|Vol. IV, No. 4
Tamuz 5606, July 1846
A Sermon, Delivered by H. Stern, at the Portuguese Synagogue at Richmond, Va., on Passover, the 17th of Nissan, 5606, (April 12th, 1846.)
To assemble in the house of the Lord is always, and however often repeated, a God-pleasing, holy act; for man, when there, is best enabled to search and prove himself, and turning his view inward, he will discover the wounds of his heart; at that time defects are laid open which hitherto have remained invisible to him, or he discovers a fault which, though called good before the world, can still not be approved of by his alarmed conscience. It is in such an hour that your heart admonishes you of your duty to remember your destiny as men, as Israelites; when you are reminded by your inward monitor: "Knowest thou before whom thou standest? knowest thou thy Creator, why speaks to thee through the voice of conscience?" It is then that you may feel the heavenly revelation, vouchsafed to a determined resolution to sin no more: "Thou art my son, whom I have this day begotten, and thy sins and vices are forgiven." The hours thus spent are the happiest hours, which the house of God alone can grant us, for they point out to us the gate of heaven. Yes, brethren! the house of God is the gate of heaven; for here stands the ladder which leads heavenward, by which the angels of God, the righteous, go upward, and elevate themselves unto God, whereas the unrighteous go down thereby, and fall in the pit of destruction. They fall down therefrom, in order not to hear the word of God which is there announced to them by conscience and from without; and thus they stumble to everlasting, into the abyss of perdition.
Not thus, however, is the lot of the congregation of Jacob; not so the portion of the divinely chosen people. So long as houses of God continue to be the glory and ornament of Israel; so long as holy meetings are held therein; so long as we yet exclaim: "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob! thy dwellings, O Israel!" even so long do we continue to be the portion of the Lord, and we remain Jacob his chosen inheritance.
Is it therefore our duty, our calling, to tread the sacred precincts as often as we possibly can do so, in order to approach the loving Father of all existence at the gate of heaven which he has appointed for us; to elevate the spirit to Him through devotion and prayer, and to soften the heart, to purify it, and to change it from one of stone to one of flesh: it is evidently a more imperious duty on the holy festivals which are ordained for us in the holy Scriptures as days of holy convocations, and more especially on this high and solemn festival, which reminds us of the eventful occurrences which happened to our fathers, proclaims to us the great deliverance of Israel, and serves as the foundation of the divine religion.
And we stand thus to-day in the holy place, in the house of God, at the gate of heaven, to lift up the spirit in the light of the Lord, to strengthen the heart through his holy word, to sacrifice our own will to the pure and holy will of God, to bend the head before the footstool of his glory, to proclaim God's power, his wisdom, and his goodness.
O Father! who lovest and carest for all, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who didst appear to Moses on Horeb, and announce to him, "I have heard the prayer of my afflicted people;" hear, O hear, the prayer of all Israel, and the prayer of one of the humblest of thy servants, even my prayer.
O God of mercy and compassion! who didst show unto Moses at Horeb thy ways, so that he might find grace in thy eyes, listen also to my prayer; I petition not for riches, not for length of days, but for a wise heart, to acknowledge Thee, and to know thy ways, and to proclaim this knowledge in Israel; for behold this nation is thy people; in order that I may find grace and favour by Thee, O God! and also in the eyes of men. Amen.
When now this day reminds us of great and important events; if this festival is the least of the divinely revealed religion; when through means of this very festival our holy religion obtained an extraordinary advance over all other religions; when no one unclean could lawfully partake of the sacrifice which was offered thereon; when all leaven, become leaven in sin and vice, is refused admittance to its celebration; when all uncircumcised, those of the flesh and the heart, are excluded from participating therein; when, at last, every one whose heart is impure and uncleansed is prohibited from its use, as we are told by our sages כל בן נכר שנתנכרו מעשיו לאביו שבשמים "Every son of the stranger," that is every one whose deeds have become strange to his Father in heaven, by which rule all apostates are not allowed to eat of the Passover sacrifice: we are naturally led to ask the following questions:
1. Is it reasonable to demand of the Israelites of the present day, for whom, to all appearance, nothing, has been left as the result of this liberation from Egypt, to celebrate the festival?*
2. Or, on the contrary, can such a celebration have yet an application and a useful bearing for us also who are yet here?
