as this question appears at the first outset, it is easily and truly answered by our great Rabbenu Nissim, in the following manner:
"The goodness of God, which induced him to bestow on his people Israel the holy religion in their possession, endeavoured to cause them to understand by all possible methods, that this religion was delivered them pure and unmixed through Moses, and that nothing having its origin in fraud or deception was contained therein; for this reason the Lord took from Moses, who acted, so to say, as mediator between God and Israel, all the characteristics of a great orator, that no one should say in later times, that Moses had imposed his laws upon the people by his oratorical talents. No, Moses himself testified that he was no orator, and that he spoke with difficulty the very words which the Lord had put in his mouth; for the truth needs not any outward ornament, she cannot resort to deception."
Just so, beloved brethren, is it not my purpose to entertain any one by the splendour of oratory; because this holy place is much too elevated for such an object; our aim is an earnest reflection on religion and its duties; and especially this day do I ask of you a serious thinking, since I am going to speak on a subject which requires much reflection, a subject the most important for all Israelites, namely, the idea of the Messiah and his mission, and the bearing which it has upon religion, inasmuch as in the latest times apostates from our faith have endeavoured to deface this idea with their silly notions which are evidently founded in error.
There are three chief causes why many do not wish to discuss this idea:
In order to explain the idea of Messiah, we must revert to the origin and establishment of our holy religion. When the time arrived, that we were to be released from our first slavery in Egypt, we read in Exodus 3.12: "When thou hast brought forth this people from Egypt, ye shall serve God on this mountain." The Lord here declares at once the object of our redemption, that is, that we should serve God; or, in other words, not for the sake of worldly happiness were we released from Egypt, but to receive our religion on Mount Sinai, and to go thence to the promised land, where, in troth, all the commandments could first be properly carried into execution. In another part of Exodus, (19. 3‑6,) it is said: "Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell unto the children of Israel, You have seen what I have done to Egypt, and that I bore you upon eagles' wings, and brought you unto me. And now if you will hearken unto my voice, and observe my covenant, you shall be unto me a peculiarly beloved people from all nations, for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel."
From the passages here adduced, the rational thinker can already discover, that the object and destiny of Israel are clearly indicated by God himself, that is, as the text expresses it, they should be a priestly kingdom and a holy people; and for this priestly kingdom, and for the promotion of its holiness, God appropriated a particular country, to wit, the promised land. But why precisely this land? Why could Israel not fulfill their religion entirely till they came to the promised land? How can one part of the earth be better than the other? These and similar questions I hear many of you ask; but if you investigate the matter a little deeper, you will find that all these questions resolve themselves into one. To proceed: we find that all the beings existing on the earth are divided into four divisions, namely—the mineral kingdom, the vegetable kingdom, the animal kingdom, and lastly, mankind. We observe in each of these divisions a gradual ascent from the lowest to the highest; in the mineral world, we ascend from the common paving-stone to the rare and precious jewel; in the vegetable world, from the lowest shrub to the lofty cedar; in the animal world, from the smallest worm to the strong, the majestic, the fearless lion; and in man also we find a gradual ascent from the lowest who disregards every thing spiritual, to the noblest of his kind, who lives conformably to the destiny which the Creator has placed before him. If now in these four divisions of beings there exists a gradual progression from the lowest to the best: we may conclude naturally that the earth itself is subject to the same law, and presents a gradual progression from the lowest part to that of the highest in value. Though our weak reason was not able to discover which this best portion is, the all-knowing Creator nevertheless pointed out to us, that the promised land possesses the highest degree of perfection of all the earth, and is the most proper place where holiness and religion can be carried out to the greatest perfection. We therefore read, (Deut. 11. 12): "A land that the Lord thy God careth for; the eyes of the Lord are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
That our religion is intimately connected with the holiness of the place, I will endeavour to prove to you for the sake of greater clearness. Whatever exists can be referred back upon time and space; for whatever is or was is situated in "time," and occurs at a certain spot, which we call "space." Now it was a law in our religion that a certain religious act should be performed at a fixed time and at a fixed place, in order to prove that time and space also are closely connected with religion. The law alluded to is the following: when the people of Israel had come to the promised land, the city of Jerusalem was acknowledged, through prophetic inspiration, as the holiest place in the promised land; in this city of Jerusalem the holiest spot was chosen to erect thereupon the temple, and in this temple there was again a holiest place, called the holy of holies. Into this holiest place the high priest as the holiest of men was permitted to enter but once a year, on the holiest day, namely, the Day of Atonement, with the offering of incense, as the holiest of all offerings. Here we see, that the Deity has laid it down as law, that the holiest man shall appear on the holiest day, on the holiest spot, with the holiest of offerings, in order that time, space, deed, and man may all combine in the furtherance of the heavenly religion. And this combination is to confirm energetically the idea, that the destiny of the individual Israelite is, like that of his entire nation, to live for his religion; therefore it is said in the text we have adduced "And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests;" every Israelite is bound to lead a priestly life, to be a guide to others less favoured than himself. We have therefore the many ordinances relative to the harvest, the many ordinances relating to the raising of cattle, the many ordinances relating to property and soil, the many laws relating to the assistance of the indigent brethren; in short, the whole life of man, with its various relations, is changed unto us into acts of religion.
