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The Object Of Our Redemption.

A Sermon, Delivered at the Synagogue Nefuzoth Yehudah, of New Orleans, on Sabbath Shemoth, Tebeth 25th, 5612.

By Isaac Leeser.


Let us thank God that He has, in his mercy, enlightened our mind by his wisdom, and bestowed on us a law a reason, and revealed unto us the truth of his being the Author of all that exists. Simple as are the moral duties, little as you may deem  <<5>> the expression, “I believe in one only God,” the search for them has often perplexed the wisest of men, and to this day there are multitudes, to whom the religious obligations and faith of Israel are matters of profound astonishment and wonder. Besides this, it took a long time to discipline ourselves, before we imbibed the lesson so that it became a part of our nature, and it was the especial work of God, because He loved our fathers, that we were brought unto his service; therefore, it is but proper in us to say, We are thankful for this signal favour.

Long was the captivity which had chained us to the soil of Egypt; severe also was the toil which we had to endure under the task-masters of the Pharaohs: when in the royal palace was trained the man who was destined to end this captivity, and to rend asunder the bonds of this slavery. Driven away from this home of elegance, refinement, ease, and pleasure, we at length behold him feeding the flock of a chief of a neighbouring nation, whose daughter he had espoused as a wife. His banishment was owing to an offence which he had committed against the laws, in his zeal for his oppressed brother-Israelites, and alone and by the world forsaken, he wandered far away into the desert of Arabia, to tend his charge, and to follow his humble pursuit, so different from what ambition had painted to his early imagination, when an inmate of the royal mansion. Eighty winters had already passed over his head; perhaps, his once black hair had been whitened in the lapse of years: and still he had before his mind the picture of his oppressed brothers, groaning and toiling under the excess of the rigour with which they were treated. Perhaps, hope had perished in his heart of ever seeing their condition improved, and the early promise of his ancestor Jacob, that God would think of them, no doubt, appeared to him the mockery of hope, the accomplishment of which seemed more remote with every day that elapsed. But were our fathers forgotten? Did their groans escape the wakeful ears of Providence? Assuredly not; He who regardeth all our ways had so ordained it, that we should be strangers, and held to labour in a land not ours for four hundred years, in order to train us to become fit to stand on the earth as the witnesses of Almighty <<6>> Power.

Ay, you will, perhaps, say, “God could have effected this without our bodily suffering, without causing us to experience that feeling of despair; which must, doubtlessly, have often seized on our forefathers, when they laboured without reward, and toiled without benefiting themselves.” But, admitting this, it does not gainsay that the trials which we had to endure, made us look up to Heaven for that protection which we in vain sought far on earth. But, independently of this consideration, we must not forget that the early followers of the truth were but the members of one family, which the lapse of more than two hundred years after the emigration of Abraham from Chaldea, amounted to only seventy persons. What barrier would such a handful of men have opposed to the evil influence of false opinions all around them? Was it not to be supposed that in a very short time one by one would have dropped off and mingled with the masses around them? Do we not see even at this day, that persons become tired of presenting the singular spectacle of a conforming Israelite, and adopting the customs, manners, and religion of the gentiles? Might not prosperity and ease have led us away, when so few in number, to regard as of no importance our separate national existence? No doubt but that this would have been the case to a great extent, at least, just as at present, when we see similar causes producing similar results.

But now observe the ways of Providence:—barely had the family of Jacob begun to multiply in the country assigned to them for their residence, than the anti­pathy of a difference of faith produced its natural result, a dis­like of the majority for those who differed from them, precisely as is witnessed daily in our own experience. Yet not alone was this dislike manifested in a mere unwillingness to acknowledge the Israelites as equals, though they had greatly enriched the land of their adoption, which had so pressingly invited their first settling on its soil as agriculturists and shepherds; but it soon degenerated into a desire of subjugating them to the service of the state, first to diminish their increase by excessive toil, and then to prevent their quitting the country, which they had already benefitted by their presence.

