Vol. VII, No. 1
Nisan 5609, April 1849
A Sermon, Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Wise, of Albany, at the Synagogue Shaar Hashamayim, in New York,
On Sabbath Tetzavveh, March 3d, 5609.
Lord of life, God of truth, who art enthroned in light, from the emanation of which the world is illuminated, Thou who didst cause to beam forth the rays of thy holy light from Horeb’s elevated summit, shine upon us also with thy light, let us behold thy brilliant beams, so that we may walk in the light of truth and intelligence before Thee, O Lord of light, “For Thou wilt enkindle my light, and Thou, O Lord God, wilt illuminate my darkness.”
My Friends and Brothers,—
If we open the book of the Covenant, we shall find on its first page the history of the creation, how the Lord called into being with his potent word the innumerable myriads of stars, the sun, the moon, and the earth, and all that is upon them; how He extended the blue vault of Heaven, ornamented with luminous children of God; how He encircled the earth with running streams, and covered it with a flowery carpet; how He called into life all living beings, from the mean worm up to the giant behemoth, front the minute infusoria up to the mighty leviathan, and assigned to each its food and its enjoyments. Still the first creative word was, as we read, ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי אור “And God said, Let there be light; and it was light.” Light is the proud ornament and crown of creation; light is joy, whilst darkness is pain and mourning; light is life, but darkness is the grave and death; light is wisdom, but darkness is ignorance and folly; <<13>>light is virtue,” but darkness is sin and vice; light is truth, but darkness is falsehood and deception; “because the commandment is a light and the law is a lantern,” therefore was light the first word of creation. But the first commandment also, the first direction which God gave to our fathers in the desert, when He prescribed to them a form of worship for the Tabernacle, as we read in the beginning of this week’s section, was the commandment concerning the light in the house of God; for light is the beginning, the aim, and the crown of the house of God. let us then, brethren, read the commandment respecting the light in the house of God, as we find it written in the holy Scriptures:
ואתה תצוה את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד׃ באהל מועד מחוץ לפרכת אשר על העדות יעדך אתו אהרון ובניו מערב עד בקר לפני ה׳ חקת עולם לדרתם מאת בני ישראל׃
“And thou shalt command the children of Israel that they bring thee pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a light to burn always. In the tabernacle of the congregation, without the veil, which is before the testimony, shall Aaron with his sons arrange it from evening to morning before the Lord; it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on behalf of the children of Israel.”—Exod. 27:20, 21.
“A statute for everlasting unto their congregations,” are the words of our text; it therefore refers also to us, and all times, with regard to the light in the house of God; this precept speaks to us also in a voice divine, and we have to reply to three questions, which it naturally presents to our consideration.
1st. With what shall we illuminate the house of God?
Before the reply to these questions, I would desire to call the attention of each of you to the thirty-ninth chapter of Shemoth Rabbah, which is the source which is to supply us the answers to our queries. And I hope for God’s aid and blessing in this task; yea, remember me, and strengthen me this once, O my God and Father. Amen.
“With what shall we illuminate the house of God?” With a good and noble heart, with a frank and candid mind, with a <<14>>clear and enlightened understanding, with a God-fearing, God-devoted spirit, for this constitutes the true light, which we shall carry with us before God, in order to illuminate his house; and here, in the house of God, shall this holy flame be ever breathed into life afresh, in order that this light may also shed its lustre abroad in our every-day life; here shall this light be strengthened, in order that we may be beyond its precincts true and good Israelites, good parents, tender spouses, peaceable neighbours, sincere friends, honest and honourable men, patriotic citizens, in short, such true Israelites as is demanded by the word of God from his adorers; in order that the name of Israel may become one synonymous with honour, a name which inspires esteem and love, a name of which every Israelite may be proud; so that the words of the prophet Isaiah may be fulfilled, saying,
“For behold the darkness shall cover the earth, and a gross darkness the people; but over thee will the Lord rise, and his glory will be seen over thee. And nations shall walk by thy light, and kings by the brightness of thy shining.” (Isaiah 60:2, 3.)
This is the true שמן זית זך כתית למאור “pure beaten olive oil for lighting,” of which we can say with truth that it is destined “to cause a lamp to burn always,” to maintain a permanent, unquenchable light, which shines not merely in the house of God, in the great world, but which is also lovely in the beloved family circle in the midst of thy house, and in the most secret corner of thy heart; which sheds not only its light throughout thy entire life, but which will illuminate even the night of the grave, and will one day beam beautifully around thee before God’s judgment throne, “when thy righteousness will go before thee, and the glory of the Lord will be thy reward.”