Now reflect, my beloved hearers, how great a union and peace would have reigned in the promised land, after our entrance into the same, had we but exercised those laws in their purity. Would not such an example from so mighty a people have necessarily and silently affected all the other nations of the earth? Would it not have necessarily resulted that the fear of God and the idea of his UNITY must have spread over the surface of the whole earth? Would not all erroneous systems of religion have crumbled into ruins under their own weight? So also said Moses (Deut. 4. 5, 6, 8): "Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, as the Lord my God hath commanded me, that you may do them in the land whither ye go to possess it: Observe, therefore, and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes, and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before ye this day?"
But, just as the education of the individual is divided into three periods, namely, his education as child, his education as youth, and finally the complete education of the man: so is the education of an entire people governed by the same laws. When we came the first time in the promised land, we were, to say, yet in our years of infancy; we saw, indeed, the good which was placed before our eyes, but heeded not the punishment which would follow upon the non-observance of the commandments; the nation, therefore, was also punished, as a whole, in a child-like manner; it was banished from its own hearth; but only for a short time; and after we had lived seventy years in the Babylonian captivity, the promised land was again delivered up to us through divine aid. Now commenced the age of youth of our nation; it knew well the punishment which is to follow upon non-observance of the law; but just as the youth wilt not consent, through levity and passion, to place a bridle on his inclination: so the whole people defiled itself a second time, through levity and passion, until its independence was again lost, and its members were scattered abroad over the surface of the whole globe. And now we stand in the period of the education of the man; and since this education is only attained in individuals through manifold reverses and much experience, our nation must for the same reason encounter many reverses through many centuries upon the whole earth, and acquire experience, till it is ripe to enter again into a state of independence, and to stand before the world as an example for all. And it is even the goodness of God which has scattered us in the whole world; that at some future day all the earth may acknowledge the UNITY and OMNIPOTENCE of God; for so we read in Micah 5. 7: "And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many people as dew from the Lord and as showers upon the herbs." The whole world will at one time acknowledge that the God of Jacob is the true God, and that the religion of Israel is the true religion; as we are told in Zechariah 8. 23: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts, It shall be in these days, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, yes, they shall take hold of the skirt of a man that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you." So likewise says Zephaniah 3. 9: "For then I will turn unto the nations a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, and serve Him with one consent." This is farther, confirmed in Micah 4. 2: "And many nations shall come and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and He shall teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for from Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." There are besides these, innumerable passages in the Scriptures which clearly and plainly point out this hopeful, happy time. But, as we have said, this happy time to which our hopes are directed, is to be one in which the beauty of religion is to stand forth in unclouded splendour, in which one grand knowledge of faith will spread every where, so that every one will reach that degree of intelligence, to seek happiness only in one true religion. Not riches, however, nor other worldly goods, are the object or the idea of Messiah; for such happiness is but imaginary and transitory in its nature; and should this be the sole idea of Messiah, to cause us to live quite happily and comfortably: our great men would never have shed so many bitter tears over the tardiness of his coming; because these holy ones did not wish to live at ease or in splendour; the greatness of God and the perfection of his religion were their favourite thoughts, and these ideas they desired so ardently to see diffused abroad in the world. So also we read distinctly in Maimonides: "Our wise men and the prophets did not hope for the days of Messiah, for the sake that they might rule all the world, that they might be masters over the gentiles, nor that these might serve them, nor that they might eat and drink at ease; but that they might be able to study the law and its wisdom undisturbed, that they might pursue piety without let or hindrance, in order that they might reach everlasting happiness. But the King Messiah is to build the temple, gather the outcasts of Israel, and restore the ancient statutes as they were in the beginning."