<<7>>On the one side, therefore, we behold the Egyptians tyrannizing over our forefathers, abominating them as aliens, maltreating them as entirely depending on their will and pleasure, whilst on the other, it was also natural that those who thus suffered, should sigh for their freedom, which they could only hope to gain by the overthrow of their masters. A mingling of the races, where the subsisting relation was only as tyrant and slave, was, in the nature of things, impossible; and sooner or later a collision must have taken place, wherein one or the other would have been exterminated, when either the rage of the oppressed would have crushed the oppressors, or the power of these have exterminated the insurgent hordes. Both alternatives have occurred in the history of the world, and would in our case have resulted in an obliteration of our entire people from the history of mankind, or presented us in our first rise as merciless murderers, and a horde of ruthless barbarians. In either case our residence in Egypt would have been without its influence on human events, so far, at least, as the progress of mind and civilization is concerned; and this would have been the result even if we had been victorious, until such time as the savage and rude natures, who had struck for freedom, had been reduced to a more gentle and tractable state.

This might have endured for ages, as we have proofs that it has required these in other nations to effect the least good result; and then it is doubtful what form the new civilization would have assumed. But it is evident that the compulsory residence in Egypt of a family of men like ours is, highly intellectual and susceptible of the greatest improvement, could not lead to such deplorable results, without injuring in a material point the progress of human society. If the intention of Providence was to isolate us, it was not to render us barbarians; if it was designed that we should not be mingled up with other nations, it was not to arm us against all the world besides. How then was the liberation of Israel to be effected? Precisely as it is recorded, by the evident interference of Omnipotence, at the time when they had become sufficiently numerous to stand alone in the rank of nations, capable of maintaining an independence in government and opinions, against the assaults of all mankind.

Some of you may, perhaps, think that it is assuming too much to suppose that the course of events portrays to us the ways of Providence; but, on the other hand, let me ask you, “Wherein will you discover design and wisdom, if it be not in the succession of events which occur around us? Do you believe there is anything fortuitous? any event which stands forth before us without its being within the supervision of the Most High?”

Men are, indeed, free agents, empowered to work out in a minor degree the thoughts which arise within their hearts. Nevertheless, the whole course of recorded events proves this fact, that everything, notwithstanding this; tends towards the general good of God’s creatures, or, in other words, that there is no unmitigated evil.

Let, then, the wicked purpose and encompass in their mind the greatest injury to society, they will be debarred at once by the inherent limits, which check all events, from effecting their ends, and not beyond endurance will they be permitted to work out their fell designs.

We are, therefore, empowered to assume, even if we had no revelation to guide us, that the residence of the Israelites in Egypt was not a useless period in their history, and that the sorrows which they had to endure were not without their corresponding good results. We will, then, at once assert, that their residence in that country was designed to withdraw them for awhile from the close intimacy which had sprung up between them and the inhabitants of Palestine, whose corruption, and immorality would have operated highly detrimental to their own prosperity; and the servitude they had to endure was in the same manner calculated to prevent their mingling with the refined but voluptuous and indolent denizens of the land of the Nile, and sinking, like them, into idolatry and moral inertness.

The Psalmist, therefore, justly enumerates this fact amidst the objects of mercy, for which he is grateful to the Lord; as we read: “And Israel came to Egypt, and Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And God multiplied his people greatly, and made it stronger than its enemies. He turned their heart to hate his people, to deal treacherously against his servants.” (Ps. cv. 23-25.) And all this was done, we may assert farther, to impress on the conviction of this <<9>> people, on the mind of these servants of God, the full knowledge of whose people and whose servants they were. They saw around them the prosperity of their masters, and they beheld them at the same time worshipping in the manner their own diseased fancy had taught them. Every virtue, every vice, every power of nature was deified and represented under some typical form, some monstrous figure of man, of bird, or of beast; the very cattle of the field were held sacred and worshipped, or, at least, regarded as the emblem of some superior power, even on the assumption that idolatry represented deeper and higher ideas among the initiated in its mysteries, than it did among the vulgar crowd. And yet when the time came for the contest between the truth and the falsehood, between the living God and the base invention of darkness, it was made manifest that the Lord is the only God in heaven and on earth, and that there is none else; his will had to be obeyed, and, though unwillingly, Pharaoh had to consent to let Israel go free, in obedience to the wonders and miracles wrought in his land, through the means of the messenger of Heaven.

