|Vol. IV, No. 9
Kislev 5607, December 1846
The Lord Our Guide.
A Sermon, by Isaac Leeser
Lord of all existence, in whose hand is the spirit of all living, remember us in mercy unto a peaceful and happy life, when Thou comest to judge thy children at the dread hour, when all pass before thy judgment seat, to receive their doom for weal or wo, as thou mayest decree in thy unerring wisdom. Look not, O Father! unto the greatness of our transgressions; mete not out unto us the recompense which our misdeeds have deserved; but let thy goodness prevail, and forgive and pardon, as Thou hast borne with our iniquities from our first being until this day. And thus shall thy name be glorified, when they, whom Thou halt redeemed from perdition, shall chaunt thy glory, and rehearse unto generations yet to come the goodness Thou hast manifested; inasmuch as Thou art our God and Saviour, the Holy One of Israel, now and for ever. Amen.
Among the many consolations which are recorded concerning the future of Israel, we discover the following:
כי לא בחפזון תצאו ובמנוסה לא תלכון כי הלך לפניכם ה' ומאספכם אלהי ישראל: ישע' נ"ב י"א:
“For not in haste shall you go out, and not in flight shall ye go; for before you goeth the Lord, and your rearward is the God of Israel.”—Isaiah 52:12.
If one were merely to look at the singular changes which have within our recollection come over the nature of religious observance amongst Israelites, and carefully to note the agitation in opinion which now sways many minds, he would be apt to come to the hasty conclusion, that Judaism had seen its best days; that what is left is merely a shadow of its former self; and the signs of life which it exhibits are but the spasmodic actions of the last remnant of vital strength yet inherent in the severed limbs, which, nevertheless, must soon cease, since their separation from the living trunk must soon deprive themselves and it of every vestige of life. Some, therefore, in fear, and others in ill-suppressed joy, look forward to the speedy dissolution of the Jewish community; and already, in anticipation, they see it mixed up with other societies; so that its existence will become a matter of history, as a thing that has been. We cannot deny that there are many events constantly passing before our eyes which are greatly calculated to alarm those anxious for the welfare of their religion; the bonds of our union have become greatly loosened, and many have fallen away from our household, and now profess to love the strangers and their idols; others have thrown off the yoke of the law, retaining merely the name of Jews, whilst violating, in the disregard of the Sabbath, and the laws of personal sanctity, the obligations which the divine code imposes on them; and, at the same time, others, in numbers scarcely ever before known, seek the alliance of the gentiles, and rear up their children in the customs and laws of the various nations; and teach them to inquire of those not belonging to Jacob, “Which is the way of salvation?” as though there were no God in Israel of whom we could inquire. But not alone this; for there are many who, whilst they profess to be pious, and to venerate the Lord and his word, endeavour to search out new ways, of which our fathers had no knowledge, and to open wide the door of dissension, by withdrawing the confidence of the people from their righteous teachers, who have so long and so faithfully expounded to them the will of their heavenly Father, and have shown them the way they should go, and the deeds they should do. And thus we have seen many departing from our communion; some by the force of ignorance, not knowing how to defend themselves against the assaults of those who make it their business to deprive Jews of their faith; some because they could not withstand, from an indolence of disposition, the temptations which the world at large offered to their acceptance; and others, again, because they wickedly chose their portion with the many, and despised the union with the handful of Israelites, with those who have not earthly distinctions to bestow, nor offices to confer. And thus have we also seen the strict conformity to our laws gradually decaying, till instead, that formerly a transgressor was an object of contempt from his violation of public opinion, no less than his disregard of the divine precepts, a strict conformist now excites in many taunts and ridicule, from his strange adherence to ancestral customs. Is it not so? or say, when in any epoch of our history has there been a greater defection from the ranks of truth? Can you point out a single period, during the times of the bitterest persecutions, when so many have left the Synagogue under one pretext or the other, as report speaks of what takes place in our own day? How is this? Is the air of liberty, the new atmosphere in which we have been permitted to breathe of late, so fatal to Judaism? so much more destructive than banishment, confiscation, public exposure at the pillory, and death by the hand of the common executioner? Could we stand all those dangers; could we wander forth shoeless in the burning sand, or over frozen rivers; could we sell our houses for a little bread, and our vineyard for an ass, a mean beast of burden to carry us and our children away from our native land; could we stand exposed to the taunts of a base, heartless crowd, and disregard their coarse jests and their ribald abuse; could we stretch out our neck to the headsman, and joyfully meet the stroke of death; could we behold, unmoved, tigers in the shape of men kindle the fires which were to consume us; could we attest with unfaltering lips our love to our God, whilst the burning flesh quivered on our bones, when our