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בס"ד

A Sermon

 

Delivered at the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Synagogue, Bevis Marks, on Thursday R. H. Kislev (15th November,) 5610, being the day appointed by Her Majesty as a General Thanksgiving to Almighty God, to acknowledge His great goodness and mercy in removing from us that grievous disease with which many parts of this kingdom have been lately visited.

By the Rev. D. A. De Sola,

Minister of the above Synagogue.

וישלח האלהים צלאך לירושלם להשחיתה ובהשחית ראה יי ויאמר למלך המשחית רב עתה הרף ידיך ׃ (ד״ה א׳ כ״א ט״ו)

“God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it, and as he was destroying, the Lord beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said unto the angel that destroyed, it is enough, stay now thy hand.” (1 Chron. xxi. 15.)

זוהר פ׳ שמות ∙ אמר ר׳ אבא חרב יי הוא הדין שעושה דכתיב וירא דוד את מלאך יי עומד בין השמים ובין הארץ וחרבו שלופה בידו ׃ וכי חרב שלופה היתה ביד המלאך ∙ אלא שהיתה הרשות נתונה לעשות דין ׃ אי הכי מאי וישב חרבו אל נדנה ∙ אמר ר׳ אבא שנחזר הדין לבעל הדין והרשות למי שהרשות שלו ׃

In Zohar, Section Shemoth, Rabbi Abbah explains that the term “sword” in this and other texts of scripture, is a figurative expression to denote the execution of God’s judgments, and the permission given to his minister to carry out the sentence. If so, (it is asked), What is meant by the farther expression in the 27th <<578>>verse, that the angel, upon God’s, command “put up the sword into the sheath thereof?” This, also, replied Rabbi Abbah, figuratively denotes the resumption by the Almighty, of the power He had delegated to his minister, and that mercy had now superseded the decree of strict justice and punishment.

BRETHREN, we are assembled this day, which the piety and wisdom of our most sovereign Queen has appointed to render public and solemn thanks to Almighty God for the abatement of the grievous disease with which this kingdom has been lately visited; and truly, when we consider the awful extent, the extraordinary nature of this pestilence, and the dire effects it has left behind it: we who, by God’s mercy, have been graciously spared, cannot but feel deeply the obligation to appear before our God, and render Him in this holy place, jointly and publicly, our most fervent and heartfelt thanks for having saved and protected us, from the danger, common to all, and from the dreadful alarm, and apprehensions which all have felt.

Unwilling as I am to recall to your minds the painful and distressing scenes we have lately witnessed, yet, considering that the human mind is ever prone to dismiss as soon as possible from the memory the disagreeable reminiscences of a danger we consider past; recollecting, also, my brethren, that through God’s infinite mercy, and not through any merits of our own, the destructive visitation has passed but lightly over us, ואתם הדבקים ביי אלהיכם חיים כלכם היום,—it becomes my duty my painful duty, in order that our gratitude and thanksgiving may be as strong, effectual, and heartfelt as it ought to be, to retrace to your memories in a hasty sketch, the scenes of horror and distress the Most Merciful has just now delivered us from,—forever, as we fervently hope.

Few, if any of us have not been appalled by the lament and distress which prevailed in this our city, during the existence of the late pestilence, or, have quite forgotten the care-worn and apprehensive look of friends and acquaintance, the sight of desolated habitations, the closed shops, in those districts, where it raged most fiercely, and the deserted aspect of those localities usually crowded and teeming with life. Then, the tolling of funeral bells, the unusual number of funerals, and the more frequent garb of mourning observed, and yet to be observed in our <<579>>streets, must have struck the most unthinking and unfeeling mind with awe and fear, and impressed upon him the conviction that “the destroying angel of the Lord” had indeed gone forth, and that as erst over Jerusalem, in the time of David, “his sword” was now stretched over this great metropolis, to carry out God’s judgment over this earth, and to do the will of Him by whom he was sent.

