|Vol. IV, No. 5
Ab 5606, August 1846
The Corner Stone.
A Sermon, by the Rev. S. M. Isaacs, spoken at the laying of the corner-stone of the Synagogue Shaaray Tefilla.
To the Editor of the Occident:--
At the earnest solicitation of a number of your subscribers, I hereby forward the address I delivered at the laying of the corner stone for our new Synagogue in Wooster Street, and, as it may interest your readers, I at the same time forward a descriptive view of the contemplated structure, in order that both may appear in your valuable periodical.
S. M. Isaacs.
ויקח שמואל אבן אחת וישם בין המצפה ובין השן ויקרא את שמה אבן העזר ויאמר עד הנה עזרנו ה': שמואל א' ז' י"ב
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and between Shen, calling it Eben Ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.-- 1 Sam. 7:12.
My worthy Hearers,--
We have this day performed a pleasing, solemn, and sacred duty; we have placed the corner stone of an edifice, which we are about erecting to the glory of the God of Israel, and for the benefit of his creatures. The occasion which has brought us together, although not in itself a religious work, not being prescribed by any set form of prayer, nor by any stated duty in our formulary, is nevertheless in itself of so devout a character, and pregnant with such great importance to the present generation, and to those hidden in the bosom of futurity, that we would fain hope there is no one among those here assembled, whose heart will not be readily raised to the great and merciful Father of the universe, to the supreme and munificent Disposer of events, to give Him thanks for having witnessed this heart-stirring scene. We know not whether your feelings are duly spiritualized at the ceremony you have witnessed. Oh! that we could reveal to you the state of our own heart; you would require no address to arouse your soul to God; for within its secret recesses you would find recorded, as if engraven with a seraph's hand, the thanks we owe to our Creator, for having permitted us to live to participate in the solemnities of the day,--the gratitude we feel to our flock, for having selected us to perform the leading duty, and the veneration with which we are impressed for the founders of this great and glorious Republic, for having made civil and religious liberty the keystone of their national arch. When we look back and remember that there was a time when bigotry and superstition fettered the minds of men, when, without any fault on their part, the house of Israel, instead of boldly declaring their principles, were compelled to conceal their faith--when the current of prejudice ran against them, and sought, by sword and fagot, to cause them to renounce a faith dear to their heart's core--when memory, with reverted eye, looks back at our chequered past, and then contemplates our present halcyon state, beholding men of other faiths assembled to notice our ceremonies, to wish success to our undertakings, and to cheer us in every attempt we make to improve the condition of our people--when these various feelings act upon the mind at all times sensitive to gratitude, must not the result be a united anthem of thankfulness to the Father of the world? Feeling assured that you all enjoy this holy state of mind, let us devote our time to improve your feeling. The practice of setting stones is not confined to the Synagogue, but has at all times existed to mark special events, and to record acts which might otherwise be effaced from the memory of man. The first corner-stone that ever was laid, we have Scripture to testify, was placed by the Divine Architect of the universe. In chap. 37:6 v. of the book of Job, the following question is put by the Supreme to the Oriental philosopher: "Who laid the corner stone of the earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God sang for joy?"