latest breath was to be drawn in unendurable agony;—and has it come to this, that a little freedom, the boon which the savage enjoys in his wide-spread prairie, or his forest fastness, is to stifle all aspirations for religious purity, as trough, with the removal of political thraldom, all use of faith, all necessity for godliness, had fled for ever? Is God less merciful in times of prosperity than in those of affliction? or is his power more limited now, to punish the transgressor, than in the days that are past? Ay, there is now fearful sinning, and terrible will be the retribution which will overtake the evil-doers; the vengeance sleeps not, the vigilance of eternal justice is not diminished, and before we heed it, the house of the wicked will be struck by the four winds of heaven, and bury in its ruins the sinful father, the sharer of his iniquity, and the offspring who have not been taught the worship of the Lord. This, in truth, must we confidently expect, from the well-known laws of justice which govern the world, that the present apostacy from the path of religion will draw after it the same consequences as in former days; but in the mean time it is truly deplorable that so much wickedness should force itself upon our attention; that with all the disposition, so natural to men, to think well of themselves, we cannot gainsay the lamentable fact, that we have been retrograding instead of advancing in religious improvement, and that thus far the experiment of loosening the bonds of our captivity has far from corresponded with the wishes and hopes of those who, in a greater state of freedom, hoped, nay, confidently expected, that the attachment of Jews to their religion would become closer and dearer day by day.
Indeed during many years, when for being Israelites we had to endure sorrows almost incredible, which we could have avoided by outwardly conforming to the customs of our oppressors, (since it was ostensibly our religion, not ourselves, they wished to injure,) our longing eyes were turned to Heaven to vouchsafe us only the liberty of worshipping without being molested for the profession of our faith, and to be permitted some honourable pursuit, by which we could obtain a decent livelihood. Surely during the ages of bitter persecution this was nearly all which was asked, almost the only thing hoped for. And the pious ones of those days imagined, that, with the enlargement which they coveted, the number of devoted adherents to the law would greatly increase, and that, were the terror of the weight from without removed, no one of the seed of Jacob would act otherwise than as becomes a child of salvation under the law, and that as dutiful children all would cheerfully give honour and obedience to the Lord of all. And now the prayers of so many saints have been heard; their blood has not flowed in vain, their tears of anguish have been treasured up as a precious sacrifice before the Eternal God; and, we, their descendants, live in comparative security, and we are almost every where free to walk in the paths of the faith revealed through Moses, and in many countries we can, as Jews, participate in the government, and make our voice heard in the national councils, or contend with the mighty in their country’s cause on the ensanguined field of battle or the wide expanse of the ocean’s billows.
All this has been given to us. But how has experience deceived the hopes of the pious in their dreadful struggle! They who, when their life was, so to say, suspended before their eyes, and they dreaded to breathe aloud in the presence of these tyrants, clung with the ardour of desperation to the religion which sorrows had made dear to them, now shake off the yoke of Heaven, when their profession as Jews would give them rather honour than disgrace, as though they had no longer need to value that which was so precious to them in their affliction. And daily we see, that, men and women who, because they are Jews, were treated with contumely and exclusion from all civil rights, barely reach the shore of countries where they are unrestricted on account of religion, before they display the most thorough neglect of their faith, and excel in sinful indifference, though often better instructed and more piously educated than those whom they find there before them.—Formerly, too, we were debarred from cultivating secular sciences; naught was left us but the development of the wisdom of the divine law; and many sighed for opportunities to dip, so to say, their oars in the flood of sciences, to understand better through this means the mysterious courses of the laws of nature, and their relation to the great concerns of life. Now this too has been granted. But do those who are thus taught fight the good battles of their religion? Are they the valiant defenders, by words and deeds, of their brothers, the Israelites? Ask of the gentile churches, look into their seminaries of learning, take a view of their council-houses, their armies, and their fleets, and you will find there the apostates, who, but for this dangerous acquirement, would have lived as their fathers have done, simple in faith, devoted in their attachment to Israelites and their laws, and would either have suffered in their sufferings or rejoiced in their happiness. And those often who have acquired wealth, to whom the alliances with proud families is opened through the powerful masses of gold they have heaped up, who, but for this, would have been regarded with the same scorn as their humbler brothers, now disdain to let their sons and daughters wed with children of Jacob, but seek to buy them distinctions and empty titles by giving them in marriage to the sons and daughters of the stranger.