But the misery observed in public was subordinate, far inferior, to the suffering within doors, to the direful effects of this visitation, which still are felt, and will for a long time be deeply felt by many. But I will not harrow your feelings by dwelling on the extraordinary and frightful nature of this pestilence, which, baffling all human means, and medical skill, reduced, after a short period of most intense suffering, the strong man to a loathsome corpse, who but a few hours before had exulted in health and youthful vigour, and was perhaps the sole support of a numerous family. Under many a roof of this great metropolis, the bitter wailings are yet heard of the humble widow, whose nightly pillow is moistened with tears. Many are the bereaved husbands who have seen perish their joy and comfort, the mother and careful protectress of their now helpless children. Many are the children who have become orphans, and many are the parents whose darlings have been suddenly snatched away. Suffice it to say, that upwards of 60,000 inhabitants of England have been swept away by this pestilence, in which our own metropolis has suffered more than its proportion, and the effects I have but feebly sketched, may be better conceived in all their appalling magnitude. How truly thankful ought we to be to our Divine Creator and Preserver that He, being merciful, deigned so soon to hear our cry, accept our prayers, and, pardoning our iniquities, would not utterly destroy us; but in wrath remembering mercy, did, in the words of my text, again say to the destroying angel, “It is enough, stay now thine hand.” ויאמר למלאך המשחית רב עתה הרף ידיך ׃

In the brief discourse I shall have the honour to address you, I propose to treat,

I. On the gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s kind providence due from us as men;

2. As Israelites.

And in the third place, endeavour to point out how to render <<580>>this, our thanksgiving, acceptable to our God, and permanently useful to ourselves.

I.

The investigation of the providential rule of God in the world (as far as our humble faculties will permit us to carry them), is the most noble and useful object of our religious inquiries. In proportion as we advance in this study, new proofs of the wisdom and benevolence of our Divine Maker are unfolded to our view, and the proofs of religious truths become more confirmed and established. It is not the least or the advantages we derive from this study, that it explains and proves to us, that even physical evils and partial sufferings are a part, and a necessary part, of the omniscient scheme of Providence in the government of his world, and that the result is the restoration of harmony, and the promotion of the happiness of the whole human race. Even, as stormwinds, thunder and other apparent physical evils, are deprecated and feared by the untaught, because they only remark the partial evil and damage they occasion, but are viewed by the wiser, as a necessary and providential restoration of the disturbed harmony of nature, and as a general benefit, and preventative of greater evils;—so, also, are diseases and periodical visitations viewed by the intelligent and pious admirer of God’s providence, as partial and necessary evils, to prevent still greater, and as a corrective to corruption. They are necessary to rectify our negligence; they are necessary to rouse our apathy; and necessary to show us our utter dependence upon God, and the inadequacy and vanity of our own skill and wisdom effectually to preserve us in the hour of danger. For nothing can be more certain than that the heart of man requires correction. When everything in the world proceeds in a smooth and prosperous way, when our bark constantly glides, על מי מנוחות “over the placid stream,” and no storms are known or dreaded: we become careless and boastful, our hearts become enervated, and our lusts strengthened. Soon the heart succumbs to temptation and sin, and finally is hardened and exults in the commission thereof. Laxity of principle, engendered by uninterrupted ease, ever leads to immorality of practice. It is then, when our soul’s <<581>>health declines, when the vital powers of human society are endangered, that the bitter draught of adversity and trouble is administered by the most “merciful and faithful Physician,” as the best and most salutary medicine to restore the relaxed powers.

This awful disease which has just passed over us, has, by the havoc it made—by the affliction it has caused—and by the fears which the instinct of self-preservation has so naturally called forth within us, taught, in energetic terms, lessons we never can or ought to forget. It has not only taught us how helpless and utterly dependent we are on God’s providential care, and how vain our skill and precautions, when death stalks around us unseen; but it taught us, moreover, the great lesson of the wisdom of Providence, who makes every evil conducive to our eventual good.

In the present instance, the very extent of the calamity and danger, has called forth the exertions of the wisest and most powerful of this country, to devise means, under God’s aid, to prevent the recurrence, or at least to mitigate the violence of this and similar evils. By the exertions of sanitary committees, composed of men of zeal and ability, and by the wisdom and aid of the Legislature, the situation, the health and comfort of the poor, will be considerably improved, and placed on a superior footing to what it was a few months ago. Things injurious to the public health, nuisances hitherto overlooked, will be abated. The want of those conveniences indispensably necessary to the maintenance of cleanliness and decency—facts, which the investigations to trace the causes of the great mortality among the poor have brought to light—will, it is hoped, be supplied to them as much as possible. Thus, light breaks forth from darkness, and by the wisdom of Providence permanent good will be evolved from the transitory evil He was pleased to visit us with. Ample causes are these for all the gratitude and thanksgiving we can offer before Divine Throne.

