|Vol. IV, No. 2
Iyar 5606, May 1846
Thoughts on the Passover.
Father of mankind! we adore Thee because of thy abundant goodness which every where meets our view; for, from the rising of the sun to his setting, thy mercies sustain all, and all hail Thee as their Creator. And the wisdom which dwells with us is thy gift also, and the understanding and knowledge which distinguish the children of men too are thine, and from thy superfluous stores hast Thou bestowed them on us. How unwise are we then if we rebel against thy instruction! hew lost are we whenever we presume to be wiser than thy will! Nevertheless has this been always our course; we loved the imaginings of our own hearts, and sought for the darkness to cover ourselves withal, whilst with Thee was ever the abundance of a light effulgent. We, therefore, stumbled on our path like the blind staggers on his uncertain way, and we have been brought again and again to feel the weight of our iniquity. But, O our Father! Thou art mighty to save, thy power knows of no diminution, thy years of no decay; and, therefore, we entreat Thee to be our support as of yore, to make us quick in understanding thy ways, as Thou caused us to be on that glorious day when thou hadst redeemed us from bondage, and hadst brought us to the foot of the blessed mount whence thy majestic voice spoke to us the word of truth from amidst fire and thunder. And with thy mercy bless those who bless us, and overthrow the adversary who lays heavily on us the weight of human power; for we are thy servants, the descendants of those whom Thou didst appoint to show forth thy glory. And thus shall we be acknowledged as thy children in whom Thou delightest, and become the harbingers of thy glory to all ages without ending. Amen.
In reference to the festival which we celebrate at this season, we read in Exodus as follows:
והיה כי יאמרו אליכם בניכם מה העבדה הזאת לכם: ואמרתם זבח פסח הוא לה' אשר פסח על בתי בני ישראל במצרים בנגפו את מצרים ואת בתינו הציל: שמות י"ב כ"ו כ"ז
"And it shall come to pass, that when your children shall say to you, What is this service unto you? you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Passover unto the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, but our houses he spared." 12:26, 27.
Our text requires but little explanation so far as its words are concerned; it merely commands, that, in order to remember and to call to the minds of others the miracles wrought at our going forth from Egypt, we should perpetually keep certain remarkable ceremonies, which should induce our children to inquire, "What is the service unto you?" when the answer is to follow from those grown old in the spirit of Judaism, by expounding to those yet young in their experience of divine things, the motives of gratitude which should attach all sons of Israel to the service of their Benefactor, because of the many benefits which He bestowed on them in times and seasons when evil and death overwhelmed those who had oppressed them. This is the whole which the text we have quoted teaches; and, to this day, the remnant of Israel observe the ordinance, in so far as they are enabled through the destruction of the temple; and if the "sacrifice of the Passover unto the Lord" is not placed upon the tables of the rejoicing pilgrims, at the place chosen to let his glory dwell there, we assemble around the festive board, and with unleavened bread and bitter herbs before us, recount what the Lord has done in the far-away days of antiquity, when He plagued our adversaries who would not obey his will, and took us out from slavery, a nation from the midst of another nation, with signs and wonders and an outstretched arm, and fearful deeds, even as we experienced in Egypt before our own eyes, where we ourselves were the recipients of the divine bounty, where we ourselves witnessed the transactions recorded in our sacred records, which we, therefore, in our own persons, are of right bound to acknowledge.