They, therefore, who have seen and observed all this, who hear the boast of the enemies of the Jews, that soon Israel will cease to be a people, if the same gentilizing should proceed with a naturally increased ratio, if the internal divisions should continue to multiply with the new accession of causes of strife which develop themselves daily,—they, who in the events before them, imagine they behold a new state of things never before experienced, will naturally imagine, and almost confidently expect, that now the gradual extinction of Israel so long expected, is actually impending; and that whatever of this anticipation cannot, from want of time, be accomplished in the next ten years, will certainly come to pass as an unavoidable thing. Indeed outward circumstances betoken all this as but too likely. But persons must have studied the natural inclination of the Jews, and the records of their history, to small advantage, to let themselves be so easily led away by outward exhibitions. Look, I pray you, in the scriptural records, and you will find precisely what we see this day. In prosperity our forefathers forgot the great Lord of all who had freed them from their oppressors, who had rid their beautiful country of enemies who had often reaped what others had sown, who had gathered the grapes which their owners had carefully tended; and they served Baalim and Ashtaroth, whom they had found impotent to aid them in in their days of distress. Nay, even at a later period, say in the reign of Solomon, when the manifestation of the divine presence in the temple they had just erected proved to the people that the Lord dwelt in their midst: how little did they heed their heavenly King, and how ungrateful were they in spite of all the peace and prosperity that blessed their own Palestine, and the great degree of knowledge which flowed from their schools, and the high civilization and refinement which had taken up their abode in the mountains of Judah, on the plains of Jezreel, on the coasts of the great sea, and the banks of the fertilizing Jordan. Scarcely had the wise king, who himself had been misled by his love for strange women, been gathered to his fathers, than the fell spirit of disunion broke the common bond which had made Israel one people, and Palestine one country. The new king of the rival government set up calves for worship at Beth-el and Dan, and the part of the people separated from the rule of the house of David, was also soon torn away from the path of the national religion. We speak of the evils of the present day; they are fearful indeed; and no lover of truth, no friend of the Mosaic institutions, can either palliate or defend them; but in the extent of forgetfulness of the righteous way the men of antiquity exceeded those of our own age. Now the number of transgressors is large indeed; but at worst it is confined to individuals; but then an entire nation, with few exceptions, at least but few are recorded, followed the course of destruction. Yet there is one thing in which the present renders the evil more permanent than the former period. It is this. During our residence in Palestine, no matter if we sinned, we continued to be Israelites, we were one people on our national soil, and the worship of idols left us still surrounded by our brothers,* and we could return through repentance, and so could our children, to the bosom of the divine legislation. But now this is unfortunately not the case; they who leave the Synagogue, either through apostacy, through the neglect of circumcision, or through intermarriage with gentiles, become part and parcel with the non-Israelites among whom we dwell, and they and their descendants, except under rare circumstances, become strangers, and must remain so, to the worship of the God of Israel; they merge into the nations of the earth, and have neither right nor inheritance in the congregation of Jacob. Here then we have a view of the past and present condition of the sinners in Israel; and any reflecting mind can well measure the dark and bright sides of the picture. One thing no one will be able to deny, that, as in the national sinning during the first temple, before and since, there was a recuperative power by which the people in a greater or less degree, returned to their own God, though they had so often and so long worshipped the idols of their neighbours or the falsehoods of their own invention, so there are now, compared to the entire mass of Jews, but a very small number who doubt in the fundamental truths of our faith. Nay, of the many who have forsaken us, few indeed have done so from conviction, though this makes their loss to us not the less certain nor more deplorable on their and our account. Still let it not be forgotten, that in the prophetic vision, Daniel already announced more than two thousand three hundred years ago: “Many† shall be purified and made white, and be tried; but the wicked will do wickedly, and none of the wicked will understand; but the wise will understand.” (Daniel 12:10.) Here is a direct announcement that in the trials and purifcations to which the nation of Israel is to be subjected, some there shall be who will be purified and be rendered resplendent in purity by the very means which the world calls evil; whilst the wicked will pursue their course of destruction, contemning the chastisement of the Lord, and thus render themselves permanently outcasts from the communion of the faithful, who will, by constantly dwelling upon the ways of God with man, and tracing always the effect to its cause, see, ultimately, the righteousness of the divine decrees, though in the beginning all appeared doubt and uncertainty; whereas they, who are wicked, will in their worldliness and obduracy of heart, remain strangers to the best of wisdom, and sink into that perdition which they have in truth so ardently coveted, through the perversity of their iniquitous conduct.
