|Vol. IV, No. 7
Tishry 5607, October 1846
The World And Its Vanities.
Delivered By Rev. S. M. Isaacs.
The Shepherd King of Israel, in his inimitable Book of Psalms, has given us every proof that his towering intellect was fully capable to grapple with every subject that perplexes us children of a day. In reasoning on mundane pursuits, and their vain tendency, religious meditation, and its beneficial effect, his language is truly sublime.
אך בצלם יתהלך איש אך הבל יהמיון יצבר ולא ידע מי אספם: ועתה מה קויתי אדני תוחלתי לך היא: תהל' ל"ט ז'ח':
“Surely every man walketh in a vain show; surely they are disquieted by vanity; he heapeth up riches and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, oh Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee.”—Psalms 39:7-8.
It is a pleasing reflection, that the religion we have the happiness to profess, entwines itself more closely round the fibres of our heart, the more seriously we meditate on its saving efficacy. When calmly we survey our condition on earth, and behold the shoals and quicksands by which we are encompassed, and then with our mental eye gaze on the celestial heights, and the promises made to the virtuous hereafter, we pluck consolation from the blossoms of futurity, in the direct distress; in the darkest gloom, when all around is covered by the cloud of adversity, the eye of hope pierces through its very darkness, and beholds at a distance a sky calm and serene, where trouble will be unknown, and where “the slave will be free from his master.”
Such being the sure result, when we contrast the gloomy present with the cheerful future, how painful is it to the well-constituted mind when he reflects that all man’s motives, desires, and objects are centered in the small spot of earth on which he dwells, to the utter neglect of even throwing an occasional glance at that beautiful expanse where he is destined to live for ever! To arouse a sleeping world from such delusive torpor, to awaken lethargic man from such apathetic feeling, our subject cannot be otherwise than beneficial; for in a condensed form, our text displays the vanities of this world and the lasting benefits of the next, and in its own powerful language, such as could only emanate from the sweet singer of Israel, it appears to instruct every son of man “Do thou choose life.”
It requires no oratorical process to convince every one gifted to think, that every man walketh in a vain show. There exist a multiplicity of cogitations in the heart of man, which, more or less, stand opposed to the council of God; there is an utter incompatibility between human desires and the unalterable order of things established by divine economy:—our weakness and short-sightedness would oft counteract the gracious designs of heaven. “This is our infirmity;” we forget our God; are on this score alone estranged from heaven. Our wish is on earth; and our very desire, framed in selfishness, originating in overweening conceit, is destined to terminate in disappointment. Were our wishes indulged, our feelings gratified, instead of being a “little less than the angels,” we would try to soar above them, without having the angelic qualities to support our pinions; how oft would our personal desires prove detrimental to our interests, or prejudicial to the well-being of our fellow-creatures. Yes, it is the bane of man ever to desire that which he hath not, and which frequently is unattainable, whilst that already possessed is deemed of little worth. Where is that happy being to be found השמח בחלקו who is “satisfied with his condition?” Alas! although God fills his coffers, health mantles his cheeks, and happiness his hearth, he is still craving for more; his carnal eyes, with avaricious glare, desire every thing others have, whilst Argus-eyed, he watches his own, lest others should take a longing look. Yet, how inconsistent is such procedure; for that which is immortal, to gain which he should look upward, he is well satisfied with things below; for that which is mortal, where he should be content with things below, in that case dissatisfied, he longs for things above his sphere; he would be great in earthly things, poor in heavenly goods. “Surely man walketh in a vain show;” not alone are his desires futile, and obstacles to his spiritual and even worldly progression; but in truth one of the worst species of ingratitude to Almighty God for benefits received. If we who are here assembled would but honestly survey our condition, and contrast it with those more humbly circumstanced, our tears would flow from the cheek of gratitude at the manifold benefits we receive, without we, on our part, having done any thing to entitle us to this preference; but here our vanity offers its aid, and we accept the doctrine of our Mishna as applied to the ungodly, “that which is thine is mine, and that which I have is mine;” and even then we are not satisfied; verily, “a man’s desire is his shame.” In truth, according to nature, he wants little here below; and yet insatiable, he would encumber his allotted period on earth to provide for generations still unborn; he would victimize his soul to provide luxury for the body. His morning thoughts and evening meditations all tend to one point,—how to be great as a man, when this very greatness, properly considered; is “all vanity;” still guided by this ephemeral child, he would place himself on the highest pinnacle of greatness, whilst the thoughts and anxieties attendant thereon render him truly miserable. Many and various are the aspirings of vain man in order to gain power, to domineer over others, to receive homage, without on his part exerting his capabilities to merit such distinction. And then he would prolong his days to the fullest limit of human life, while by intemperance he does all he can to contract the brief