With what shall we illuminate the house of God? We must do it with our own light, and not with a borrowed one.
All of you, who are here assembled, know well how we and our fathers were hated, persecuted, and despised in old Europe; that terrible threat which Moses in ancient days pronounced against Israel, in case it should become delinquent against religion, did become verified in fact, fearfully verified; for there has been experienced in very truth: “In the morning, thou wilt say, O, that it were but evening! and at evening thou wilt, say, O, that it were but morning! from the dread of thy heart which <<15>>thou wilt experience, and from the sight of thy eyes which thou wilt see.”
So long a time were abuse and contumely heaped on us, that at length many a one of our brothers became actually contemptible and base, whilst others were ashamed to be called by the despised name of Israel, or to participate in the customs of this derided nation. We were debarred from the enjoyment of the principal civil rights, because we belonged to this contemned religion. It therefore happened that even noble-minded and worthy Israelites, to whom the ancestral belief was dear and precious, whilst daily seeing it more and more falling into disuse or renounced, sought to remove the habits and customs which separated us from the rest of the world, and to introduce in their stead Christian manners, to approach nearer to other classes of mankind. Yes, people forgot themselves so far, as to propose to abolish circumcision, and to transfer the Sabbath to the Sunday; they carried this at length so far that even the most liberal men became terrified, and withdrew from the movement; and they would have carried things still farther, in order to escape the disgrace of exclusion, and to unite with the rest of the world; when lo! the voice of God was heard in the noise of popular tumults, and the pillars of thrones were shaken; the earth beheld it and trembled; and He touched the tops of the mountains, and they smoked, burnt, and were consumed; He threatened, and the depths of the sea were laid open; the hidden forces in the bowels of the earth were set in motion, and they shook off our shame; the hatred of the Jews, and the exclusion; and the wild rage for reform, became silenced, and the Christianizing of the Jewish religion ceased, because the reason for so doing had also ceased.
But here, on Columbia’s sacred soil, here have these causes never had a commencement; here no hatred of Jews was ever witnessed, no persecution of Jews, no derision of our religion, no contemning of the customs and usages of our fathers; here we dwell in God’s freest garden, amidst human brothers, who only despise the worthless, and prosecute only the malefactor; here we need not seek for illumination with a foreign light, to light up the house of God with borrowed beams; here is the land where truth finds her adorers, and will find them still more, the more she is presented plainly and clearly before the eye of the world. We! Why should we desire to shine with a borrowed light? where <<16>>darkness shall cover the earth, and a gross darkness the people, while over us the Lord will rise, and his glory will be seen over us? When darkness and night, ignorance and paganism, overshadowed the earth, then already was the light of Heaven our property; ours is the oldest and clearest, the true and pure light, a light which shone unto our great king David, when he praised and glorified the Lord of Hosts in spirit-stirring hymns, in magnificent psalms, in heavenly tunes. A light, in which Solomon the wise walked, when he laid down for the world the fruits, the treasures, of his inspired intelligence. A light, for which the incomprehensible Elijah was so zealous in fiery attachment, and for which he ventured his life a thousand times. Do you hear the thundering voice of the power of truth which reverberates from the fearful dome of heaven, melting away in soft, sweet, enchanting tones, till it has acquired a lovely beauty? It is the voice of our royal Isaiah, who walked in our light, proclaiming our truth to the world.