Thus far the letter of the law. But what says the spirit thereof? It says, that we Israelites have been more favoured than any other people, and hence we have more duties to observe towards our Father. Other nations, no less than ourselves, have been slaves to others; but never in the history of the world were they rescued at once and for ever from the power of their tyrants, whilst these were rebuked and humbled as it were in a moment of time; other nations, too, like ourselves walked in ignorance of divine things; but never in the history of the world was it witnessed, as in our own case, that the glorious majesty of the Lord should be displayed before their outward vision, and a sound should reach their outward hearing, to teach them truths and precepts before unknown. Where so much has been done, some return is surely requisite to prove ourselves worthy, in a slight degree, of the favours undeservedly bestowed; and how shall we requite services to Him who is so exalted, so immeasurably great? Can we do aught to render Him greater? can we in the least contribute to increase his happiness? He is not subject to our actions; He is removed from the sphere of our influence; whilst we exist because He has created us; whilst we breathe because his breath is in our nostrils. And shall we then say how we will be grateful?--shall we determine what we will do to requite Him for all his care, his mindfulness of our sorrows, his beneficence in times of plenty, his bounty when famine devastated the earth? Shall it be by erecting temples in every land? by leading to altars in every town herds of oxen and flocks of sheep? shall sweet incense curl upward from domestic altars in every house? shall thousands of instruments be attuned in full accord? shall millions of voices shout forth his praise in harmonious melody? shall we devote our life to contemplation, our years to constant thought upon what He is, upon the deeds He has done? Or are there other methods by which men have endeavoured to render themselves worthy of the good providence of the Lord, by becoming better and purer through outward acts than their fellows? No doubt, those who have thought and acted thus, did it from pure motives; they imagined there was something in the human mind able to teach it how to make itself worthy of divine goodness; but, who that has intellect does not see, that with all just mentioned, we have not yet reached the point of conferring any benefit on God? Our temples may indeed grace every land; but have we magnified thereby the being of our Creator? Altars may smoke with uncounted sacrifices; but have these appeased his hunger? Incense may ascend from every domicile, but has the odour pleased him that sits enthroned above the heights of the universe? Let choristers and those skilled on the harp and sweet-sounding cymbals join their harmony--let all that have voice in one grand chorus sing without ceasing, will they then have exalted the glorious Governor of all existence? Let the wise and intelligent withdraw from the walks of men; let them immure themselves to spend their days in solitary contemplation, and have they in this wise added aught to the beatitude of our Father who is in heaven? It were folly to maintain that either of the above, or all of them combined, had effected or could effect the least towards reaching the proposed end; men would still be men on earth, whilst God would still be God in heaven, whether sacrifices be offered or left unslaughtered grazing on the pasture; whether harps be attuned to chaunt his praise, or their chords remain untouched by the hands of those skilled in sound. How then shall we serve our God? how then shall we show that we are grateful? how prove that the goodness which we have received, and which is daily renewed from the Hand which is ever open, whence plenty descends, for ever and aye, into the lap of those who never deserved it by their own merit, has not been unworthily bestowed? Truly the heart desires to return thanks, the spirit longs to requite some of the mercy and the truth which have been bestowed; but the solution of the question is not within the bounds of human reason; for all conclusions of mere human research would necessarily end in vexation and a troubled spirit. Yet we have received the means of solving it, and it is found in the words of the Scriptures which have been given to us for our guide and instruction.
They speak of God as our Benefactor, as the One without whom our existence is as naught, without whose will our days would be vanity and but a shadow on the earth; but they likewise inform us that He has given us the means of rendering ourselves worthy of his favour; that we can, if we will, earn from his mercy all the good we desire on this earth, all the happiness we can expect to enjoy hereafter.