The Eastern Patriarch Jacob laid the corner stone which, tradition asserts, was the spot where the Temple of the Lord ultimately reared its turrets to the Orient sky, as an ensign to the world. Joshua, just previous to his death, after exhorting Israel to duty, and when they had given their adhesion to the principles he had expounded, "took a great stone, and set it up under an oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord, and Joshua said, 'This stone shall be a witness unto you, lest you deny the Lord.'" Thus the Prophet Samuel, in the motto we have selected for our address, after taking a retrospective glance at the dreary past, reviewing the wars Israel had with the Philistines, and after having succeeded in bringing her people to the service of God, restoring tranquillity to their border, bringing them to Mizpeh, where there was an altar and a house of prayer, "he took a stone, called the name of it Eben Ezer, saying, 'Hitherto the Lord hath helped us.'" Complying then with this ancient custom, ripened by experience, we have this day adopted the practice for our Synagogue, to be known by the name and title of שערי תפילה, or Gates of Prayer; and, although we give no name to stones, yet when the building shall have reared its head in the Occidental Hemisphere, it will speak emphatically, "that hitherto the Lord has indeed helped us." The immediate object of performing the ceremony, cannot be otherwise than beneficial, not for posterity alone, as is usually imagined, but for those here assembled. Youth and inexperience will have a sure guarantee that the seed of Judaism here sown, will blossom and bear fruit in the courts of God; old and withered age will feel assured that the principles acted in through life by them, will be faithfully carried out when they have been gathered to their forefathers. If then such be the impression that the ceremony will leave on the assembled multitude, how overpowering must it be on the humble individual selected to perform the principal custom? Yes, ye patrons and friends! ye fathers and mothers in Israel! be your minds ever so expansive; your hearts ever so generous; your souls ever so beatified, you cannot imagine what our feelings are on the present hallowed occasion. Sympathize with our weakness whilst we endeavour faintly to portray the sentiments now burning within us, and which insist on living utterance; we feel a desire to repay you and your children for your kindness; we swear, here, under the wide expanse of heaven, to be a faithful shepherd to the flock left to our charge; they shall graze on pasturage from which they shall feed וחי לעולם and live for ever; their drink shall be from the well-spring of life; from the law of God will we draw water, and proclaim, חוי כל צמא לכו למים "Lo, all ye who are thirsty, go to the water;" we pledge ourselves at all times and seasons to instruct the pure principles of Judaism, contradistinguished from that species of empiricism with which the modern mind would delude you; we feel a religious desire that the humble abilities at our disposal shall be devoted to elevate you religiously and morally to the rank you are destined to occupy amongst the nations of the earth; and when it shall please the Giver of all good to summon us home, the silver trowel you were pleased to present to us, will be left as an heirloom to our children, to satisfy them as they walk through the rugged paths of this existence, that their father's life was not altogether worthless, but that he must have been of some trifling service, that so distinguished a mark of approbation should have been awarded him by the unanimous desire of the congregation he was fortunate enough to serve. Yes, my hearers, this and similar mementos which we have had of your approval, will go far to animate us on all occasions to serve you and yours, and to disarm death of its terrors.
But let us leave this painful subject, as it regards what may be considered a personal matter, and proceed to discuss more important themes. Having now laid the corner stone, it will doubtless be expected that we should speak of the cause that leads us to build a new Synagogue. Where the wound is recent, it is inexpedient to puncture the part, lest it should bleed afresh. We therefore shall be readily excused if we abstain from making any remarks which can in the remotest degree cause a pang here or elsewhere; it must suffice if we assert, that in your late home you were desirous of maintaining three cardinal principles of Synagogue government, Respectability, Order, and Devotion, and that you will all labour to see these flourish in the new habitation you are building for the glory of God. You may well exclaim the prophet of old, "Until now God has helped us." If, for a moment, you reflect that but a twelvemonth has elapsed since but scarcely fifty in numbers, organized to fit up a temporary building in Franklin Street, for divine worship, and together with others who joined your ranks, have been there but a year, having an annual income of $4000: it is but natural that you should have evinced an alacrity to build a structure more suitable for the God of Israel, where there should be fitting accommodations for all whom you may accept to join the standard you have unfurled, and who now seek admission in vain from the crowded state of your present shrine. We must confess that you have in so short a time gone beyond our most ardent expectations, to undertake the Herculean task of building so splendid an edifice. Understand then, my hearers, that your success will mainly depend on carrying out the principles of building for the cause of God and your religion. The Psalmist observes, "If the Lord does not build a house, it is in vain for its builders to toil;" implying that if you are actuated by feelings of vain-glory in the undertaking, you will fail in your enterprise. The sole object of building a religious edifice should be for prayer to God, instruction to man, not for man-worship, for the clod of earth to deify himself, but a place for the earthworm to pour forth his heart's grief, to seek his God, and to spiritualize his own condition.
Let us then hope that as the corner stone has been laid in peace, peace and harmony will be the distinguishing features of your fabric, that they will be admired above all the architectural beauties which will ornament the building. Order must again be your next object; the world was created in order, "and the Lord in his holy temple! the whole earth must be silent." Those who are elected as wardens and trustees must be the conservators of order, as they are especially appointed guardians of the courts of God; to them is confided the noble task of rendering their communities great and happy. It is to be lamented that this subject should have to be mooted in the present age; and justice to the present efficient officers affords us the opportunity of awarding them our meed of approval, that they have well discharged their duty, rendered comparatively easy from the circumstance that the congregation, being enlightened, require no stimulus to cause them to observe order.