But I anticipate what I was going to advance when referring to our history. Moses had come to the desert in pursuit of his humble calling, when his attention was arrested by what could not fail of striking with awe the spirit of the most courageous,—a bush was flaming fire, yet not diminished of its substance, notwithstanding the fierce combustion to which it was subjected; and whilst about preparing to investigate this phenomenon, so much in accordance with the history of his people, then and since, he for the first time obtained an insight into those great truths for which he had hitherto sighed in vain. The voice of Almighty Power fills his ears with audible sounds, sounds like which nothing human can be imagined; it is not merely hearing, but a full conviction that it is so, and not otherwise, which comes over him, and his foot is arrested on the sacred soil where the mighty Presence is revealed, and he felt strengthened and endowed with a new vigour to undertake the noblest mission which ever fell to the lot of man, to be the harbinger of freedom and the herald of truth to the oppressed and unenlightened, and the light and <<10>> guide to his fellow-creatures for all ages which are to be on earth.

And so spoke the God of our fathers, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,” and all uncertainty which the inventions of Egypt’s priests may have produced in his soul at once fled, and he recognised that all their dreams were vanity, and that there exists none to share the power of the One whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had worshipped. The traditions of his fathers rushed through his soul; the false teachings of the priests of Egypt and Midian, if ever they had the least influence on his spirit, vanished for ever, and he recognised in its full extent the existence of one sole God and Ruler, and that no other being can be imagined as sharing his power and glory.

But the very reminding that this God was the one worshipped by the patriarchs must have excited in him the deepest regret at the long servitude of their children, seeing that they were to all appearances forsaken and left to the mercy of their oppressors. He may have thought, that if the covenant with Abraham was yet remembered, why did his children languish and groan from intolerable wrongs. But if Moses so reflected, his thoughts were not long permitted to flow in that channel, as he was notified that full cognizance had been taken of the sufferings of the Israelites, and that the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs should be no longer delayed. The manner of effecting this was next made known to him; since he was appointed the messenger of the Divine Will to Pharaoh to demand the liberation of Israel. To this, however, Moses objected, alleging his unworthiness of the great work assigned to him. Be this that Moses actually uttered the words which we find recorded, or that he merely thought so, and resolved in his mind the difficulties of the task before him, it is all the same; and well did it become him not to rush upon the glorious mission with hot and eager haste, as many of inferior powers would assuredly have done; and not until he felt convinced that he could not fail would he consent to make the attempt, even in obedience to a divine command.

But this assurance was not long withheld, for he was told,

כי אהיה עמך וזה לך האות כי אנכי שלחתיך בהואציך את העם ממצרים תעבדון את האלהים על ההר הזה׃ שמות ג׳ י״ב

<<11>> “For I will be with thee; and this shall be unto thee the proof that I have sent thee, when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt,—you shall serve God on this mountain.”—Exod. 3:12.

This means, that not by human power, not by the clash of weapons, not by the shock of contending hosts, should the accomplishment of the prediction be brought about, but by a chain of resistless events, which would leave the tyrant no other means of escape than an entire yielding to the demand which Moses was to make in the name of God. The prophet was, therefore, thus answered when he asked, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?”

Indeed, in his own person he had little power; he was but a lone shepherd of the desert, banished from his native land, unknown to his fellow-Israelites, whom he was to redeem from bondage, without wealth or influence anywhere, in danger of his life, so far as human probability was concerned, in case he should be denounced to the civil authorities, should he venture to return unpardoned from his banishment. Consequently the assurance came with a double force when the Lord told him, “Go, because I will be with thee:” nothing shall be too difficult to be overcome, and no danger too great to be withstood, since the Most High himself would protect and prosper his messenger; hatred should be converted into respect, unwillingness into submission, before him who was to come shielded by the protection of the Supreme, until that time when the accomplishment should have crowned the attempt with complete success.

