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Lectures on Prayer.

 (Continued from page 75.)


Respecting the Scriptural Passages Contained in the Prayers—Their Propriety—Their Influence—The Necessity Of Retaining Them.

(Delivered by request of the Hebrew Literary Association.)

Etymologists say that the word תפילה Tefillah  prayer, is derived from the word פלל to judge, whence פליל Pahlil, a judge; and that the word התפלל Hithpallel, to pray, as commonly rendered, ought properly to be given with “to judge oneself,” which would thus convey, that every act of prayer ought to be preceded by a strict self-examination, in order to discover whether we have any right to approach, even as petitioners for an undeserved favour, Him who knows the secrets of our heart. There can be no question that such a self-examination and self-judging cannot fail of being highly promotive of a virtuous and religious life; for, since daily we have some favour to ask, we shall have daily an inducement to institute the inquiry which is the prerequisite to a proper entreaty; and if we find that it is not right within ourselves, we must, as a matter of course, set at once about remodelling our conduct upon a better and more pious plan than the one we have been pursuing; and thus prayer will be a constant incentive to perseverance in the right, or an impulse to a thorough reformation, unless we are so lost to our accountable state as to pray with insincere lips, and merely perform it as a routine of duty, in which the heart is cold, the soul unmoved, and the result unfelt in our conduct. But such a mode of pray­ing can only be acceptable upon the supposition that the One whom we address can be deceived, and merely hears our words which penetrate to His lofty presence, whilst distance and intervening obstacles hide from His view the deformity of our conduct. That such prayer cannot avail us aught to obtain favour in our need, requires no argument, and common sense would at <<127>> once declare it an insult to God, if even the Bible uttered no condemnation of it. But the Word of God palpably condemns insincere prayer, and declares it unacceptable; consequently, there can be no excuse for offering it, nor any reasonable hope that it will in the least benefit him who utters the same.

It is now evident to you, that we can pray in sincerity as Jews, only when our faith in our religion id perfect; by which I mean, that we have a full assurance in the truth of God, as He has Himself revealed to us through nature, and more yet through Scripture. No thought which is in conflict with this conviction must at all dwell in our mind when we utter petition or praise, when we look to the Lord for enlargement, or feel grateful for the mercies extended to us. Our heart should then, if at any time, be perfect, entire with God; no possible doubt should obscure our entire dependence on Him, our entire surrender of ourselves to His holy keeping. What is, therefore, more proper than a full confession of faith, in the midst of our formal prayers, which have been framed by our sages, to express all possible wants which we can experience individually and nationally? And what confession of faith can you point out as existing, or likely to be devised hereafter, so every way adapted to declare our undivided trust, as the words of the Shemang? Each one calls to the other, “Hear, O Israel,” invoking those around him to be witnesses, that he testifies, in full consciousness of the im­portance of the thought, that the Lord Eternal, whom we wor­ship as the national God of the Hebrews, who has loved and protected us ever since we sprung into being, is alone the Eter­nal One, is alone God, is alone Creator, is alone Sovereign, is alone Saviour, is alone the Hearer of Prayer. And what do we thus declare, but that in all that may befall us we will invoke no one else, since in all space, throughout the extent of all time, there is no possibility of the existence of any power independent of His will? Ay, the “Hear, O Israel,” is neither petition nor thanksgiving; but it is more, it is a higher element of prayer, as we have defined it—it is the essence of the surrender of self to the Divine protection—it is the full declaration of our fealty to Him who was the help of our fathers from the times of old.

<<128>>Prayer, you will easily understand, can only be demanded as a duty, upon the same general principle that all other religious precepts were instituted, “for our own good,” for our moral improvement. As little as God needs our charities to enrich Him, or the labour of our hands to prepare Him a house to dwell in, or offerings of steers and wethers, that He may be satis­fied with our bounty: so little can He require our petitions or praises to please his ear, or to instruct his understanding of mat­ters otherwise unknown to Him. If this view be correct, prayer must partake of the means of instructing and elevating the petitioner, and to imbue him with proper thoughts, with such ideas as are the best for his happiness. I must acknowledge that this opinion is not shared by many Israelites, who imagine that by the repetition of mere words, they acquire a power over things, by which they become obedient to their will, if they are themselves duly prepared by a pious life and due knowledge, to be worthy of this signal favour. In other words, I allude to the Kabbalists, who place a particular value on certain terms and expressions, and regard many verses of Scripture as particularly potent to produce given effects. I know not, indeed, whether I state the case correctly; but several pieces to be met with in

