|Vol. IV, No. 3
Sivan 5606, June 1846
The Service of God.
A Sermon Delivered at Cincinnati, on Sabbath Mishpatim,
February, 21, 1846, by the Rev. James K. Gutheim.
Father of all beings! Creator of all things! how great is thy goodness and thy mercy which Thou hast graciously bestowed on thy people Israel! Thou hast been our shield and our protector through all ages, Thou hast liberated us from Egyptian bondage, Thou hast freed us from spiritual thralldom, and hast revealed to us thy blessed law, that we may be able to live according to thy will, and be happy here and hereafter. Oh, how great is the boon which Thou hast bestowed on us on Mount Sinai! how glorious the trust of which we are appointed the guardians! how honourable the preference with which thou hast chosen us, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation!" Grant, then, oh Lord! that we may prove worthy guardians of this sacred trust, that we may cheerfully comply with the precepts of thy holy law, and that we may appreciate and be worthy of our distinction, to be called the chosen people of God! Alas! "that it was through our sins, that we have been exiled from our land," that we have been driven from country to country, like the deer that is fleeing before its ruthless pursuers! Yet, amid all our sufferings, we have been kept true to thy holy word, and the confidence and hope in thy goodness, oh merciful God! "who chastiseth him he loveth," has sustained us in our trials and animated our spirit. Look, then, graciously down upon us, who are here assembled in thy holy presence, and watch over us as Thou ever didst over our forefathers in the days of yore, when a pillar of cloud went before them by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Accept, oh Father! the devout prayers of thy children; enlighten our minds, that we may fully comprehend thy holy law, and be able to serve Thee in spirit and truth; and may thy mercy and goodness mover forsake us in this life, and the life to come. Amen.
Three thousand, six hundred years have elapsed since our forefathers stood near Mount Sinai and received a divine revelation. What a glorious spectacle! A whole people is liberated from cruel bondage in a most wonderful manner, is extricated safely from all the dangers that beset its paths, while its taskmasters are punished; and it is now summoned to receive a code of laws, which is to regulate its religious, social, and moral relations. It does not stand there represented by a select few;--all the people composing the nation are eyewitnesses to the powerful and convincing manifestations of the Almighty, and are stricken with fear and awe by the presence of the Deity. It was no empty pageant to flatter the senses; it was the presence of the glory and power of God, which attended the revelation of his holy law, which convinced our ancestors and induced them to accept it. "We will do all the Lord hath said," was their ready response to the charge of Moses. And how full must their hearts have been with gratitude to the Almighty ! By his mercy they had been rendered a free and independent people; their fetters of slavery were riven asunder; the clouds of ignorance and superstition which then darkened the horizon, were dispersed by the light of truth; and Israel was appointed the teacher of this truth to all the nations of the earth.
When the children of Israel were brought forth from Egypt, they were not free from the prejudices and superstitions which then degraded the human mind; their repeated murmurings and their proneness to worship idols, show but too clearly that it was no easy task, indelibly to impress on their minds the truthfulness and importance of the law. Indeed, it required a series of miracles to curb their obstinate spirit, and to make them susceptible of the blessings in store for them. Divine wisdom ultimately accomplished this end. They were organized into a nation, with the great religious truths, which since then have been acknowledged by the whole civilised world, as their guide, and with a code of civil and moral enactments which, if strictly adhered to, was destined to insure their safety and permanence, and to promote their prosperity and welfare. And admirably were these laws calculated for the government of a people. They form the only true means by which the happiness of mankind can be effected. The spirit of love and charity, of justice and benevolence, of liberty and equality, breathes throughout. And as long as our fathers remained true to this law, and conformed to its precepts, they dwelt in safety and happiness; but so soon as they swerved from the right path, disasters and exile were the natural consequences. God only they should recognise as their king and protector; to Him only they should pay their homage, and Him only they should serve. The manner and mode of this service were distinctly prescribed and repeatedly enjoined. And it behooves us, as Israelites, fully to understand this service, that we may prove worthy of the trust committed to our charge, and of the distinguished name we hear. Let us, therefore, examine
We mean to answer these questions by expounding our text, chosen from to-day's Parashah, Exodus 23:25.