But not alone the means, for the manner likewise has been revealed; in other words, we have received direct precepts, which are the emanations of the divine mind, and which are represented to us as the acts which will be pleasing to God. Whatever then is done in conformity to these divine injunctions, is the very thing which betokens gratitude towards the Lord in him that does it; and no matter what those who merely argue from human reasoning may allege, it is a means of deserving yet farther the favour of our heavenly Father. We, perhaps, must admit, if we come to take the subject in its importance in human life, that to eat unleavened bread on the Passover is nowise particularly meritorious; there is nothing in the act itself, which can render it one of peculiar dignity in the eyes of a philosophical inquirer; but it assumes a very different aspect when you search the Scriptures and see the ordinance: "Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread;" for herewith is expressed the will of God, that those who belong to the house of Israel shall absolutely and in reality eat, for the space of an entire week, bread which has not become leavened, and with which no leaven has been mixed in the smallest proportion; if, therefore, we abstain from that which is prohibited, and use what has been ordained, we admit at once that we yield up our own will and pleasure, and adopt in their stead, for our government, the expressed commandment of our Creator; we confess the insufficiency of our intellect, and become obedient servants to what He has decreed; we give up our right to self-government where we are certified that our God has taught us something different from what we ourselves would have chosen, and act, therefore, not as we would have acted, but as we are certified that it is his desire we should demean ourselves. Were it, that our reason had any substantive power,--that our knowledge were the result of our own reflection,--then might it be alleged that such obedience is that which a bondman has to yield to his master; not because he wishes it, but because fear or interest compels him to forego his own will. But the case is far different; of ourselves, we know little indeed; our own wisdom is limited, like our days, to the shortest span; and He who teaches us his law is our God, who existed before we were born, who will be after this changeful world shall have lapsed again into chaos, if that be his ultimate will; who sees the connexion of thing with thing, till the utmost end of all that is or will be; to whom little acts done by us are necessarily of equal importance with the greatest, because to Him all our deeds are alike. If then we obey Him in what He has written down for our instruction, we are like children who follow their father on a road which is new to them, but which he has often trodden before, of which he knows the beginning and the termination, the dangers of which are familiar to him, but the beauties also of which he knows equally well. The child will accompany his father into the open field, will enter with him into the depths of the forest, and into the fastness of the mountain-path, not because he knows them himself, but because he believes that his father has knowledge, that he will not deceive him, and that, should there be danger, he will stand by and give him all the aid in his power. Even so are we taught to trust our Father in heaven upon the perilous journey of life; there is an open field, here a dark forest frowns in the distance; there is a mountain-peak which we must surmount, here is a pleasant meadow which invitingly stretches out at our feet. But for our whole journey it is the same guide which we are bid to follow,--it is the law which has been given to us,--it is the wisdom of everlasting, which has been planted in our midst,--it is the voice of God which every where greets us with its friendly sound, in youth and in age, amidst pleasures and midst sorrows, in prosperity and in distress; and shall we hesitate?--shall we halt because we would not act after this manner, had we ourselves made our religion? What know we--what are we? ask the philosopher in the day of his triumph and he will tell you that his soul feels dark, that he is ashamed at the smallness of his knowledge, and the unsatisfactory state of his experience; and inquire of the most experienced physician what he knows of life,--its origin, its progress, its termination?--what are the operations of the mind, the causes of its decay, the reasons of its recovering new vigour? and when you have learned all that can be ascertained, and seen all that ever has met the human eye, you will turn away sick at heart at what men call human wisdom and human power, and gladly will you seek shelter from the uncertainties and vacillation of our own research to the evident knowledge which beams for you, be you great or small, from the pages of the word of God. For from their perusal you will rise refreshed in your search, satisfied in your painful investigation; and if not all has been made clear to your comprehension, you will have learned at least, that what you cannot comprehend is safe in the custody of the Creator, and that He will direct every thing, yea, the very evil which you have to endure, so that it may at the last redound to the good of all the entire creation, of which you are but a small part at the best, if even you yourselves deem that you are of paramount importance.
Gratitude, therefore, for the benefits we have received, can be shown only in obedience to the revealed will of God; we are not to inquire whether our reason would have sanctioned such a law or not; for submission to the instruction of the Supreme is the test, whether we are truly alive to the importance of regarding Him as all in all, his will as the only light for our feet. Are we then not to erect places of worship? are we not to sink hymns to God's praise? are we not to contemplate his greatness? Ay, even so, if these acts merely spring from vanity, from a satisfying of our natural wants to do something to express our gratitude. Places of worship should, however, be erected, not to display how we can serve the Lord, but because He has consecrated our so doing by his positive command, and has promised to come and bless us wherever we are assembled in his name. We should sing praises to his holy name, not to please the ear, not to make the worship attractive, to draw the unwilling to the house of God, that they may be delighted and charmed with our psalmody, but because "it is good to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto the name of the Most High." We should indeed contemplate the miraculous works of the Lord, and to recount the mighty wonders which He has displayed; not, however, in the solitude of the cloister, or in the hermit's cell in the desert; but in the midst of the walks of life, in the populous city, in the crowded market-place, amidst the labourers when engaged in the daily toil, in the society of the reapers, when the richly blessed harvest falls beneath the strokes of their sickles.