Hast thou seen yon bowed down giant, standing on the ruins of his devastated country? How he proclaims with energy the truth before the great and mighty men of the earth, without trembling, courageously lifting up his head, amidst the sharp swords and the drawn daggers of the enemies? Hast thou heard the mournful sounds of the harp, the melodious notes of grief? Hast thou heard the inspired lament of the greatest heart? It is our Jeremiah, with giant-like mind, sounding his tuneful lyre; it is Hilkiah’s great and unhappy son. He, too, walked in our light, he announced our doctrines. Knowest thou all the giant cedars of Lebanon, that lifted up high their heads to the very clouds, overshadowing with their mighty branches the entire world? They had taken root in our soil, they were our sons who walked in our light, proclaiming our truths to the children of man. And should we borrow the light in order to illuminate the house of God, when our treasuries are full of light as the waters cover the sea? Can we forget all these great men whom the Jewish nation has produced? Call to mind your great teachers of the Mishna and the Talmud, who collected together all the sciences and branches of knowledge of their times; from Greece, Rome, India and from the entire East they brought together the best treasures, viewed them carefully by <<17>>our light, and laid up what was good and true of them in our own magazines. Can you have forgotten yon great spirits, whom our light enlightened? I put you in mind of Maimonides, Ben Nachman, Aben Ezra, Rabbi Jehudah Hallevi, Don Isaac Aberbanel, and a thousand others; I call to your recollection Mendelssohn, and all his great contemporaries, who all walked in our light, taught our word, and then ask you, need we illuminate the house of God with a borrowed light? No, must you say; ours is the “pure, beaten olive oil for lighting” ours these three thousand years, and wherever shines a light of the truth, it is borrowed from us. And why do we not illuminate with our light? Why do we not fulfill the command of the Lord “to cause a light to burn always?” Why are there still so many Israelites among us who exclaim, “Judaism is in a good position as it is; thus will it attain its proper goal,” although they see that indifference towards Judaism daily increases more and more, that the houses of God are visited by constantly decreasing numbers; that the growing generation is constantly more and more withdrawn from the religious ideas of their fathers?
Why do they so obstinately resist every improvement, though it contemplates ever so much the happiness and elevation of the Jewish religion?—Because, excuse the severity of my words, because ignorance has unduly increased; because the Jewish religion is partly not properly known, and partly misunderstood; and then, is ignorance the bitterest enemy of our religion, for Judaism requires more to be known than to be believed in.
Down with the blinds! and look honestly around you; and only ask of yourselves, how many are there who know what the prophets have said, what our Talmudists have taught, and what our philosophers have proved. But ask even farther among that small portion who know something of all this, even among those who expect with their Mishna study to redeem the world, or to save some departed souls, do ask among them, how many have taken the trouble to look into the depths of the divine word, to comprehend the whole commandment of the Lord: and you will discover that a tithe know something, but that the vast majority of this small portion have learned to read merely the dead letter, and that the spirit of the holy word has remained a stranger to them. Here then is to be found the death of Juda<<18>>ism, here then is the poison plant, which needs must be pulled out with the roots; therefore do I call upon you, O men of Israel! to assemble and to consult, how instruction may be diffused, how the word of truth can be brought home to every son, to every daughter of our people. Come together and take counsel, how the whole structure of Judaism may be united, elevated, and raised on high, yes, to be lifted up and preserved; how we shall do to respond to the command of the Lord, “to cause a light to burn always.” Be all united before God, that this land, as it now shows and teaches all other countries the proper system of state government, and what true liberty is, may also be enabled to teach them the correct system how Judaism may be elevated and preserved, in order “to cause to burn a light always.”
“Where shall we kindle the light of the Lord?” This was our second query; but we shall have a sufficient answer in our text. First, it must be in the tabernacle of the congregation באהל מועד; and what the tabernacle was to our forefathers in the desert, that is the Synagogue to us. We must, therefore, kindle the light of the Lord here, in the house of God, urge forward the heavenly flame, which warms the heart, illuminates the spirit, elevates the soul, and ennobles the feelings; here must be instructed he who thirsts for God’s law, that, he may go away from here and know “the way where the light does dwell;” what duty demands of him; what the divine law requires of him. Here is, so to say, the hotbed of the garden of the Lord; hither hastens the unfortunate, the deeply bowed with pain, or he who is filled with grief, to lay his complaint before the throne of the Most Merciful, to pour forth his grief-filled soul before the most loving Father, who dwells in heaven, to petition for grace and assistance, for aid and strength. Here, therefore, must the light of the Lord be kindled, in order that heavenly power may elevate and support the suffering soul; in order that the pious petitioner may leave these consecrated halls strengthened and encouraged, strengthened by a confidence in God, strengthened and encouraged to bear the burden of misfortune, to oppose the storms of <<19>>the times courageously and trusting in God. Hither hastens the fallen sinner, whose conscience is again awakened, who has found too heavy the burden of transgression, and who wishes to entreat the Most Merciful to heal his wounded heart, to lighten the oppressive burden; here he pours forth his remorse-filled soul, stretches out his own towards the outstretched hand of Mercy; here flow his tears, that the Father may again open to him the gates of the beloved home of the spirit; therefore must be kindled here the light of the Lord, in order that the fallen sinner may be lifted up, and return home edified, returning home to virtue, to religion, to God, healed of his wound, elevated again to the dignity of man. Hither hastens he on whom joy has smiled, whom the world caresses, on whom the stars of fortune have shed their light, whom God has inducted into the chambers of his blessing, his grace, and his love; here he pours forth his thanks-filled heart, before the beneficent Giver of all that is good; here flow the tears of gratitude before the all-good Father, before Him who is the Fountain of grace and love. Hither comes the youthful soul, in order to consecrate to God the first emotions of the heart, to be counted in the sincerity of early love, amidst the angels who chaunt God’s glory; to soar upwards on the wings of youthful joy to the choir of the seraphim, to praise God in ardent devotion; therefore must the light of the Lord burn here, and warm and illuminate, so that the soul filled with joy, the youthful, ardent spirit, may not be hindered in its upward flight, and return home without being satisfied, and escape from the path of virtue and the covenant of religion, and that it may not stray into the path of wickedness, and stumble through sin.