span of his natural existence. A third disturbs his mind incessantly, aiming to be what nature never intended him for, not having the prerequisites or organization necessary to complete half his desires; for no one can expect to enjoy the accomplishment of the whole of his wishes: hence it has been said אין אדם מת וחצי תאותו בידו “no man dies with half his desires gratified.” Wishing to become what is perhaps impracticable, man at last flatters himself into the vain belief that the same may be most readily obtained without any strenuous efforts on his own part; and at last, when too late, he finds that his energies have been wasted, his best interests lavished on that which is unattainable. Yet all this is of minor consideration compared with another view of the subject, which places the inutility and absurdity of human desires in a much stronger light. Let us, in extending our remarks on this head, consider the intention, the end of man’s existence. Man is sent into the world for the noblest purposes, not to act the part of an automaton, but he is a “living soul;” he is sent here to benefit his fellow-creatures and himself. How then is this to be effected? Is it by the acquirement of wealth? by the pursuit after fame? by the desire for worldly honours, and personal aggrandizement? or by the endeavour to attain intellectual, moral and religious excellence? This is a question rife with importance. What, we would ask, was the end of the Golden Calf? It was scattered on the face of the waters, that the Israelites might drink of it to repletion, to their own everlasting injury. What is the end of wealth, diverted from its useful purpose? Man toils for years, his every energy strained to obtain possession of it; for this object he sacrifices every thing, he dissolves the ties of friendship, he strains the bonds of affection, he forgets his Maker, and in the place the Supreme should occupy, he sets up his god Mammon as an idol. “Oh, that we were wise and properly considered this.” Poor, poor, is so rich a man. His acts, nay, his very thoughts, are devoted to the god he has formed, not to the Almighty who created him; to his idol he is ready to offer up every thing as a sacrifice; he has no comfort, his sleep is disturbed, his wife and children are estranged, from the very fact that he cannot divide his love; it is all lavished on gold; and if on some occasion he should utter a prayer, what is its nature? that no bank in which he has deposits may suspend payment, no ship in which he has a cargo may become a wreck, that every thing he hath in worldly goods may increase in value, that Croesus-like, he may be the richest man in the world; but beyond that, he has not a single thought. And what, my hearers, is the end of all this greatness, supposing he has acquired the long-coveted treasure, if indeed his rapacity, increased by what nurtures it, can ever be satiated? Does he enjoy it? Does it give him happiness? Alas! no. Life’s current has already begun to circulate feebly through his veins; feelings so long smothered cannot be called into action by the palsied energies of age; the furrows that time has ploughed upon his withered brow have, like the cankered disease, affected his heart; he is a lonely, solitary being; “he hath heaped up riches; and knoweth not who shall gather them;” he passes away, and others squander the store he hath perilled his soul to acquire. True, at his departure there may be some funeral pomp; nay, more, vanity may be seen on the cold marble; and if he could only for a moment rise from his grave, to read the virtues a grateful posterity has engraven on the monument erected over him, he might still be vain; but this small pleasure is denied him, and the narrow sod possesses the world’s great man. Thus it is with empty fame, with vain-glory, with worldly ambition,; they all end with this terrene existence. But let us see whether religious and moral excellence would not improve their condition. King David, after contemplating vanity in its various forms, exclaims, “My hope, oh God! is in thee,” and proceeding in this holy hope, he asks for wisdom to guide his steps.
Now, what is wisdom? Is it not the knowledge of how much we owe to our God, for his innumerable benefits to us? Is it not that which will teach us to respect our neighbour as ourselves? To give to others what we should wish under similar circumstances they should bestow upon us? Is it not the study of our law, that mandate of truth, the gracious messenger from above, charged to conduct our footsteps, to afford us a clue whereby to unravel the profound mysteries by which we are surrounded? Is it not every man’s duty to see whether the spring from which he drinks contains living waters—to understand the law through which he is destined to inherit immortality—by whose gradual instruction the fountain of the heart is opened, its secret springs called into action, and cultivated by understanding and knowledge? and is it not the acme of wisdom to understand that compass which pilots the soul between those banks and shoals where, alas! so many have foundered? Yes, ye who love wealth, who desire fame, who covet honours, you may all be supplied if you will but adopt the phraseology of David, and say, “My hope is in thee;” in this there is no vanity, but true wisdom, a foundation on which to build a structure that may defy the whirlwind, that the lightning cannot blast, that though man may attack with every weapon which envy or hate can furnish, will still proudly rear its head, unshaken by his bolts, uninjured by his mines. Ye who are rich, would you desire to invest some of your spare capital; ye who are vain-glorious, would you desire some tangible fame? Let us demonstrate how this investment may be obtained, this desideratum effected. In the book which the mouth of God