Wherever we turn our eyes, there they are met by evidences of surpassing Goodness; wherever, therefore, our lot is cast, there too should we feel sensibly our indebtedness for the bounty, our entire dependence on the Hand that sustains us, not because we deserve mercy, but because the world is governed by the Spirit of compassion and forbearance, who pardons when there is guilt, and who blesses though punishment has been incurred. Yes, worship in deeds, in word, and in thoughts, is becoming to man, since he is the creature of God, and, moreover, and this is the chief part of its meritoriousness, because we have been commanded and instructed to feel reverence of the Adorable and Fearful Name, the Lord our God, and because our fathers, who were inspired by God, set us the example of offering up to Him the meditations of their hearts, expressed in the words of their lips. For thus Abraham prayed; thus Moses sang an undying song on the shore of the sea; thus did David attune his harp and chaunted praises, which yet are heard in our assemblies, which will never perish whilst there lives one child of Israel to be animated by the fire which erst burnt in the soul of the son of Jesse. And just as our prayers and our hymns are acceptable when offered in the spirit of humility, because we feel that we owe every thing to God, so were formerly sacrifices and incense acceptable in the place chosen for his residence by the Lord himself, that is, because they were brought in obedience to the mandate of Scripture. The people in their folly imagined that the more places for sacrifice they had, the more acceptable would they render themselves to the Deity; whereas they were reproved for doing what the Lord had not asked of them; there should be but one temple and but one altar, as there was and is but one God to whom adoration is due. Hence the very acts which were worship at Jerusalem became iniquity and transgression in the places not sanctified by the spirit of our Father; and the few times that in the degeneracy of our state pious rulers governed the land, as was the case with King Josiah, these abominations of provincial places of sacrifice were removed from the land. All this proves what we have set out with, that acts of worship must have the sanction of the Supreme to render them acceptable; human reason cannot establish a standard of acceptability; hence we are bound to yield to the instruction which alone can enlighten us, if we wish to exhibit in good truth the grateful feeling which fills our soul.
How should we then act? we, I mean, who belong to the house of Israel? we, who reside in this country, in the new home where we can and do live secure from the attack and malice of the adversary of our faith? Is it by erecting Synagogues merely, and ornamenting them, and having an attractive worship? Is it that we please the ear and gratify our senses whilst present in the house of prayer? It is indeed true that it would show a poor devotional spirit, were we to have fine houses for our dwellings, and have them ornamented and furnished with every thing that can please and delight, whilst the house of God should be a mean hovel, and not rendered pleasant and agreeable to the eye; since by such neglect we would be like the miser, denounced by the prophet, who brings from his flock the meanest for a sacrifice; so also is it requisite that the worship be conducted harmoniously and decently, that the chaunt be well regulated, and the reading of the law and prayers be done with due devotion and solemnity; that silence and propriety be observed whilst we are within the precincts of the sacred walls; because, if before a human king, we would necessarily feel awe and respect, how much more should this be the case before the supreme Ruler of the world. But observe well, brethren, that if we have accomplished all this, if we have beautiful houses of worship, and every thing regulated in them, so as to give impressiveness and decorum to our public assemblies, we have not discharged our debt of gratitude to our Father. He has given us freedom; it is not, therefore, the Synagogue alone where He is to he honoured; it would be but a poor commentary upon our pious feelings and devotion, were they to be limited to the Synagogue solely. The whole life of an Israelite ought to be one constant series of worship, not indeed of that species which consists in the recitation of prayers and psalms, in the pouring forth of beautiful words from burning lips, but of that order of which we spoke in the beginning, the surrendering of our will to the religion revealed to us from heaven. But look, how we actually do