הללו יי כל גוים Praise the Lord, all ye nations,
שבחוהו כל האמים ׃
Praise him, all ye people;
כי גבר עלינו חסדו
For great has been his mercy towards us;
ואמת יי לעולם הללויה ׃
And the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Hallelujah.

<<582>>

II.

I have next to treat of our duty of thanksgiving for God’s providence vouchsafed to us as Israelites. :יאמר נא ישראל כי לעולם חסדו  

No nation has experienced that providence longer, or in a more marked and energetic form than our own. In the history of the patriarchs, that of private individuals, or of kings and kingdoms, as related in the Holy Scriptures, in our modern, as well as in our ancient history, the same characteristic of a watchful providential interference shows itself so clearly, on almost every page, that examples would be superfluous, even if the limits of this discourse did not preclude my adducing them. No doubt we have especial cause for gratitude and thanksgiving on this occasion, having been so miraculously preserved, and spared so much of the great affliction and woes which our fellow-citizens and countrymen have experienced. This exemption I cannot, dare not, ascribe to aught else than to the Divine grace, and not to secondary causes,—and far less to any self-assumed, particular righteousness of our own, above that of those who suffered. Accordingly, I should have satisfied myself in rendering our thanks, to admonish you to those acts of religion and virtue, by which we are to merit the benefit of God’s future protection. But I think I shall better execute my intention if I read to you a few lines, which have lately met my eves, and offer for your consideration the thoughts they have evoked in my mind.

It is not unknown to you, brethren, that some of the ablest pens have of late been occupied with disquisitions on, and collecting statistics of the late visitation, so as to devise the best human means to protect us from a similar future evil. In one of these, this remarkable passage occurs concerning ourselves:—

“It is a singular circumstance, that throughout the late awful visitation, so few, if any Jews, died of the cholera in London, although the majority of them reside in districts where it committed great ravages.

“Frequent personal ablutions are enjoined by the discipline of the Jewish church. This, together with the temperate habits of the Hebrews generally, may account for the providential exemption from one of the most terrible diseases that afflict mankind.”

<<583>>

I have preferred quoting to you the words of this impartial writer to my informing or reminding you of the same facts, (and before I ventured to draw any inferences from them;) because I feel that the acknowledgment of the wholesome and beneficial tendency of these precepts of the Holy Law and those which prescribe various purifications and daily ablutions by a writer who notices the bare fact in a mere statistical view, without premeditation or religious bias, will make more impression on you than if propounded by a Jewish minister upon this occasion.

Having adduced this impartial testimony, let me be permitted to reason thereon. Personal cleanliness and purity of body are, as truly asserted by this writer, held by the Jewish law to be only secondary to purity of mind; and the attainment of the latter is not only considerably promoted by personal cleanliness, but is almost the natural consequence and infallible result thereof. For as our sages remark—

ר׳ פנחס בן יאיר אומר זריזות מביא לידי נקיות ∙ נקיות מביא לידי טהרה ∙ טהרה מביאה לידי פרישות ∙ ופרישות מביאה לידי קדושה וכו׳ ׃

(Mishna, Treatise Sotah, c. 11.)

“Solicitude is the cause of cleanliness, cleanliness that of purity, purity naturally leads to the avoidance of sin and pollution, and thus man is led to a holy life.”

Uncleanliness, on the other hand, they inveigh against, because it corrupts and enervates, and produces the opposite result; for they who through indolence or vice have abandoned themselves to filthy habits, soon forfeit and lose the esteem of others; next, their self-respect, and finally sink into sloth, insensibility to public opinion, and into vice and disease, which finally destroys them.