*There is no question, but that the Israelites during their sojourn in Palestine, never forgot altogether the service of the Lord; He was under all circumstances their national God, even whilst they incorporated the idols of the heathen in their system of worship. The reader is referred to the history of Elijah’s sacrifice on Carmel, where, he clearly asks the people how long they would hesitate between the Lord and Baal, which evidently proves, that though they ascribed certain propitiatory powers to their Baal, they had not cast off the idea of the God of the Bible as the Supreme Ruler of all. (1 Kings 18:21.) See also the history of the nations brought by Shalmanasser, king of Assyria, to supply the place of the Israelites whom he had led away from their land (2 Kings 17:24-34); it is a curious passage, and will give the inquirer a better idea of the notions of the heathens respecting their love for idols; it is doubtlessly this,—they thought that they could not approach the great Creator without some mediatorial power, which power they represented under a thousand fanciful shapes, all more or less false, all more or less disgusting. This, peculiar idea, of an intermediate agency, is not unknown to the enlightened nations of modern times, and they, like the gentiles of old, forget almost in the worship of their mediator, the superior service which, even according to their own views, is due to the Supreme. Doubtlessly this was the case with the Israelites, and they adored the Lord in conjunction with their follies. The sin is not the less heinous, for we were commanded “You shall make nothing with me;” but as the idea of the power of the Lord was always held up in their minds, the return to Him was at all times easy, whenever they felt, by some calamity which overtook them, that they had offended the Power who alone could save them. Circumcision was not omitted, and probably most of the ceremonial laws were held sacred; although we have evidence that they were frequently violated; but renounced they never were; heathenism is more tolerant than Christianity and Mahommedanism; it allowed all sorts of conjunctions in its systems and practices; whereas they who embrace now the religions of the day, are at once and for ever severed from Judaism; the Sabbath is changed, circumcision is abolished, the Synagogue is given up for the church, the Jewish nation for the world, and the apostates and those who marry out of the pale, become lost to Israel, and they entail upon themselves and their descendants, “all the consequences of the violated covenant which are written in the book of the law,” (Deut. 29:20,) to as great a degree as the idolators of old.
† This prophecy must not be taken as an expression of fatalism, as though certain persons were predoomed to sin; only that in the course of events transgressions would undoubtedly take place; but that notwithstanding the principle of righteousness would triumph, and the sorrows and tribulations would confirm those who have the fear of the Lord in their heart. It is in fact a blissful promise of the ultimate triumph of virtue, and the assurance that all will tend to a happy end.
Through captivity and the edge of the sword, we were taught in the days of our national existence, that destruction only is the portion of those who forsake the Lord. And in adversity we were instructed that those are not forgotten who firmly place their trust in the Rock of Ages, the everlasting One, to whom appertain the power and the dominion. Israel has thus been tried in the furnace of affliction, and also in the sunshine of prosperity. Unmitigated calamities, unceasing banishment, daily slaughter, would have at length destroyed us, had we remained ever so constant in our attachment to our religion; for the worshippers would have ceased when the people of Israel had all been annihilated. The tribulations, however, were an excellent means to try, to purify, and to make us white. The wicked, who had not the Lord in their heart, started back at the sight of the dark vaults of the noisome dungeon, and they fainted before the sharp edge of the drawn sword; they fell off and became mingled with the oppressors; and from them sprung many who were the bitterest enemies to those of their fathers’ faith. Whilst, in the same times, the martyrs persevered in their righteousness, and proved to the world how the Jew can love his God; how he can prize beyond every possession the hope in the truth of his Father; how he can despise all things of earth, and cast away life, if thus only can he seal his truth and his faith. The defection of the weak is to us a beacon, a warning, pointing out the dangers of the deeds for which these have been cut off from the community of Israel. The heroism of the brave,—brave not in worldly battle, but in a contest in which angels of purity might fittingly have participated, is also a beacon, an incentive, a guiding star, the bright blaze of the lighthouse upon the distant promontory, pointing out to us the track into the safe harbour, where we can anchor with unfailing security, in the haven of righteousness, our storm-tossed bark, when the voyage of life is ended. Again there have broken over us days of greater calm and peace; the world no longer professes to hate the Jews, they are acknowledged as children of a common Father; and every where there are many who speak well of Israel, and who seek to promote our welfare. The race for scientific improvement and far-reaching enterprise is again open to us, and many of us scarcely remember even now the days of sorrow which we fain would hope have passed away.