act! One would be led to suppose that the atmosphere of freedom were incompatible with the Jewish religion; that only under the pressure of circumstances could Judaism strike root in the heart of its followers! Shame, that gentiles should make the discovery that the Sabbath is profaned extensively, that many who have been properly educated by their parents even, distinguish not between the clean and the unclean! Shame, I say, that those who watch for an opportunity to strike a fatal blow against those who are of Israel, by robbing them of their faith, should thus see, or fancy that they see, that they have at length found out the true remedy of destroying Israel from being a people, that by giving them freedom they would soon learn to dispense with the faith which they clung to in adversity, like the traveller that parted with his cloak amidst the assaults of the rays of the sun, which he only wrapped the closer round him when the fury of the storm burst upon him with its chilling blast. Are you prepared to have this remark verified by your own example? My voice, indeed, can not penetrate very far; but let me beg of all of you who now hear me, and do carry the message to all with whom you have the least influence, to do all in your power to prevent the verification of the hopes of our enemies, and the fears of the servants of the Lord. There is no connexion between freedom and irreligion; the true spirit of godliness can only thrive where the fear of man does weigh down upon the soul. God reigns supreme where the power of mortals is not felt crushing the spirit, which ought to be left as free as it came from his creative hand. Why then should we not prove by our whole course that freedom only quickens the plant of faith which is rooted imperishably in our hearts? What is there uncongenial with the brightest enlightenment and our religion? Let science triumph in her achievements and not-yet-thought-of discoveries, Judaism will never lay fetters on her limbs, or make her gainsay the truths she has elicited; let refinement spread over hill and valley, and let war and strife be banished for ever from the earth, what has our religion to fear? It is its own triumph which it beholds; it is the goal which we hope to reach through its blessed influence. Only let us be firm, let us not forget our Benefactor when we have met with enlargement; let us be unlike Pharaoh, who forgot his obligations to God and man so soon as the plague had relaxed of its severity.
Yes, what is the use of all our Synagogues, of all our order and decorum, if the worshippers are away, because they are pursuing their own avocations on the day sacred to the Lord of hosts? why should He accept such service when his laws are contemned? And then this takes place in a country where none can molest us, because of our faith; where we can rest or labour without any one to question us why we do so. It is, I acknowledge, a happy presage; that the observers of the Sabbath are increasing, that more respect has in many places been paid of late to the days set apart by the Lord as holy; but there is much room for improvement yet; all have not been brought in, and many of the ordinances are not as strictly observed as they could easily be. Let me beg of you to arouse yourselves to one mighty effort for the good cause of the Lord; He has dealt bountifully with you; the labour of your hands has prospered; your stores have increased, and prosperity seems to have attended your undertaking. Devote then a portion of your time, a portion of your means, to the service of our common Father; be righteous yourselves, and contribute the means to bring others to his footstool, to rescue the poor and uneducated so that they may not fall a prey to the destroyers who are ever anxious to seize upon every stray sheep from our flock, to bear it away to a den worse than that of a lion, to an apostacy from the God of Israel. Yes, you have the means, then aid in spreading a knowledge of our religion among the members of our household; and thus will you best prove your gratitude by purifying yourselves according to the spirit of the law, and in drawing others by the bonds of love to follow your pious example. In this wise can you also best celebrate the festival of our redemption from bondage, and with sincere hearts can you assemble round your table all your household, and recount to them what God has done for your fathers, when coming out of Egypt, and return thanks to him for the mercy which he ever displayed towards the sons of Abraham, his beloved.
And may his grace yet farther protect and bless us, now and for ever. Amen.
Nissan 14, April 10, 5606.