Next, decorum to insure devotion; this must be maintained at all hazards. It is truly painful to state that for years past our Synagogues, with some laudable exceptions, have been left without any one to raise his voice to warn, direct, and guide. Spellbound by apathy on one hand, and soul-ruining superstition on the other, the prophetic monition might aptly be applied to them: "Their heart is divided, now shall they be found faulty." Powerful indeed must that agency be by whose felicitous influence the dispersed of the flock may be won back to duty, and intellectuality once again shed its cheering light over the House of Israel. This can only be accomplished by expounding the word of God in the vernacular of the country in which we are destined to dwell. Oh, it is heart-rending to reflect on the unspeakable mischief effected by that hateful system which has actually banished the religious teacher from the Synagogue, and sacrilegiously exchanged his functions for the operatic display of profane song and its ignorant concomitants; it is this polity which has taken the enlightened Jew from our midst, and rendered him callous to a system, which, stripped of its weeds, is the finest tree in the world's religious garden. Let then every thing be done to assure the well-thinking Israelite that in the fare we are about erecting, our first care will be that "the small, still voice" may be heard; that the shrine be devoted to its legitimate sphere--prayer, that balm to a troubled heart, that restorative by which the mind becomes improved. Prayer elevates the child of sorrow above the troubles and annoyances of this sublunary existence. It is indeed the anchor upholding the soul, amid the wild raging storms of this probationary life. Prayer does not mean that clamorous vociferation, which makes up in noise what it wants in spirit, which at best is but lip-service, not devotion; prayer, my hearers, is never better felt in all its potent energies, than when the eyes o'erflow with tears, which force their way in copious succession; for they cleanse the soul from sin and pollution. The eye, crystallized by the silent tear, emitted from the depths of the heart, best sees its true spiritual condition, and the heart has a foretaste of heaven. Such tears, too precious to be lost, are converted by the angels of grace into the choicest jewels for the diadem of Sovereign Mercy. "Thou placest these tears in thy casket," says the sweet singer of Israel. But why enlarge on the importance of prayer? What health is to the body--what calmness is to the troubled deep--what serenity is to the day--that is prayer to man.
Having now stated the leading essentials--order and decorum--to secure devotion, let us all co-operate in carrying them into execution; and if any there are who may be opposed to our principles of Synagogue government, let them depart from amongst us. We are about building to the service of God, not for the gratification of carnal feelings; for the welfare of Israel collectively, not for the benefit of individual desires. You have this day commenced a noble pile; have a care that, as it progresses, your hearts and souls be directed to the Father of mercy, in thankfulness that He has given you "strength to do this work;" He has "blessed your basket and store;" He has given you the means to "open wide your hand;" He has prospered your industry; He has put health on your cheeks, peace on your domestic hearth, and wealth in your purse; He has placed you on an equality in political rights with your brethren of another faith; and gratitude lovingly discharged should cause you day by day to watch the progress of the building, until it be completed for the earthworm to make known his wants. Let there be no contention about empty honours; but with one accord join hand and heart to support the fabric you have so laudably begun.
"Until now God hath helped you." You live in a land fair and free, amongst a people who regard you with reverence, because in you they behold living witnesses of the truth of Revelation. The towering eagle bears you on her wing, religiously guarding you against the shafts of malevolence and the arrows of tyranny. You have no Ghetto to enclose you by night, nor Autocrat to alarm you by day; but beneath the broad arch of heaven you may boldly proclaim your faith in one God, and no other; you may proclaim it on the hilltops that the leading articles of your faith are a firm reliance on the God of Abraham, a full belief in the law of Moses, and in the prophetic writings, in future reward and punishment, in the coming of the Messiah, in your restoration to the land of promise, and in the immortality of the soul. But whilst you at all times maintain your principles, you must at the same time scrupulously avoid giving offence to those of another creed; you must cast no aspersion on them; but, contrariwise, you are bound to respect, nay, to love them; you must in your lives preach and practise that true toleration you claim consistently for yourselves, without in aught compromising your duty, or militating against the orthodoxy of that religion which particularly enjoins you "to seek the peace and welfare of the city wherein you dwell." Whilst thus you act, whilst you feel that you are all children of the same God, that one Father has created you, you will become impressed with the conviction that religion and virtue are the universal blessings of mankind, and that, they ought not to be confined to sect or lineage; but that as our heavenly Father lets the sun shine to illumine the world, even so you acknowledge that virtue and religion ought to unite all mankind in one sacred bond of brotherhood. Whilst thus you feel, whilst thus you act, your future Synagogue will indeed be God's house; but if for a moment you depart from these sacred and well-defined principles, then the Synagogue will lose its utility, and the words of Habakkuk will become strictly applicable: "The stone out of the wall shall cry out for redress, and the rafters out of the beam shall respond to the cry," Why did they build this house? what avail the four walls without the spirit? what imports the edifice, if its legitimate occupant, piety, is not found therein? Let us hope that this monition may never be directed to us, but that we shall at all times act in the true spirit of religion; that, like the material of which the Synagogue will be built, we shall be cemented in union; like columns, let us not only support, but grace the building we are now commencing. Let us act thus, and the God who has hitherto blessed us will aid our future efforts.