dictated, and which the hand of his pious servant traced, “the law of the living God,” there is wisdom above peerless worth, wealth a Jew should covet, while all else is vanity, because it is transient; there is wisdom, for it is immortal. When around looks dark and dreary, when the tide of adversity overflows our banks, when the couch of sickness is moistened by our tears, when the world’s treachery wounds our heart, when filial disobedience grieves our soul, when the tongue of slander tarnishes our fair fame, when cold ingratitude agonizes our feeling, when the tyrant death takes our dearest hopes: where shall we look for comfort, where for wisdom? In God’s law. There it can be found, there lies it, as the fabled sand of Pactolus, for all who seek to gather; there are no precipices to climb in order to reach it, no devious roads, no pathless seas; it is a direct and pleasant way, all flowers, all beauty—on the right hand is hope, on the left faith, and before us eternal life. Oh, how blessed is the lot of him who has made the law and its God his study, whose midnight vigils have been passed, not in the amassing or hoarding of wealth, but over the Book of Truth; whose hours of recreation have been spent, not in selfish gratification nor vain employment, but in attending to the religious and moral instruction of his children; whose morning task has been to assemble his household, that together they might thank Israel’s God for having preserved them from the dangers of the past, and pray to Him that he would guide them in safety for the future. Such, my beloved friends, is the occupation of a man of piety; such is a beneficial career, whose end is not vanity. This was doubtless the meaning of the wise king when he commenced his philosophical work by declaring all things “vanity,” that he might conclude his theme by adducing the substantial benefit to the righteous in admonishing man to “fear God and to keep his commandments, for in this is centred the duty of man.”
Sons of Israel! inseparable as are our interests, it is our duty to cull for you such exotics as may be transplanted in the courts of God. We are about building a fane to the glory of our Creator; let us take heed in this holy undertaking, that we are not influenced by vanity nor by personal aggrandizement; but that our motive and aim may be to build a house for prayer, and a school for instruction. Here, in this preparatory school, let the pruning-knife be freely used to cut of all that has hitherto destroyed the utility of our holy worship; and let our endeavour be not to go forward, but to travel back to those days when Ezra preached and prayed, when the Synagogue was what it should be, a house of prayer and instruction, not a building to feed our vanity and self-love. Alas! this species of man-worship has nearly destroyed all that should be holy. To our females, who really deserve credit for the regularity in which they attend, and the devotion in which they pray, but who evince some displeasure when, in general principle, we admonish and reprove our co-religionists:—to them we would say, that we desire not to tinge their cheeks with a blush, when exhorting them to duty; yet let not their vanity lead them to suppose that they are immaculate;—the most tender flower requires the greatest care, lest weeds should usurp the place of the germ of life; far better is it for them to blush for their errors, than that we should blush for their sins. We have duties to discharge to the God of heaven; and, guided by their importance, we must be unmindful if we offend the so-called goddess of earth. To our brethren we have sterner language to employ: we are engaged to do our utmost to save their precious souls; would they have us victimize their souls and ours? Do they desire that our preaching should be all vanity—vain declamation to pall on the senses? To tell them of days gone by, and of time to come, without endeavouring to improve the present hour? If so, then “it is vanity, the worst of vanities.” No, my friends, time has been presented with a forelock, to convey the moral, that if the present be permitted to pass, it can never be recalled. You know it is the peculiar province of our holy faith, to promote unalloyed felicity in time and eternity, which can only be effected by curbing the impetuosity of our inclinations, and diverting the common course of our affections to their only legitimate channel, to those ennobling desires, that will not mock our most ardent anticipations, and to those aspirings, attentive of the highborn dignity of our nature; in a word, to those lofty conceptions, destined to live in perpetual beauty, harmony, and perfection. We are Israelites, whose avocation in this world consists in preparing for the next. If we discharge our obligations as becomes the sons of Israel, happiness, everlasting happiness, will be our portion: “this is written in the Pentateuch, repeated by the prophets, and reiterated in the Hagiographa;” but if, unmindful of our duty, we gratify ourselves by trifles, what then will be our condition in time to come? Alas, the sturdiest frame must bend at the bare contemplation, if this be really our destination, to live eternally in endless joy or never-ceasing misery. If our life be but probationary and prelusive to a more glorious state, what can those things ultimately avail, for which we unremittingly toil? Shall the heir of immortality devote himself to the acquisition of useless trifles? Granted that the carnal desires require feeding, is it rational that the soul must be starved? Shall an expectant of glory devote his energies on frivolous pursuits? Shall the pilgrim of hope loiter by the way to heap up worthless dross, not of the least value in that country, to which he wends his way, “heap up riches, knowing not who shall gather them?”