Here is a house of God, and therefore, should the light of the Lord be kindled in it; the spirit of God must move therein, so that even the thoughtless and unconcerned may boldly enter into the consecrated halls, stand still, reflect, and exclaim, “How fearful is this place, this is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” This signification, this problem of organizing the house of God, is, without dispute, the true and correct one, and alone consonant with religion. Now, if our Synagogue in its present condition responds to this holy demand, if, according to your conviction, the light of the Lord shines <<20>>therein, then is it according to the intention of our holy religion, then is it everything which it should and could be. But, if this be not the case, then does it become your duty, O men of Israel, you who belong in truth to the Jewish religion, to take due care that it become as it should be; then is it your most sacred duty, to kindle the light of the Lord “in the tabernacle of the congregation,” in the house of the Almighty.
“Where shall we kindle the light of the Lord?” “In the tabernacle of the congregation,” says our text; but there is, besides the Synagogue, yet another holy tabernacle, a temple for the welfare of mankind, and this is the school. The Synagogue we may call the hotbed in the garden of the Lord, for the riper age; but for the youthful one, the school stands in the same relation. Do you desire, fathers and mothers, that your children may grow up as good men, as pious Israelites, to be your joy, and contributing to the welfare of mankind? then are you bound to take care that they be educated in such schools, where one can become, at the same time, a good man and a pious Israelite; and such schools are still but few in number, and not a hundredth portion of Jewish children enjoy such an education, as just stated; and even in such schools have we Christian books, where, on nearly every page, Christian principles are conveyed to the child; nay, we have not even a Bible; we must borrow it from the missionaries, who wish to undermine us by this selfsame Bible. Fathers and mothers, what will you say, when at some future day, your own children should deride Judaism? will it be agreeable to you, if, at some future day, your offspring should renounce the name of Israel? And granted that this would not please you, then must you labour with all your might that it shall not take place; then must you act unitedly to oppose the evil, ere it has become too great and inveterate, and defies the hand and skill of the physician. Yes, if you wish to preserve the house of Israel in its future generations, then can you effect it only through union, through the quiet and peaceable harmonious working of all the powers of all the congregations of Israel in this western continent.
“Where shall we kindle the light of the Lord?” מחוץ לפרכת
“Without the veil,” says our text. Behind the veil, before the holy law, there was always light, there was no darkness; but <<21>>the people know not any longer that behind this veil are the tables of the covenant; therefore must the light be placed without the veil, that all may know that it is but a veil; then will the veil be lifted up, and the illuminated tables of the testimony will present themselves to the view. But why use figurative words? I will rather speak in clear, intelligible phrases. The veil signifies the ceremonies, the forms, which we have in our religion: people have accustomed themselves to regard them, and to esteem them so greatly, that they have forgotten to think of God; nay, that many such ceremonialists have forgotten to be honest and upright, disinterested and merciful; they have forgotten the testimony behind the veil; this did others of our brothers see, and learned thereby to contemn the holy religion of Israel.
“The pious people are the worst,” thus did they say, and often with perfect justice; and from this derision, arose that cold indifference for Judaism, and thus have many intelligent and honest men been lost to us, who might have become an ornament to Judaism. Come, therefore, before it is too late, let us kindle the holy light of the Lord without the veil; let us illuminate things before the eyes of the world, showing that forms are but forms, but that behind this veil of forms lies the pure truth, the sole means to insure salvation; behind this veil lies the treasure which God has granted to mankind, for their happiness, for their prosperity; in order that we may recall the lost sons and daughters of Israel; that no more our brothers and sisters may be lost in the crowd of life. It is time, it is high time, that we carry forward the light of the Lord to without the veil. Look at all nations, how they are sedulous, how they send out their missionaries, to make us swerve frorn our faith; and why do they this? because they do not know what Judaism is, and because many thousands actually believe that it is the greatest misfortune to be an Israelite; our religion is decried here by fanatical priests, because our doctrine is unknown to the people. And we—O the folly!—we, whom God has charged to carry his truth into the world, we stand still, look on at our leisure, how God’s word is misunderstood, decried, and profaned! We—O shame!—we, the sons of those who sacrificed for this holy law, their life, their peace, their liberty, their whole happiness on earth, we look on lazily, <<22>>how men distort our word, and constitute ourselves the object of compassion and of contempt.