Before we conclude this tedious dissertation, we would crave your attention for a few moments. The question has been frequently urged, What system do we intend to pursue as it regards our forms and ceremonies? Do we intend to add to or diminish from that which has withstood the shock of ages? To this interrogation we answer unhesitatingly, that we shall adhere strictly and religiously to that laid down for Synagogue government in Israel's code of laws, as handed down to us from a long list of pious ancestry; to that we shall adhere with scrupulosity; every care will be taken that no inroads be made on the sacred and inviolable; the ceremonial laws, which some consider as irksome or unnecessary, must not be slighted; strictly symbolical, they bring the more prominent features of our sacred faith fully to view, shadowing forth those grand truths which otherwise would most certainly be far beyond vulgar conception or general comprehension; they are indispensable, and their abrogation would endanger our whole religious polity. Notwithstanding, we would not be understood to advocate all ceremonies alike. Alas! their abuse has done much serious mischief; men have vainly made the means the end, blindly observing empty forms, without that correspondent feeling which alone gives life to pious observances.
This system we shall endeavour to provide against, by doing all in our power to stem the evil, by giving less to please man, more to exalt our God, by abridging the complimentary offerings, and by distributing the honours of the Synagogue as practised by the Portuguese congregations, and already acted on by ourselves. Our whole system will be as originally pursued by Ezra--prayer and instruction. Regarding the first, we have said sufficient of its importance, and we will merely add, that we shall not detract from its sanctity to attract and please the ear of man. Our whole energies will be devoted to address the God of Heaven, not to captivate the worldling. For this purpose, pulpit oratory will be firmly established. This is no innovation, as some imagine; the Synagogue was originally the place for instruction; and the public streets by the water-gate of Jerusalem bore evidence of the eloquence of Ezra and other saints of antiquity. We learn from collateral authority, that even in the courts of the Temple, men, women, and children assembled to be instructed in the leading essential doctrines of their faith; and by the efficient discharge of that duty we hope to promote the eternal interests of those committed to our charge, bringing all within the pale under the select and sacred influences of virtue and truth.
In conclusion, let us all that are here assembled exercise constant vigilance in walking in the ways and testimonies of God. Judging our houses in equity, guarding well each avenue, we shall co-operate in works of worth like our fathers. The stone which this day has been laid may be emblematic of future glory, when you and I, my hearers, and others who have aided us in this religious enterprise, shall have been called from this transitory state, to render an account at the bar of heaven; when you, my young friends, now smiling with the buoyancy of youth and inexperience, shall have passed your lives in usefulness, and your mortal remains shall have been consigned to the silent dust; when myriads of souls shall have been saved, through the instrumentality of religion, taught within that shrine of which the stone is a silent witness, containing within its bosom the FAITH of Israel, its Pentateuch, and Liturgy, its past chequered state, and its future ripeness in glory. When centuries shall have passed, and the miniature Temple follows the way of all earthly materials, perhaps then some child of the morning, actuated by feelings of curiosity, or animated by a nobler desire, may unclasp the volume of the past, and reawaken bygone scenes, by taking from the heart of a stone the spirit of former days, and as the tear trickles down his cheek at the remembrance of the mutability of human affairs, its course may be impeded by the tear of gratitude, for the noble zeal you have evinced for the welfare of Israel. The few years, then, that are allotted to us on earth, let us devote them to those hallowed purposes--religion to God, peace to man. Every bard fired by genius has sung of the potent and lasting influences of those virtues, by whose enlightened renovation the earth shall be replete with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the caverns of the deep. Then in unison of sentiment we shall utter one language, adopt one resolution, worship one God. The sacred edifice, reared on the ruins of superstition and sin, shall be firmly established on the holy mount, to which all nations shall gather, and the lambent glory of the Eternal God be our everlasting light. May this speedily be accomplished, and let all say Amen.