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On Repentance.

A Sermon, by the Rev. J. K. Gutheim, of Cincinnati, Delivered on Sabbath Shubah September 26, 1846, Tishry 6, 5607.


To speak of repentance is becoming to us in this holy season; to make repentance the subject of our serious reflections, in order to be able to distinguish between true and false repentance, is proper for us on this “Sabbath of repentance.” And lo! the true spirit of repentance is indicated in the words of our text, chosen from the Prophet Isaiah, 55th chapter and 7th verse:

יעזוב רשע דרכו ואיש אין מחשבתיו וישב אל ה' וירחמהו ואל אלהינו כי ירבה לסלח׃

“Let the wicked forsake his way and the man of unrighteousness his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord and he will have mercy upon him, and unto our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” May the God of mercy lend us his countenance, and enlighten our understanding in this hour of devotion, in order that we may become fully conscious of the true repentance which ought to pervade our being, and by means of which we may find pardon and forgiveness before his throne of justice. Amen.

The most fatal position in which man can be placed is disunion with himself. But an inward conflict must arise, if we aspire to improvement and perfection, and yet suffer ourselves to remain unimproved and imperfect; if we evince a desire for the good, and yet practise evil. All sin, all transgression, brings man into collision and disunion with himself.

For what is sin? Sin is every thought, every word, every action, against the better conviction that dwells in our soul. The sorrow arising from this, the anxiety which immediately follows every bad action, the displeasure with ourselves, the inward contempt for our degradation, the mortification we feel on account of our separation from the Most Holy, from God and his Law—this is repentance.

The better and wiser man experiences the feeling of repentance most frequently, but also most deeply. The depraved and callous mortal, who, like the brutes, is carried away, as it were, instinctively, by the impulse of the moment; who is bent on satisfying his carnal appetites and passions, without devoting one moment to serious reflection, experiences this feeling bu rarely, and then but superficially.

But how comes it, that only the wiser and better man experiences the feeling of repentance most frequently? Because he knows better how he ought to think and to act in order to become come perfect; because he feels more keenly every violation of his inward conviction, than the depraved and callous; because his love to God and his Holy Law, his knowledge of the relation, dignity, and destiny of man are more deeply and indelibly rooted in his soul, than in that of the unthinking mortal. In like manner we see that a good child, loving its father and its mother with great tenderness, will repent any offence committed against its beloved parents by disobedience or otherwise, far more quickly and more heartily, than the indifferent and callous child in whose breast there are cherished but few tender emotions towards its benefactors.

Feelings of true repentance we find exemplified in the several penitential Psalms of King David. With a contrite heart he confesses his errors; in the most glowing expressions he gives vent to his heartfelt grief, prays for forgiveness, and promises amendment. Thus he says in the 51st Psalm, “Create in me, oh God, a clean heart, and a right spirit renew within me,” meaning: Restore to me the tranquillity of my conscience. Conscience is the uncompromising inward judge and accuser, that arraigns man for his evil deeds before God, before himself, and also (for his internal anxiety betrays itself outwardly) before his fellow­men.

Our religion has wisely ordained a season for repentance. From the first to the tenth of this month we remove, as it were, from our houses to the “dwelling of the Lord.” It is our duty to pass in review our former conduct, and to direct our attention to our spiritual welfare, in order to become fully aware of our imperfections and our unworthiness. We are to endeavour to set our minds at peace with ourselves, with our neighbours, and with our Creator, by making every atonement in our power. The Day of Atonement closes our sanctification. But wo to him, whose repentance requires a special admonition, and is, therefore, deferred to this special season! He knows not the true, deep repentance, which the better man experiences. Genuine repentance, that is: heartfelt displeasure with our impure thoughts, with our censurable conduct; deep sorrow for our sinful deeds, does not wait for the arrival of the Day of Atone ment. No, if our repentance be sincere, we will feel it as soon as we become aware that we have sinned, and earnestly endeavour to mend our course. But by persevering in our sinful career, and deferring our repentance to the Days of Penitence, thinking it sufficient for the welfare of our souls to participate in an ostentatious display of religious ceremonies, is but hypocrisy, and can be productive of no permanent good. Before the Omniscient we offer this in vain. And yet we see many an Israelite enter the house of God, approach to worship the Most High, who feels no contrition in his heart, no compunction for his evil deeds, but mechanically repeats the prayers for forgiveness of iniquity and the general confessions of sin, and thereby hopes to satisfy eternal Justice, and sufficiently to deserve forgiveness for his transgressions. Still more lamentable is the practice of those who believe that after the Day of Atonement all their sins are cancelled, and on the strength of this belief, and in the hope of the same chance of obtaining pardon on any future Yom Kippur, which returns at each revolving year, they continue their life of sin and corruption, indulging in their unhallowed desires and vicious propensities, and pandering to their passions, as they were wont to do previous to the Day of Atonement. Can this be true repentance? If men are blind enough to presume to make, as it were, the Most Holy the aider of their wickedness, the protector of their selfishness and evil doings, can this be an excuse for their indulgence in things prohibited by the law of our God? No, their repentance is sinful, like their whole life. It does not pave for them the way to mercy and forgiveness, as our wise men teach; “He that says, I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent, will not reach the state of repentance; he that says, I will sin, and the Day of Atonement shall atone for my sin, will not obtain pardon on the Day of Atonement.” We cannot propitiate the Deity by a well-constructed period, by beautifully sounding words; God requires truth, spirit, and deed. He wills not the outward display of penance, but a soul full of repentance, and a life in conformity with our better conviction. As the prophet Isaiah saith: “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Surely, this is the fast that I have chosen:—Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, and break ye every yoke. Surely, deal thy bread to the hungry, and the poor that are cast out bring to thy house; when thou seest the naked cover him, and do not hide thyself from thine own flesh. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.” (Isa. 58:5-8.)