And more yet, new assurance was given, one even greater than the mere freeing the people from earthly bondage, that when they should have left the land of their servitude they should also be freed from the vices and superstitions of the priests who there taught their errors; and the Israelites, thus released from thralldom to the king, should learn a new and free worship, a religion of truth and mercy, and serve in a pure faith the God of reason and truth at the mountain where Moses then first heard his Maker’s voice. And the very impotence of the idols of Egypt and their worshippers was to be exhibited clearly and conclusively as a preparatory step to this double enfranchisement; goodness and <<12>> justice were to be conjoint in effecting the will of the Most High, so that the obduracy of the king was to be coerced in consenting to the liberation of his serfs, and these were to see that an Almighty Hand had guided them forth to freedom and light.

We have thus before us this conviction, that the stay of the Israelites in Egypt was not to punish them for any wrong done by them individually or collectively, but to teach them nationally the power and goodness of God. A people was needed on earth to guard the truth of God’s being the sole Author of all, a truth which each successive generation had rejected as too little in accordance with the pursuit of pleasure and selfishness. It was, therefore, that at the very time the Lord promised to Abraham a numerous progeny, He also foretold him the sufferings which they should have to endure. Our ancestor did not complain, though a dark, deep, melancholy overcame him, assured that all would result for the best of the world. He did not, perhaps, understand how such great sufferings could well lead to so great an end; still did he not lose his confidence in Him who had so long guarded him in his own wanderings. Nor was his trust misplaced. During all the servitude of the Israelites, though so many perished, the great aim constantly became more and more developed; a nation was reared hardy, strong, and laborious, so unlike all others raised under a southern sun; and they must have felt at the same time that they would owe a debt of everlasting gratitude to whomsoever would or could release their limbs from the galling chains with which they were loaded. Had it been a man, they perhaps might have deified him, as was the foolish practice of the age in which they lived; what else then could they do, but to be drawn to the service of that invisible Being, who in his might passed through the land at the dark midnight hour, and at whose nod sank unto death the first-born of every house? Then arose wailing and weeping from the hearts of the obdurate who refused to recognise the power of the Supreme, and the slaves were sent forth to freedom, and their hands were not stained with blood, and their garments reeked not with the gore of their slain adversaries; but they rejoiced in the victory which Justice had achieved, and they praised the <<13>> Power which had triumphed without effort over the weak designs of impotent men.

No wonder, then, that our forefathers were ready to follow their God into the trackless desert, that they promised to obey and to do whatever might taught them from on High. And though the ancient force of habit occasionally overcame their newly-begotten faith, though they at times sighed for the flesh­pots of Egypt; they again returned to their allegiance when they were reminded that the same Justice which had humbled their oppressors was also ready to chastise them for their forgetfulness of duty. And never has the faith which our fathers re­ceived at their first liberation been entirely forgotten; thousand and thousand times have we rebelled; again and again have we offended; frequently did our enemies predict, at least they pretended to hope, that our national extinction was nigh and impending: still at each period the God of Abraham came to our aid, and saved us from the devouring sword of our adversaries, or when prosperity had made us forgetful of our allegiance, He stretched forth the rod of his vengeance and called us back to his service by the afflictions which robbed us of our ease and greatness.—And, brothers, who is this God whom we were taught to worship? Do you know how He is called? Can you tell me the name by which He bid Moses call Him when He announced himself as our national God, as the worshipped of our fathers? Did He call himself mutable? mortal? insufficient? short of days? weak in power? Oh no,—it is as אהיה אשר אהיה, “I will be, the One who ever will be,” that He revealed himself to Moses, and as He commands us to acknowledge Him in all our generations, so long as there is one son of Israel to stand before Him on the earth which He has created. And what does this name, “I will be,” signify? Simply that He is alone in his power and eternity; he is the sole One who can say of himself that He will exist for ever, to the infinitude of time, which even imagination in vain tries to limit or measure; who was before all creation, who is whilst all creation exists, and who will never­theless continue, though all of which we have a conception shall have faded again into nothingness, and this vast structure of the <<14>> universe shall have sunk again into the Being whence it sprung.