3. And if so, what is the meaning and use of this great feast?
It is certainly true, that, in a political point of view, nothing, yea, nothing whatever, is left of this liberation unto Israel; that every thing of earthly greatness which was then given unto them has, in times past, been taken from Israel; that many of our brethren in faith have to bear, in many places, an Egyptian yoke, and that the recollection of the glory of the past, called up by this festival, must draw tears of anguish from those whose prayer of sorrow may ascend to heaven in words like these:
O Father and all-just God, who didst appear to Moses at Horeb, and announce to him, "I have seen the afflictions of my people in Egypt, and their cry have I heard, and resolved to save them," have regard, we pray thee, of our misery also, hear our prayer, and hasten to deliver us.--Yes, brethren! our enemies have been permitted to rob us of our political freedom, of our gold and our silver, and our precious garments; these things indeed they were enabled to take; but our enemies have gained no honour by this plunder, no more than Israel as a nation have lost aught of honour, nay, any thing whatever, for want of the beautiful garments and precious jewels which now deck our adversaries.
But true freedom,‑‑the freedom of the spirit, the freedom of religion, the freedom to preach the divine word, the freedom to hear the same, the freedom to confess the divine religion and to exercise it,--this freedom has been left us. No hand of the barbarian can rob us of this; this no one can prevent us from attaining. Israel is free, and will be free to eternity, and were all the Israelites bound in fetters and chains, they would still be free,--free from idolatry, free from superstition, free from error, inhumanity, and barbarism.
It is for this reason that we have been taught to consider it as a duty to view ourselves in every generation as though we had each individually gone out of Egypt; for in truth the same mercy which was shown to our ancestors has also been conferred on each of us to eternity; because, from the very hour that God called Israel his people, from the hour that Jacob became his heritage, yea, from that very hour did the redemption commence and stand firm, and will continue to stand to all eternity. And so says our form of prayer: "And it is this which has aided our fathers and ourselves; for not one man alone rose up against us to destroy us, but in every generation, and at all times, have enemies risen up to prepare the way for our destruction, but the Holy One, blessed be He, always saves us from their hands."
Thus then has the deliverance of Israel been commenced and continued always and for ever; for God is the Redeemer of Israel as He has promised: "I will be He that I will be,--this is my name for ever, and my memorial for generation and generation."*
How often have not barbarians threatened us with annihilation? how often did they not endeavour to rob us of the most precious treasure, the divine religion which we possess; to snatch from us the holy Torah; to close against us the gate of heaven? but God the Protector of Israel snatched us out of their power.
And thus do we find still to this day men in all corners of the earth who call themselves Israelites, who all invoke God with one tongue, teach the word of God in one language, and pour out their heart to God in the sacred dialect of Palestine. Yes, Israel received this freedom through the great redemption from Egypt, and on Sinai; it is an eternal, unalienable freedom; never has a human hand been able to touch--never has the barbarian's power been able to diminish it; only of the earthly could they deprive us, but the daughter of heaven has remained in our midst. Earthly goods they could destroy; but this heavenly gift is indestructible. And thus if we do persevere in the belief of our fathers, we are truly free. And whatever of political freedom time has taken from us, is already in part, and will once be altogether, restored; and nations are already contending with nations about the political equalization of Israel, and the restoring of our people to the rights of man; whilst they honour its laws as the acknowledged divine and holy religion.
If we now celebrate at this festival the triumph of the religion of God over idolatry and superstition, together will the victory of spiritual freedom over tyranny and barbarism, and the victory of the divine instruction over vanity and error: it is, in addition to the festival of our freedom, that of faith and hope. "The people believed; and they understood that the Lord had seen their affliction, and they bent the head and bowed themselves." Our wise men teach, that the Israelites had rendered themselves deserving of redemption solely through the power of faith. Faith and hope are the pillars of the Mosaic religion, its props and support no less than the sustaining power of our people. Those who know God will trust in Him. Those who love the God of their fathers, will serve Him with a perfect heart and a willing soul. Those who trust in the Lord will be surrounded with his loving kindness. Happy are they who trust in the Lord, for He will be their support; but wo be to those who do not trust in Him; for what shall strengthen them in the time of trouble, on the day of adversity? Trusting in the Lord alone confers salvation and help; the want of a confiding heart is therefore unpardonable sin, which was not pardoned even when committed by Moses, the greatest of all prophets; as we are told: "Because ye had not faith in me to sanctify me by water before their eyes."