Behold now, beloved brethren! here you have the idea of Messiah briefly and clearly conveyed; the object is not the amassing of worldly goods, but a heavenly hope it is which causes us to look forward to the coming of the redeemer. If we have now correctly understood the idea of Messiah, the above-mentioned fear, that we cannot be good citizens of the countries where we live if we believe in the coming of the redeemer, must fall to the ground. The idea of Messiah has nothing to do with the state; we can and should do nothing to hasten the time of his coming; all we have to do is to observe our laws in such a manner that it may be the pleasure of the Most High, to hasten the approach of this time. But so long as we live among the gentiles, we are commanded to obey the laws of the respective states. A clear proof of the truth of this position is furnished us by the prophet Jeremiah. When the Israelites lived captives in Babylon, he admonished them in the following words (24. 5): "Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them," &c. Here the prophet pointed out the idea, that so long as Israelites live among the nations, they have to fulfill all the duties towards the state; but they dare on no account give up their hope and faith in Messiah because they serve the state faithfully; for this same prophet, from whom we just quoted, says 23. 5, 6): "Behold days are coming, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous branch, who shall rule as a prosperous king, and exercise justice and righteousness in the earth; in. his days shall Judah be saved and Israel dwell securely; and this is his name which they shall call him: The Lord our Righteousness." '
You see thus, that the same prophet who commanded Israel to become useful citizens of the state, calls their attention likewise to the idea of Messiah; because the Jew as Jew can and should be an upright member of the community, whilst he can and should hold firmly on to the hope of his own nation.
We pass now to the second question: "Whether it belongs to religion to believe in Messiah, or whether it is a matter of indifference?"
From what I have just advanced you are almost able, without farther argument, to conclude that the idea of Judaism, without that of the Messiah, is a fallacy, since the perfection of Judaism consists in the perfection of the execution of its laws. Now, every one, who has the least acquaintance with religion, must know; that many of the laws can only be carried into execution when we live in the holy land, and have a temple; and as the Almighty is unchangeable and eternal, even so must be the religion which was given and revealed by Him; as we also actually acknowledge in Yigdal: לא יחליף האל ולא דתו לעולמים לזולתו "God will neither alter nor change his law for any other." It is therefore natural to presume, that a time will arrive when the law will be able to be executed in its fullest extent; as we also say in the same hymn,ישלח ימים משיחנו לפדות מחכי קץ ישועתו: "He will send at the end of days our anointed, to redeem those who wait for the accomplishment of his salvation." How can, therefore, any one call himself a Jew without admitting the belief in the Messiah? A Jew without religion is an unmeaning word, and the Jewish religion cannot be carried into execution without this idea of the coming of the redeemer. Take up your prayer books, and read your daily שמנה עשרה (the eighteen benedictions,) as also the prayers for the different festivals of the year, and you will scarcely find a single page in the whole book where this does not prevail. * * * * *
Maimonides, therefore, maintains with right in his compendium of laws, on the section on Repentance (הלכות תשובה) where he teaches: "These are (the Jews) who have no portion in the life to come; they who deny the truth of the law, and who deny the coming of the redeemer;" for the Bible itself adverts to this subject so very frequently in the plainest and most direct manner. So is it said in Deut. 30. 3: "And the Lord thy God will restore thy captivity, and have compassion on thee, and he will return thee from all nations whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee." Likewise in Ezekiel 34. 24-28, we read: "I will take you from among the heathens, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean; from all your filthiness and all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God." Now, I ask you, can this idea be more clearly expressed?
As respects, the third point, that weak heads, from levity and caprice, endeavour to ridicule this idea of a redeemer, and advance as a proof of its fallacy that we have already waited these eighteen hundred years without any result for this same Messiah:
we have to observe, that it is sheer folly to argue in this manner, and the acts that spring from such reasoning can boast of but little wisdom. Length of time can only be an objection with us perishable mortals, because a series of years like the above appears long indeed when compared with our existence of seventy years. But with God, who lives for ever and exists to all eternity, we cannot speak of time, because He is elevated above all time, and consequently nothing can be viewed as too long when we speak of Him. His unsearchable wisdom, his all-penetrating view, will in due season point out, when the proper period has arrived, when the idea of the Messiah shall be made known to the world; and we weak, short-sighted sons of man have therefore no cause to doubt of the coming of his oft-promised anointed messenger; but the true Israelite takes as an example the already accomplished predictions, and concludes therefrom, that the nonfulfilled promises will also be ultimately verified by the event; for the God who has led Israel out of Egypt and Babylon will also accomplish for us the third and last promised redemption. * * *
Let us hope, brethren, that you have truly and correctly comprehended this idea so closely connected with our religion; but let us also hope that you will after this resolve to act so that your own age may be found deserving by the universal Father, that He may let his glory be made known on earth. And may mine be the happiness, to have by this address strengthened anew the doubters, and led them to the acknowledgment of the truth.
May it please Thee, O heavenly Father, to receive before thy throne the many scalding tears which our holy ones, who long since have lain down to sleep in the dust, have poured out before Thee, and to hasten the time of which our prophet Isaiah spoke when saying: "And thou shalt know that I the Lord am thy Saviour, and thy Redeemer the mighty One of Jacob. Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, neither wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls 'salvation,' and thy gates 'praise.' Thy sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself; for the Lord shall be thy everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended. The little one shall become a thousand, and the small one a strong nation; I, the Lord, will hasten it in its time." Yes, O everlasting One, fulfill it speedily, at the appointed time; yes, at the appointed time. Amen.