But “Jeshurun has also again grown fat, and he kicks;” many of us are not able to withstand the temptation of prosperity; they feel themselves better, in their own imagination, than their humbler and less enlightened brothers; and thev reach after distinctions which, to Jews, are not easily attainable, and for alliances which remove them from their own friends. But at the same time there are many, and these by far hundredfold greater in number than the others, who glory in their descent and do honour to their name; these discover in the improved state of our political condition no motive for self-gratulation, but one of thankfulness to the Deity, who has looked down upon our affliction, and remembered unto us the covenant with our fathers, that He would not forsake us, nor even leave us because of his great and holy name by which we are called. Let the wicked, then, as is in their nature, leave the fold where all can find so sure a shelter; let them join themselves to the idols which they love; they are only pursuing the ancient path of transgression; and the house of Israel will be strengthened when those have left it, who brought it no strength by their nominal adherence, but who, on the contrary, were a scandal to all by their irreligious conduct, by their love for the world, by their forgetfulness of Heaven.
Who can doubt that we are pursuing our destiny under all circumstances in which we may be placed? that there has been one continued chain of interlinked events from the call of Abraham, through the slavery in Egypt, the conquest of Palestine, our expulsion, persecution, and present period of ease and comparative freedom? Is there not a particular thread running through all these periods? Were there not times when our extinction was more imminent than under present circumstances? Let him gainsay this who has no faith in God; but we, who hope in humility, and trust in unwavering confidence, look upon all that occurs before our eyes as a mere phase in our history, as something to which after-generations will refer and draw thence a lesson as we do to-day from events which to us belong to the past. Israel will not be exterminated, neither by the anger nor the favour of the gentiles; but we shall move onward, retarded, perhaps, at times, but never long, let mankind rage and forge fetters, or devise counsel as they may; we are the messengers of God, and we are urged onward, be we willing or unwilling in our service. Israel now is sinning, great is the breach which the law has suffered; but the people will return to Him who has smitten them, and glory in the Lord, and sanctify themselves in the God of Israel. Generation after generation may sink into the grave, the green turf may rest upon the bosoms of millions who are not vet born unto the house of Jacob, without the coming of the Son of David. But notwithstanding this, let no one despair of the sure coming future; for though we may doubt that which we do not deem probable, the captives shall be let loose and the ransomed shall go to Zion in triumph. And should we, overpowered by fear, despair of the good promised to Jacob then let us reflect that it is not a mortal who announced his will, but our God and Creator; with Him length of days produces no forgetfulness, lapse of years no abatement of strength; and surely He will sustain his people in their wanderings, and protect them against themselves, that they be not lost in the stream of time, which has swept away many and great nations. But to us, lo! a sun is rising in the dim distant East, and his rays shall spread over the face of the earth, and nations shall see the glory of God revealed, and all shall be refreshed by the blessing of truth, which shall be poured out over all flesh. From mountain to mountain the joyful message shall be sent, and in Zion shall be proclaimed “Thy God reigneth,” and from every corner of the earth shall come forth the children of Jacob, they even who, through the sinning of their fathers, have been lost among the gentiles, and they shall bow down before the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem; not one shall be wanting of the priests of the Most High; for before us shall go the Lord, and though this happen far down in the ages of futurity, we need not fear the fulfillment, for our rearward is the God of Israel, who lives for eternity, and to whose name be ascribed glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Elul 6th, August 28th, 5606.