(the books which we use, would seem to leave no room for any other solution. But be this as it may, the Scriptures themselves, and the early teachers of Israel, subsequent to the close of the Bible canon, do not convey any such opinions; wherefore we may not only freely reject them, but express, without any heresy, the regret that the persons who, in later periods, reduced our prayers to a consistent form and had them printed, did permit themselves to admit any mysticism or Kabbalistic allusions into our books of devotion. We will not now dwell on this point, as we have not yet fairly reached it. We were led off to speak of it, when remarking that prayer should properly have an instructive effect on the petitioner. This is so self-evident that we need hardly discuss it. But we will not hurry over it, and endeavour to illustrate it as briefly as possible.—If we pray at all with the least devotion, the words which we employ must arrest our thoughts, so that we may not utter unworthy things in the pre<<129>>sence of our Supreme King. Whether the prayer be extempo­raneous, or recited from a written form before us, it should always be in choice language, in regular order, and free from confusion and unworthy allusions. It should bespeak care in the arrangement, and be clear, concise, and to the purpose. The Scriptures evidently are the source whence we can derive many elements for correct prayer; since the Psalms and other passages contain a large mass of the most sublime thoughts, most cogently and beautifully expressed. But other portions of Holy Writ, besides those just referred to, have the tendency of elevating the thoughts, and to lift man above the earth; and these are princi­pally those passages which recite the greatness and goodness of God, and give us an insight into his mode of governing the world; such as the ten commandments, the song of Moses, the thirteen attributes of mercy, the passages which refer to our redemption from Egypt, the chapters six and eleven of Deuter­onomy, and several others of similar import. If now these por­tions contain universal principles, which can easily be carried into practical life, they may, as a matter of convenience, irre­spective of the duty of employing them, be incorporated with our daily exercises. And we shall find that this has been done. For after we have, in the verse Shemang Yisrael, adopted on ourselves the perfect acknowledgment of God’s universal power, and after uttering the praise, “Blessed be the glorious name of His kingdom, for ever and ever,” which, by-the-by, is said to have originated with our father Jacob, when on his death-bed he felt convinced that all his sons were true and faithful to the Most Holy One: we subjoin the verses immediately following the Shemang, which enjoin, first, love to God; secondly, the duty of ever, remembering His blessed words; thirdly, the duty of imparting them to our children, and to speak of them constantly in all possible relations of life, to make them ornaments for our arm and head, and to affix them to the door-posts of our houses and our gates, so that the commands of God may be always remembered. It would lead us too far at present, to comment on all these points as fully as we have on the first; but we may say, as a general observation, that after we have acknowledged <<130>> the power of God and our subjection to Him, it is well that we understand how we are to serve Him; in respect to which we are then informed, that it must be a perfect love which we are to offer to his acceptance, not one which calculates costs, difficulties, or dangers, but such a one as will enable us to yield up every­thing, health, life, the dearest we possess, if so only we can maintain our allegiance to Him. He does not measure His bounties by our actual wants; He does not send His blessing only at the moment of our actual need; but before we call He has answered our entreaty, and long before we frame our thoughts to prayer, His light and His rain have been sent to clothe the earth with verdure, and to prepare food for the children of man. No exertion on our part can ripen the fields, can cause a single flower to bud and bloom; and yet all nature is robed in gladness, and field and flood, and hill and valley, and mountain and plain, and earth and sky, and all that live and all that breathe proclaim, that a Bounty unlimited has supplied all they need for support, for joy, for ornament, and that but one Spirit of goodness pervades all. Therefore should our devotion; our love be also unlimited, except by our ability, and nothing that we can do, no matter how great the exertion, or how great soever the sacrifice, should be deemed too much in the service of God. For what do we offer Him, but that which is his own? Is it wealth, did He not enable us to acquire it? is it intelligence, whence is wisdom derived but from Him, the Source of all know­ledge? is it life, is not He the Author of our being,—does He not wound and heal—slay and bring again to the light of day? Besides this, He can increase our happiness manifold, far more than our imagination can conceive; and even if we have then to go out of this existence, what prevents Him from giving us joys far exceeding the pleasures of this life, which is, at best, never free from care, never unmingled with sorrow?

The next duty inculcated in this passage, is that of laying to heart whatever words the Lord has taught us. This means that we should carefully study the Scriptures, that we may be familiar therewith, so as to be able to apply them in practice at every moment, when this becomes requisite. This study, moreover, is <<131>> to perfect what the preceding command asks of us; since without knowledge of our duties, their execution becomes an impossi­bility; and as our love to God can be only displayed in practice of duties, for the reason already stated, that we have no means to increase His happiness, it is evidently of the first necessity that we should endeavour to learn what He wishes us to perform, if this information be within our reach. But that it is, the exist­ence of the Bible amply proves; herefore a constant study of it is an obligation incumbent on us, from which nothing can absolve us; and the more deeply we enter into it, the more easy will it become, and the more readily will we be able to prove that we love the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul.

But not alone the adults, those who have grown up in the practice of the faith, are to be acquainted with the Divine Word, but the children likewise. Not one telling is sufficient, not a mere casual conversation on the subject of religious truths, will be viewed as a full discharge of this duty; on the contrary, the precepts must be repeated again and again, till they be indelibly engraven on the memory, that the younger Israelites, too, may step abroad and enter the busy walks of life, without any danger that their trust in the true God should be weakened in the least. As the steel is not sharpened by once passing it over another, and as this has to be done frequently, in order to render the edge thin and smooth, that it may enter quickly and deeply into the substance which it is to sever: so should instruction be repeated in every possible way, and renewed again, if the first impression should have faded, till the youth of our people shall be quick in the knowledge of the Lord, and they again be able to propagate the blessed plant of righteousness in the future soil, which will be ready for them in their turn to labour in.