ועבדתם את ה' אלהיכם וברך את לחמך ואת מימיך והסירתי מחלה מקרבך׃
"And ye shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless thy bread and thy water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee."
What constitutes the service of God? is our first question. The service of God? you will ask, my hearers. Does God require our service? Does the Almighty, "who created the heavens, and stretched them out; who spread forth the earth and that which cometh out of it; who giveth breath unto the people upon it, a spirit to them that walk therein" (Is. 62:5); who measures the waters in the hollow of his hand, and metes out heaven with the span, and comprehends the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighs the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance" (Ib. 60:12); does He require our service? the all-powerful God, the service of powerless, feeble man, who is to-day here, to-morrow in the grave? No; the discharge of our religious and moral obligations may be more properly termed our own service, the service of lean, than the service of God. It is for our own benefit that these obligations are imposed on us. The service of God is designed to impress on the mind of man his destiny on earth, to elicit and to perfect the noble qualities of his nature, and thus to prepare him for the eternal life hereafter. This is the true meaning of the service of God, which it is the duty of man to perform.
The modes of worshipping the Deity differ in the same manner and to the same extent as the creeds of the different nations acknowledging a Supreme Being. It is not my present purpose to enter into a disquisition of these different systems of religion; but the fact that some mode of worship is invariably adopted and adhered to, argues its necessity. Man is but too apt to be engrossed with with his earthly and selfish desires, and to lose sight of his spiritual interests and welfare. Engaged in his usual daily pursuits, he is apt to forsake the God who made him, and to esteem lightly the Rock of his salvation" (Dent. 32:15). But religion steps in as a warning angel, leading him to the right path, and it is in the service of God that his heart becomes pure and his mind exalted.
But this service does not only consist in the punctual attendance at the stated times of worship, nor in the regular recitation of the prescribed prayers, nor in the strict adherence to our peculiar ceremonial laws. This, certainly, forms an important part of the service of God, which every true Israelite will endeavour to comply with; but its performance will be useless, nay, it will be a mockery, if the moral part of the service of God, remains unobserved. As beings endowed with reason, we must distinguish the cause from the effect, and the means from the end. It is necessary for us to possess a form of worship, and to attend to the ceremonial part of our religion, as a means to be constantly reminded of our dependence on God; it is necessary for us to hold frequent communion with our heavenly Father, either to give vent to the overcharged feelings of our grateful heart, or to seek solace and strength in the hour of trial. But all this is the means to improve and to perfect our moral condition, to make us better and wiser. "You shall serve the Lord your God," says our text; but your service must be acceptable to Him. But, can it please God, if in offering up our prayers and supplications our heart remains cold and unedified? Can it please God, if we mechanically perform a religious act, without being impressed with its spirit and meaning? When we exclaim the great truth שמע ישראל ה' אלהינו ה' אחד "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One!" our conviction of the unity of God must be complete, and our readiness to love this one God, who created and rules the universe, with all our heart and all our might, must be sincere, and we must adore Him in meekness and humility. Our service must be a service of love, and not a service of fear. "You are children to the Lord your God," is a dogma of our religion. גדול העשה מאהבה מהעשה מיראה "Far preferable is the service of him who acts from motives of love than of him who is prompted by fear." Out, service, then, must be rendered willingly and sincerely. כל שאינו ירא שמים אין תפלתו נשמעת "Whoever is not God-fearing and pious, his prayer will not be accepted," say our Rabbis in Berachoth. We cannot appear before God in disguise and dissimulation; for his all-seeing eye searches our innermost thoughts, and sees whether our intentions are pure. When we supplicate for mercy at the throne of justice of the All-High, when we pray for pardon and forgiveness of our sins and errors, our life must be in accordance with these humble declarations. For how can we expect justice from the supreme Judge, if we ourselves act unjustly in our dealings, and unscrupulously wrong our neighbour? how can we pray for mercy, if we do not ourselves perform acts of love and charity towards our fellow-men? In what forcible terms does the prophet Isaiah rebuke Israel: "When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?" "And when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes, cease to do evil; learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." These words contain the true way in which we ought to serve God; they indicate the true service acceptable to the Lord; and this leads us to our second question:--In what manner are we to perform this service as Israelites?