Again, true, sincere repentance arises from the humiliating perception of the difference that subsists between our actions and our conviction; it arises frorn an earnest longing after holiness and perfection; it arises from our love to justice and our love to God—but not from a fear of punishment. Suppose even that all our sins would remain unpunished, we ought, nevertheless, to abhor them; because they are a degradation to ourselves, and contradictions against God. Suppose even that we should never be called to an account for our impure thoughts and evil acts, we ought, nevertheless to detest them; because we thereby render ourselves odious to ourselves, to our fellow-men, and to God. Whoever, therefore, repents from fear, cannot be inspired by true repentance; he would act far more wickedly if he did not dread the punishment. His professions, therefore, are a mere semblance, but not the substance of truth, not caused by an inhe­rent love for the good, but are the offspring of fear. The effect, therefore, will be but momentary and transient.

But, if our repentance is caused by our love for virtue, by a love to our Father in heaven, then will we feel it daily and hourly, whenever our conscience tells us, Thou hast done wrong. We will never do a wrong deal deliberately; but only in rashness or ignorance. For how can he who hates evil, premeditate it? And if a man ever loved his religion and his God, how can he, consistently with himself, disregard the promptings of his better judgment? It is true, that even the best and wisest men can and do err, “for there is not a just man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not;” and we are thus not free from error. But the better we are, the more quickly and keenly will our repentance follow. And it is only from such a repentance, springing from the proper source, and pervading our whole being, that we can expect forgiveness for our sins. It is in vain to affect such a feeling of repentance. It is in vain to appear in dissembled grief and tears, in a state of mind that in reality does not exist, in order to secure the grace of God. By acting thus we deceive ourselves, but we can never deceive the Omniscient Father of the universe, who searches the innermost recesses of our heart. The grief for our sinful conduct must be spontaneous, sincere and heartfelt. A feeling of this kind, arising from the depth of our soul, is in itself a punishment, and cannot fail to exert its influence in improving our conduct. For whoever is sorry for his misdeeds, will not perpetrate them again. He will be on his guard in future. The change of his nature for the better will be manifested by him in all his thoughts, wishes, and acts; he will be anxious to make amends for his previous misconduct. He will become holier, and will shape the line of his conduct according to the dictates of his conscience. There will spring up in his bosom that self-conscious contentment which is the reward of virtue, and which males itself known by the heavenly spark within us, by the still small voice of an approving conscience, Thou hast found grace in the eyes of God. And this is the end and object of repentance; for our penitential exercises, fasting and prayer, are but the means; but the abandonment of our sinful course and our moral improvement, are the aim of true repentance. Therefore the prophet exclaims: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the man of unrighteousness his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord and he will have mercy upon hirn, and unto our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Deep-seated repentance exalts our being. As the man who in the hour of danger acquires a giant’s strength to save himself, so shall we acquire a giant’s strength to extricate ourselves from the meshes of sin, the more imminent the danger that threatens our spiritual welfare, and the deeper the repentance for our unworthiness. It is but a sign of indifferent repentance, if we still persist in the same faults which we allege to have repented for. Whoever yet yields to the promptings of his passions, and unscrupulously gratifies his evil inclinations; whoever yet finds all manner of excuses for dishonest acts which he may secretly and therefore with impunity, perpetrate; whoever yet feels a delight in vexing and embittering the life of his neighbour; whoever yet, to realize the object of his ambition, resorts to dishonourable intrigues; whoever yet acts indecorously in the house of worship, and, instead of the awe and devotion, with which he ought to be inspired in the presence of God, renders his worship a mockery; whoever yet violates the Sabbath and holy seasons of the Lord, by following his daily avocations; whoever yet, in short, notwithstanding his professions and his alleged claim to the title of a good and pious Jew, deliberately violates the most sublime precepts of our moral code, and disregards the most sacred commandments of our blessed religion; can certainly not say, that he has ever repented of his sins, nor hope for pardon and forgiveness. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of unrighteousness his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord and he will have mercy upon him.”