But instruction should not be confined to children only; but it should extend farther, and become mutual teaching, mutual reminding, when we meet each other in our houses and on the road; not as we do, that every other topic is discussed save reli­gion; but it should be spoken of more than the common affairs of life; that those who have knowledge may impart it, and be themselves animated with new zeal, when they see the fire of <<132>> piety kindled in hitherto dormant minds. Therefore, also, when we lie down, when we rise up, should the law be read and thought over; so that its precepts may always be fresh in our memory, not lie there buried and be unthought of, as a useless knowledge which we had to acquire as a school exercise, in our younger years, but of which we can make no practicable application as we advance in life. For this reason, also, are we to make memorials of religion, to bind them literally, not figuratively, as signs on our hand and as frontlets between our eyes, and fix them on our houses and gates, as mementos to all comers to remember the God who instituted us as his people, when He brought us forth from Egypt.

It must strike you, that however long I have detained you in explaining the object of the first sections of the Shemang being among our prayers, I merely glanced at the important ideas, doctrines, and duties it conveys; one, however, who has ceased from her labours, the late Grace Aguilar, has beautifully com­mented on it in a separate work which she wrote to illustrate the “Spirit of Judaism.” I refer you to this production, although I cannot say that you will find the same train of reasoning pur­sued by her which I have exhibited before you. Still, as all are permitted to enter modestly the field of inquiry, and candidly to state the fruits of their study, I trust that what I have advanced may not be considered either useless or wrong in principle. The .subject is, however, so multifarious in its bearing, and so influen­tial on the affairs of life, that it may be often discussed without losing anything of its value or sacredness. All I meant to prove was, that Scriptural passages are eminently useful to excite in us the spirit which should accompany prayer; that is, a thorough devotion and yielding in all things to God. This is all which words can effect in us, and this is again all which the Merciful One requires. It is true that we repeat the Shemang so often, that we forget the important lessons which we have sketched as being conveyed in it. This is undoubtedly an evil; still each one can rectify this within himself, by always recalling his thoughts, should they be wandering during prayer, and causing them to dwell with proper edification on these verses. Is it not recom<<133>>mended to us to close our eyes to outward things whilst saying the first verse, Shemang Yisrael, and to place oar hand over them and to dwell on the last word Echad, ONE, whilst we reflect that He is alone Sovereign on earth and in heaven, and that there is none beside Him?—are we not told to say to our­selves in a low tone, inaudible to all but ourselves, with the sole exception of the Day of Atonement, when it is to be said aloud, “Blessed be the glorious name of His kingdom for ever and ever?”—are we not farther required to read the remaining por­tion slowly, solemnly, with the proper intonation, as indicated by the musical accents which the words bear? What is all this for but to induce us to dwell carefully on each word, on each syllable, so that the whole may make, each time it is read, a new and powerful impression on the heart? And say not that it is in vain, that we recite the words without feeling, without reflection, without benefit. Yes, let this happen a thousand times, let it ever so often be a reciting by rote of so many verses from Scrip­ture without a response from the heart, without an emotion from the soul: there will still be moments when either joys or sor­rows draw us to God, when a great deed happily consummated, or a grievous sin sorely repented for, recalls us to ourselves; when we will feel anew that it is no idle thing to acknowledge the Unity of God, to praise His holy name, and hope for the ex­tending of His kingdom over the universal world; when we feel strong in faith, in trust, in fear, in love to our Father; when we could go forth willingly and joyously to sacrifice our life as mar­tyrs for the truth; when we feel animated with a holy ardour to speak of his might and goodness to all sons of Adam, to entreat them, to exhort them to join with us in rendering homage to Him who alone is great and holy; when we would gladly spend what­ever remnant of days is left us to teach to all comers that there is mercy to be obtained in our Father's mansion, peace and glory in His holy temple. These are soothing moments, and they em­bellish the life of all men, and they open to us a foretaste of that felicity, of that pure, unalloyed delight which, if anything can be, must be the portion of the souls of the blessed. And if prayer has done this, if the word of God has endowed us with such life, <<134>> who will say that we have prayed in vain, that our reading has not had the happiest result? To those who estimate the value of life by the wealth they have amassed, who honour man only according to the measure of glory he has acquired: there can be but little to attract in a wealth of the soul which is not appre­ciable by any material test which we can apply. But if this were all worth living for, how few would have obtained from the Creator a boon deserving thanks when He sent them hither to toil for a mere pittance, to labour incessantly for their mere daily bread, to live obscurely, and to die forgotten. O no; there is something higher in life for which it was given, for which all can strive, and it consists in that mental elevation, that rising above trials, above temptation, above poverty, above distress, unto regions which no wealth can purchase, no hand of violence can invade. And here, too, the whole progeny of Adam stand on the same level; and he who has deserved the most will be best rewarded, though the way to perfection led through dangers and difficulties which appal the weak son of earth.

I intended to touch upon many more topics with regard to prayer; but I have dwelt so long on one point, the Shemang, that I must now conclude, in the hope of resuming the subject hereafter.

Oct. 23, Tishry 27, 5612.