No, beloved hearers, the candidate for infinite mercy must not contemn the proffered boon, to revel in the low and grovelling regions of earth-begotten desires; for it will weave a web for his own destruction. Other faults and vices have their intermission; but the desires relating to this world alone increase with age, ever making fresh demands that cannot be satisfied; nothing entirely squares with the cupidity and futility of worldly wishes. All this, rightly understood, verifies the saying of the wise Solomon, “Better is the poor man than one ever wavering,” whose feverish and ambitious mind, in a pendulous state, vacillates in unsteady and unsettled indecision. From adolescence to hoary age, our desires too often prove our destruction. Oh! how much. happier should we be, if we measured our wants, not, by the physical but by the moral eye; for that alone can and does quell the tumultuous desire, banishes discontent, and disarms sorrow and affliction, by those well-founded hopes and serene joys, over which time, or even death itself, has no power ! Oh! my hearers, how glorious is the picture painted by the religious mind! In the foreground is the good man; he requires no folded tapestry to hide his defects; unadorned by the garments of vanity, he is beautiful to contemplate; the placidity of his desires is distinguished by his eye. If such be true beauty, who would be deformed; if virtue be so angelic, who would love the monster vice! Indeed, from all we have advanced, we should suppose that all men would desire to be beautiful, all women divine; yet, truly surprising, in all that relates to eternal interests they exhibit the most culpable indolence, whilst with a lynx-eyed vigilance they watch their worldly affairs. Oh! how lamentable is that state to be courted by flattering hopes, and lured by dazzling prospects, to walk in a vain show, where reason is eventually so debased, so carnalized, that the vitiated mind desires only what proves destructive to its dearest interests: “wo to such who strive with their Maker”—whose wishes are repugnant to the gracious requirements of God. Even when in a favourable mood such as these seek the consolations of religion: they would reduce divine truth to the level of their depraved reason. That which cannot be made to accord with their vague and aberrant understanding is scornfully rejected, as if religion were intended for nothing else than to gratify personal vanity. On the other hand, a pious Israelite is really intent on true felicity; he has studied the grand lesson to diminish his wishes; his earnest prayer is, “Provide me with sufficient food;” and this wish granted, his wants are few; he is rich whose desires are poor: the fear of God is his stay and prop. Let carriages roll by, he craves not to be the occupant; let the steed prance, he desires not to be the rider; let the mansion be elegantly furnished, if the name of God is not written on the door-posts, he pities the possessor; let gaudy attire please the worldling, he says with the ancient philosopher, “All I desire is a staff for my hand, a spade for my grave.” By such limited desires he realizes a condition princes might envy. While the good man feels thus, let us in conclusion discuss the state of the vain-glorious, and we shall readily perceive, that as far as our desires diverge from godliness, so far are we unfitted for unfading good. Though we may be elated for a time, delighted with the approbation of our pliant consciences—big with our own greatness—a day must infallibly arrive when the desire shall fail. At that crisis, where shall we find support? suspended over perdition by the flimsy thread of life, worn in a thousand places? how shall we make good our hold on that guidance to lead us beyond death, if our desire relate only to earth?—how shall we elevate the intellectual eye of the soul to imperishable excellence?
These are vital questions; and God grant that they may be indelibly impressed on our minds, to wean us from those frivolities that engross our undivided attention, to cure our stolid fondness for trifles, to restrain our longing for superfluities, to make our desires tend to life everlasting, to rest satisfied in all the alternations of this existence, to let our unfeigned gratitude follow the bounty of heaven, as sure as effect succeeds cause; that by an unambitious demeanour we devote our zeal and consecrate our talents to the glorification of Him whose express desire is our unalloyed and unceasing happiness. Let this be understood, that “man walketh in a vain show.” The most glorious career man carves for himself, if it be unblessed by piety, unadorned by good works, may be compared to a vast edifice, whose foundation is amid the rush of mighty waters; it may tower awhile, and raise its lofty head to the clouds; but the destructive current is undermining its base; it will topple and fall, and not even its ruins shall mark its site, for “they shall be swept away by the everlasting tide.”
But he who is uninfluenced by the vanities of life, whose constant study is the welfare of Judaism, and its soul-saving efficacy, whose mental eye looks for something tangible beyond the grave, whose way is the way of God, who, clothed in humility’s garb, seeks rather to attract by his mild radiance than to dazzle by his meteorous glare, who continually proclaims, the sweet singer of Israel, “Oh Lord, my hope is in thee!” he may be likened to a rock, which will stand the passage of ages, and still remain unmoved; a rude hand or a rough blast may shiver a few fragments, its head may for a time lie enveloped in the overhanging clouds; but the sun will again shine, and restore all by his genial glow; the rock will still exist. So, my beloved hearers, is it with the righteous being; throughout unnumbered generations shall he live, spiritually, though not corporeally, and no lapse of time shall blot out his name from the book of life: “the righteous shall flourish like the palm, they shall grow like the cedar in Lebanon, planted in the house of the Lord, in the courts of our God shall they flourish.” May such be the glorious destiny of all here assembled. Amen.