Our religious rites and observances, and the moral duties our religion requires of us, form our service of God. Let us consider the first branch of this service. It is in the Synagogue, our house of worship, where these rites and observances are principally performed; the Synagogue is dedicated for this sacred purpose, and is, therefore, called the house of God. The Synagogue is the substitute for the holy temple, it is "the lesser sanctuary," which is to remind us of the holy of holies where the Lord dwelt between the cherubim. The Synagogue, my brethren, must be dear to us from many touching reminiscences it conveys to our mind. Is it not, therefore, our duty to enter it with becoming dignity and awe; to deport ourselves, while there, with propriety and decorum; to banish from our minds every profane thought, every unhallowed desire, every worldly passion? "Know before whom thou standest," is the exhortation, conspicuously inscribed on the holy shrine. The Synagogue is the place where we congregate to worship God, to pour out before Him our hearts in prayer and supplication; and it is there where we learn to look on every man as our equal,--for God is no respecter of persons. By Him, the All-just, the rich and the poor, the proud and the humble are judged according to their respective deserts. The Synagogue is the place, where we should learn to act with forbearance and charity towards our neighbours, and where we should cultivate feelings of good-will and toleration, by which we are to be guided in the transactions of our daily life. If we are governed by such sentiments, our mind will be attuned in the right key, and our prayers offered in the right spirit of devotion. It is not the quantity of words which we pour forth that constitute the merit of prayer טוב מעט בכונה מהרבה שלא בכונה "Better little with devotion, than much without it;" תפלה בלא כונה כגוף בלא נשמה "Prayer without devotion is like a body without a soul," say our sages. But to manifest sincere devotion, we must understand what we say. Our formula of prayers are composed in the Hebrew language. It is in this language that the house of Israel pour out their hearts and offer homage to their Creator and Protector; it is in this language that our origin and the days of our glory are recorded.
The Hebrew language is the tie that unites the scattered remnants of Israel. Join a Jewish congregation in the remotest part of the globe, and you will hear that sacred and elevating language, and you will gladly acknowledge that you are among brethren. The necessity of cultivating and studying this language, therefore, is obvious. The mere reading of a language does not constitute a knowledge of it. And although the sounds of this sacred tongue do never fail to make a salutary impression on the heart of the pious Jew, yet is it not a circumstance deeply to be regretted, that our minds should not understand, and our hearts not feel what we utter with our mouths? Should it not, therefore, be our utmost endeavour thoroughly to understand this language, our pride to use every means in our power to assist and co-operate in imparting a knowledge of it to the young scions of Israel, and thus insure its perpetuity? By doing this, we will be better able to comprehend and appreciate the dogmatical, as well as the ceremonial part of our religion, and better capable of carrying into effect the moral branch of our service.
From the numerous pages which contain the moral laws, instituted for the government of mankind, I need only revert to today's Parashah, which by itself would be sufficient to convince the unbeliever of the excellence of our creed. To love our neighbour as ourselves is the distinguishing feature of our religion; and we spurn any imputation, which ignorance or malice has cast upon us from time to time, that we do not consider non-Israelites as brothers, and that our religion is not a religion of love. "Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exod. 22:20.) Again "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt." (Ibid. 23:9.) Does this relate only to our co-religionists? Again, "Ye shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child." (Ibid. 22:22.) Again, "Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of the poor in his cause." (Ibid. 23:6.)
Thus are we commanded to exercise justice and charity towards all men, to be truth-loving and upright, "Keep thee far from a false matter." (Ibid. 7.) Truth will accomplish its end, while falsehood will be exposed. "Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness." Do not slander thy neighbour. By slandering our fellow-man, we rob him of an invaluable property, for which we will never be able to make an adequate restitution. Years has he toiled to maintain an honourable position in society; years has he struggled to keep his name unsullied, his reputation untarnished; years has he buffeted the storm of life, guided by integrity and rectitude, to bequeath to his descendants and to his friends the imperishable legacy of the name of a good, an honest, and pious man; and lo! in steps the slanderer, and with his false tongue, as with a two-edged weapon, he wounds him to the core, and with a breath he deprives him of the well-earned fruit of his exertions. Slander is stigmatized by our Rabbis as one of the most heinous crimes: "Whoever fastens a bad reputation on his neighbour, will not have a snare in the blissful state of our future existence." The grand principle of our moral law is, to do unto our neighbour as we would wish he would do unto us. "Whatever thou dislikest, omit doing unto thy neighbour," is the maxim of the wise Hillel of old. By acting on this rule, we will serve God in the right way, and our service will be acceptable to Him, and redound to our own credit and advantage.