Arouse yourselves, all who have yet sympathy for Judaism. Up! and kindle the light of the Lord before the eyes of the world, that they may understand that they have been deceived by their armies of priests; up! and unfurl the glorious banner of the Lord before the nations of the earth, that the truth may be discerned, that the mist of deception may vanish before the rays of the sun of the eternal light; Up! you who yet love Judaism, assemble yourselves together, and consult how this holy work should be commenced; up! and let us lay the foundation of a free Jewish press, free as the air, which may diffuse every good idea, let it be attainable and intelligible to every man, that we may all be truly instructed concerning the nature and beneficent influence of our religion; that our youth when quitting school may be able to instruct themselves concerning the word of God, and that they may be preserved to Judaism, and become intimately connected therewith; that we may be enabled to defend our faith against the wild assaults of the missionaries; against the decrying and profanation of our holy word; in order that we may show the world “that God is truth and his law is truth;” so that we may be able to fulfill our most sacred task, to cause all the people of the earth to know “that the Lord is the God, there is none else.”
“Who is to carry the light into God’s consecrated halls?” This was the third query which we proposed, and thereto answers our text, “Aaron with his sons shall arrange it before the Lord.” Aaron and his sons were the priests of the nation; the priests, therefore, are bound to kindle the light of the Lord. “For the lips of the priest shall keep knowledge, and instruction shall they seek from his mouth, for he is an angel of the Lord of Hosts.” It is the duty of the priest to point out the way of truth, to teach the will of the Lord, to advise for good and noble purposes, to make level the ways of light, to remove the obstacles from the path of virtue and the fear of God; it is the priest’s <<23>>sacred duty to step forward in the presence of the whole world, and to speak what God has placed in his mouth, and to act according to his own words and his conviction. Therefore did I summon in the first place the ministers of Israel to lay the foundation stone of the union, elevation and defence of Judaism, for this is the holiest duty of the priests; for “Aaron with his sons shall arrange it before the Lord.”
But, brethren, I have been terribly undeceived; I have discovered that our priests are but shadows; the great majority are men without knowledge, without importance, without influence; and what is still more destructive, without love or regard for Judaism; the great majority of our priests, including the Mishna heroes, have forgotten their duty; they love their place, their bread, their salary more than their duty, they are become but the instruments, the echo of their congregations, and repeat composedly what the bestowers of their bread con over to them, or what they wish them to hear.*
Hushed is the voice, the inspired voice of the prophets of Israel, which proclaimed fearlessly before the kings and princes the word of the Lord; hushed is the divine voice of the prophets who knew how to despise the earth with its goods; to them the truth only and duty were sacred. The ministers of Israel should of right supply the place of the prophets, should teach fearlessly the truth. But, brothers, with a torn heart do I exclaim with the afflicted Jeremiah: “Thy prophets saw for thee falsehood and folly; and did not lay open thy iniquity, to bring thee back from thy error; but they saw for thee false and deceptive visions.”
Light up the lamp of the Lord in the evening, so that it may give light yet in the morning, that it may also shine for all on that morning when we shall stand as disembodied spirits before the sole God, the most holy One. What can we reply when the most righteous Father asks of us, “Why have you suffered my word to sink down, without doing something to prevent it?” Deeply blushing with shame must we then stand and reply, “Lord, we were too indolent, too timid.” Come, therefore, and let us justify ourselves before our God; let us seek to preserve, to elevate, and to defend the word of salvation. And He, the Father of all, who sits enthroned amidst the cherubim, and still looks down with grace and mercy on those who walk in the dust; He, who has taught to man the word of salvation,—He will not deny us his blessing, his heavenly assistance. He will bless the work of union and the efforts to elevate his faith, that his holy name may be acknowledged and glorified; that his holy light may shine for all the children of man, and that all hearts may be lifted up to Him, and all tongues exclaim ה' הוא האלהים “The Lord is the God.” Amen.