Our moral and religious improvement, then, is the criterion of true repentance. But how can we atone for our past conduct? Will the religious exercises of these Days of Repentance and of the Day of Atonement be sufficient to appease our conscience for past errors? Can we annul a wrong done to our neighbour, can we neutralize the effects of an injury done to his person, character, or property, by a prayer, heartfelt and sincere though it may be, offered up to God? Our sages answer these questions: “Sins between man and his Creator can be atoned for, if properly repented on the Day of Atonement, but sins between man and his neighbour cannot be atoned for on that day, nor can we hope for forgiveness thereof, unless we have conciliated our neighbour and redressed the injury done to him.” In reciting the prescribed prayer and confessions, the catalogue of sins to which human weakness is liable, does not our memory occasionally revert to an offence we have actually committed against our fellow-man? does not our conscience smite us for having neglected to redress it? Does not our inward monitor accuse us for having injured our brother in his interests and property, without having yet made an adequate restitution? Does it not strike us that on many an occasion we have insulted him and caused him pain and trouble, without our having yet endeavoured to make amends for our uncharitable conduct, by pouring the balm of conciliation into the wound we have inflicted? Have we, perhaps, originated or been instrumental in spreading, false reports that tend to detract from the good name of our neighbour? Let us not for a moment entertain the fallacious idea, that moral offences of this kind are less sinful, because, perhaps, they do not always cause a palpable material injury to our wronged brother. Evil speaking or slander is, according to one of our wise and learned writers, a greater moral offence than even murder itself; for, says he, with an admirable shrewdness of distinction, when you take a man’s life, you take only what he must, at one time or the other, have lost; but when you take a man’s reputation, you take that which might otherwise have retained for ever. Nay, what is yet more important, your offence in the one is bounded and definite. Murder cannot travel beyond the grave—the deed imposes at once a boundary to its own effects; but in slander, the tomb itself does not limit the malice of your wrong: your calumny may pass onward to posterity, and continue generation after generation, to blacken the memory of your victim.

Yes, brethren, let us relinquish our sinful course, our unrighteous thoughts, and let us return to the Lord, by making peace with our Creator, with ourselves, and with our fellow-men. From time immemorial it has been a sacred custom among us, to banish, in this season, every difference that may subsist between ourselves and our neighbour, to make a restitution for every injury, to sue for forgiveness where we have offended, and to grant it when requested. A sacred and noble custom! It disencumbers our spirits, whilst it fosters among us feelings of brotherly love. When thus, whilst every discord is vanished and has given place to kindly and charitable feelings; when thus we shall congregate on the day of Kippur, and prostrate ourselves before the holy shrine of the Lord, asking for his pardon and countenance, whilst our hearts are beating in unison; when thus we shall return to the Lord, He will have mercy upon us; when thus we shall return to our God, He will abundantly pardon.

Yes, brethren, let us repent while there is yet time. The next hour may yet belong to us, the next week, the next month; but perhaps, not the next year. Many a being dear to our heart has, in the past year, quitted its earthly abode; many a soul, to whom we were knitted with indissoluble bonds of affection, has been torn from our bleeding heart, and returned to her eternal home; ay, even the former occupant of many a seat in this place of worship, has been summoned to join the praises of the Almighty Father of the Universe, in the blissful regions above. Whilst thus we are mourning for awhile for those who have departed, let us honour their memory by imitating and perpetuating every virtue of which they were possessed; whilst thus our common destiny impresses itself upon our mind, let us seriously direct our attention to our eternal welfare. Let us not delay, but let us “seek the Lord while he may be found, let us call upon him while he is near.” (Isa. 55:6.) Let us speedily return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon us, and unto our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Amen.