"You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless thy bread and thy water; and I will take away sickness from the midst of thee." In the true service of God, all our efforts will prosper; the blessing of God will rest on us, and our hearts will be at peace with ourselves and with the world. By carrying out the moral precepts of our religion, we shall command the respect and esteem of all those who come in contact with us. Our exemplary conduct will excite the emulation of those who are lingering behind, and will arouse their activity and zeal; it will vindicate the glory of our religion, and will cause the name of "Jew" henceforth to be considered, what it really is, an honourable appellation.
"You shall serve the Lord your God" in your houses, in the Synagogue; for it will be for your own lasting good. How beneficial is the effect of prayer on the mind of the pious Israelite! Indeed, there are moments in man's life, when to be able to pray, is an inestimable blessing. When we are plodding on in the common track, and are hurried away in the mighty current of ambition, or in the hot pursuit after treasures; when through youth or manhood, we imagine we are about accomplishing our final triumph, whilst we are nursing our latest disappointment; when our exertions have prospered, our wishes are realized, and we fancy to have reached the goal of our desires: and then, in a solitary hour of calm reflection, we look back on the course we have run, and anxiously gaze into the dim prospect before us, and a thought of God and eternity strikes our mind, and reverberates through our heart, and the consciousness of our nothingness comes with a crushing weight over our spirit; it is then that we feel the power of prayer. We pray--and our despondency will give place to hope, and the turbulence of our spirit will settle into serenity, and willingly will we then devote our life to the service of God. When our lot is cast among the humble and poor, when all our exertions to ameliorate our condition fail, and regret and despair seize our hearts: it is then that we feel the power of prayer. We pray--and a heavenly voice bids our bruised spirit to be resigned, and to hope on; for it is God "who blesses our bread, and water." When trials of various kinds embitter our life, and lingering disease throws us on the couch of pain, and paralyses our energies; when all human efforts seem to fail to restore us to our wonted activity, and hope departs from our bosoms: it is then that we feel the benign influence of prayer. We pray--and in this communion with our Father, we imbibe the heavenly balm that allays our pains, the strength which sustains our being and makes us resigned to our lot, "for it is God, who takes away sickness from the midst of thee." And when we are bereft of a being dear to our heart, when the dutiful son and the affectionate daughter bewail the loss of a fond parent who was their best friend on earth; when disconsolate parents follow the untimely bier of a beloved child, in whom they fondly hoped once to see their pride and their prop in their declining age; when grim death severs the ties of conjugal bliss and snatches away a being that has been our true companion for years; when we weep over the loss of a beloved brother, an affectionate sister, a friend or a benefactor; when thus a vacancy is felt in our heart, and grief freezes the living current of our soul, and we feel as if we stood alone on a lonely rock in the wilderness, while all around us is cold and dark: ay, it is then a blessing to be able to pray. From this communion with our heavenly Father we derive the most effective consolation, and with a submissive spirit we exclaim: "The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken, blessed be the name of the Lord!" Yes, to be true servants of God, will redound to our benefit both here and hereafter. Our career does not end with this life; our existence does not close, when our mortal remains are deposited in their final resting-place, there to await the great day of judgment. No; another life is in store for us, a life where a just reward will be meted out to us according to our merits; where many things will be explained to us that are now shrouded from our view, and hidden in darkness and mystery; where we will again meet those who were dear to us on earth; where everlasting love and bliss will prevail; where our disencumbered spirit will soar freely onward in its way to perfection; and where a distinction will be made "between him who served God, and him who served him not."
Let us, then, devote our life and energies to the service of God, and may we be sure of his aid and his blessing both here and hereafter. Amen.