Yes, the mind wanders almost into madness to reach even in approximation the greatness and eternity of our God; how utterly impossible is it, then, to define what He is! He declared himself as “I will be;” and as such let us adore Him, and bring to His service our whole heart and soul; let us surrender ourselves entirely to His holy keeping, in the full assurance that whatever betides us is, at last, for our own happiness. But let us also beware how we swerve from our God, and forget that line of duty which our forefathers pledged themselves and their children to pursue. For, behold, it is not an arbitrary mandate which we regard as our religion; it is the conviction that our fathers received the true knowledge of the nature of the Godhead, which we manifest in our obedience; and who will dare to say that the knowledge which we then obtained is not applicable at this day to the Almighty, who is, from his very being, unchanging? what could have existed since then to limit His power or to circumscribe His mercy? who of His creatures has since then arisen to teach Him wisdom, or to aid Him in the accomplishment of His will? And who are we—we who are here this day? Ay, recipients of the same bounty which our fathers obtained.

And what were they called upon to do? Only to observe the precepts which they received as a token, that they believed in the Being who had so signally loved and blessed them and their predecessors. And was there ever a time when there was a break in this great chain of mercies and truths? when the Lord was no longer almighty, or we not dependent on His goodness? Where, then, is the permission for us to relax in our task, whilst He changes not in His power and mercy? Why shall we neglect His commandments, which are the sign that we are devoted to the only true God—to the sole Creator—the only Ruler and Protector of the universe?

Ay, you may say, He needs not our services to Make Him happy; but it is not for His sake, but for ours, that we are to be faithful; we are chosen to be His witnesses, to testify by our presence that we believe in no other god than Him who created <<15>> all things; and, therefore, in order to preserve us from mixing with those who walk not in the light of the Lord, are we commanded to seal our children with the sign of the covenant, that we and they may know that we are consecrated to His service; therefore do we keep the seventh day Sabbath, in order to testify that we believe in the creation of the world; therefore do we eat the unleavened bread, to show that we have full faith in the truth of the revelation which was communicated to us at the time we went forth from Egypt; therefore do we write a copy of the law, that it may be a testimony against us whether we indeed observe the ordinances which have been taught us, as the emanation of the will of our Father, who is in heaven.

But not for our own sake alone do we exist; but that we may always be as a light to the nations, so that at length all may reach that haven of divine truth, which will at one time embrace all the sons of man. In the meanwhile, let us be faithful guardians of the light; let us watch the sacred flame, in happy or in evil tithes; let us not be fainthearted, when it appears nigh its extinction; but let us, in the deepest time of distress, when the sinning of our nation is the darkest and the loudest crying for vengeance, not lose the courage which always animated us, and let us hope on for ever in the ultimate accomplishment of all the good which the Lord has predicted for Israel. For, if the darkness of Egypt was changed into light, and history testifies that it was, the darkness which now lies heavily on us will also vanish. And the sun of righteousness will arise, and dispel the gloom which weighs down the spirit of those who grieve, for the backsliding of Israel, and joy will illuminate again the heart of those who mourn for Zion. Let the wicked be ever so numerous; let ever so many throw off the yoke which we and our fathers promised to wear in the service of God; let the number of the faithful be reduced to the smallest fraction: there is still a life in the root of Israel which will survive all perils, and spring forth again to the light of day, at the time of the awakening, when the spirit of truth will walk abroad over the renovated earth; when a bright glory will encircle those who have waited faithfully the coming of the Lord to rule over all the sons of Adam; at that day, when all mankind will cast away their idols and vain <<16>> imaginations, when all will call on the Most High with one voice; at that happy hour, when all will declare their belief in one God, and worship the Lord, who is one and alone, in the sincerity of faith. Amen.

New Orleans, Jan. 14th, Tebeth 22d, 5612.