If we survey the history of Israel from its first origin up to the present day, we will see therein the history of faith and that of hope. The history of Israel is entirely different from the history and tradition of other people and nations. The history of other nations gives us accounts of great, important, and remarkable events, their achievements in elegance and greatness; but sins and vices remain often buried amidst silence, or are even covered over with a beautiful mantle which hides their deformity. We often see priests and rulers who were sunk in crime, held up to admiration; whilst the common people, the slaves of these tyrants, remain unnoticed.
Not thus is the history of Israel. Its history is that of a divinely chosen people; its tradition is that of Jacob, the beloved of God. If now we examine the history of Israel, we shall discover, that Israel fell and conquered, fell and triumphed again; and always fell through vice, and conquered through the power of trust in God. Abraham walked with God, and remained faithful amidst his temptations, through the power of faith. Isaac became a willing sacrifice, to please God through his death, because he had a perfect faith. Jacob, who had through the greater part of his life to struggle with adversity, was sustained through faith only. The lot of the Israelites in Egypt was surely the most abject of all modes of slavery; and how could the heart of the father sustain itself, when his eye had to behold with bitter anguish how his helpless infant boy was pierced by the Egyptian's dagger, or cast in the floods of the Nile? How could the Hebrew mother yet place any value on life, when she had to endure such sorrow, such a degradation? But they had faith in the Lord, and animated by this, they called on the God of their fathers, and He resolved to redeem his people.
God accordingly led them, under the guidance of Moses, into the desert, and they followed Him without preparing themselves provision for the way: and thus they proved the strength of their faith. Jeremiah therefore announced to them, in the name of God: "I remember unto thee the righteousness of thy youth, the love of thy espousals; that thou wentest after me in the wilderness, a land that is not sown." A confiding faith was the strength of the Israelites, and they were enabled thereby to accomplish the almost impossible; but when they failed in faith, they sunk into sin and vice, and had therefore to fall into all kinds of evil. When the Israelites were victorious, they conquered only through the power of faith; and this was the case at all times, not alone with the whole nation, but also with every individual Israelite. For the history of Israel is a sacred record; it guides us through all epochs upon the ways of God; it teaches us the power of religion; it lays open vice and the shame and disgrace of sin without regard to persons, and announces the punishment inflicted by God without fear, without reserve. The prophet, on whose head a price had been set, had to announce to the king who had done this, the divine vengeance which was impending; and Moses--the great prophet Moses--how must his heart have bled when he had to write down the confession of his own sin and the punishment which was inflicted in consequence. The highly praised David, the wise Solomon, could not prevent that their sins were recorded in the Scriptures. When therefore with the destruction of the temple Israel ceased, in a political sense, from being a nation, the people learned more and more to know the ways of God. Surrounded and persecuted, without political power, in daily danger of being destroyed by the furious raging of the tyrant, did they place their trust in God, and He was their Supporter till this very day.
It could, therefore, in no manner whatever, be in the power of their persecutors to blot them from the face of the earth; in the words of the prophet: "Frame counsel and it shall be frustrated, speak the word and it shall not stand; for God is with us."
Faith and hope are twin sisters; where there is faith there too is hope; and where hope has taken up her abode, there faith also abides; and where one is wanting, the other cannot exist. If then religion has taught us faith, if the Holy Scriptures have shown us the power of a confiding trust; then is it requisite that hope too must animate us; and we must feel the hope that the disgrace now resting on Israel shall one day be removed; the hope, that the enemies of Israel shall one day be ashamed of their enmity, and be regarded by the world at large with abhorrence; and lastly, the hope that once Israel shall appear to the world as a divine light, to illumine the earth, to enlighten nations and people, according to the words of the prophet: "Come and let us go in the light of the Lord; for from Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." Which God in his mercy grant. Amen.