But I must be permitted to pursue this subject a little farther. It is perhaps unknown, not only to the writer I have quoted, but also to a considerable part of my Jewish auditors that besides the frequent washings, ablutions, and precepts of personal cleanliness referred to, the ancient Jewish law, the Mishna and Talmud, abound with laws made to secure, what we at the present day should call “The health of towns, and sanitary regulations.” In the volume of the שלחן ערוךShulchan Aruch,” called “Choshen Mishpat,”  and in Orach Chayim Hilchoth Abeluh, <<584>>in the “Yad Hachasakah of Maimonides,” you will find a number of laws, derived from the Talmud, against the exercise in towns, of various noxious trades, there enumerated, and against private nuisances, which might endanger the public health, or even interfere with the comforts of neighbours. Not only is it there prohibited to establish a Jewish burying-ground within a town, but the minimum distance is there minutely given at which such burying-ground may be permitted to exist. These laws too, be it observed, existed many centuries, I may almost say thousands of years, before anything was heard in the manner it is in the present day, against intramural interments or sanitary laws. So that, my brethren, we cannot be taught anything new upon that subject; we need but follow and carry out, as far as our circumstances may permit, the good and salutary precepts and practices taught us by our holy laws and by the wisdom of our ancestors.

The tendency of the strict discharge of our duty in observing the precepts of the law enjoining personal cleanliness is, as already proved, to promote and secure our temporal and present, our spiritual and future happiness. Those who observe it do, as the Mishna expresses itself with respect to other social virtues, enjoy the fruits and interest of their good deeds in this world, whilst the principal remains to a future one.

אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה והקרן קימת לו לעולם הבא ׃

I need not therefore add anything to induce you to persevere in the observance of these and other Divine precepts, all having the same aim, our happiness, and each of them having its double reward. If, as it is said, the observance of those precepts promoting cleanliness, the ancestral virtue of sobriety, and our dietary laws, have, through the Almighty’s goodness, had the effect of mitigating or limiting amongst us the baleful influence of the late visitation:—how great then ought to be our gratitude to the Divine Providence, who not only in the time of trouble protected us, as He did our ancestors during the pestilence in Egypt, but who also favoured us with those laws which have been proved to have so beneficial a tendency. The thanksgiving due from us, as Israelites, cannot be better expressed than in the inspired strains of the royal David:

<<585>>

לולי יי שהיה לנו יאמר נא ישראל וכו׳

Had the Lord not been on our side,
Now may Israel say,
The waters had overwhelmed us,
The stream had gone over our souls.
But blessed be the Lord,
Who did not deliver us as a prey.
Our help is ever in the name of the Lord,
The creator of heaven and earth. (Ps. cxxiv. 1, 4, 6, 7.)

III.

I have arrived at the last section of my discourse, “How to render this our thanksgiving, acceptable to our God, and useful to ourselves.” It is easy enough to repeat certain prayers or psalms adapted to the occasion; but to limit ourselves to such thanksgivings, is not what the Almighty desires or expects from us. As He himself told us, mere “lip service” is but a mockery and a delusion. This our royal psalmist felt, when, in composing his eloquent hymns of thanksgiving which form our “Hallel,” he asks himself מה אשיב ליי כל תגמולוהי עלי “How shall I render thanks to the Lord for all his benefits towards me?” and he immediately answers, נדרי ליי אשלם נגדה נא לכל עמו “I will now pay my vows unto the Lord, in the presence of all his people.” Acts as well as words are necessary; acts of charity, acts of devotion, and acts of personal exertion and sacrifice are required from us at this hour. Divine Providence in his government of the universe, has chosen to work by ordinary agencies, and by certain laws which He himself has established. It therefore follows, that making use of our reason and other faculties which He has granted to us for this very purpose, we must observe these laws, and that it is our duty to remove what obstructs or impedes their beneficial effects. It is, then, our duty, every one according to his power, to assist our poorer brethren, to give them what they have a right to receive from us, and thus prevent, as far as human efforts can, the recurrence or virulence of the late disease. We have too plainly seen that it raged most fiercely and fatally in overcrowded and filthy dwellings, where there was a want of those conveniences which cleanliness, decency, and health so imperiously require, and without which the practice of religion and morality become <<586>>difficult to the poor; also, where there existed a want of power to purchase wholesome and sufficient nourishment, which so much predisposed to the disease and aggravated its form. Now all these are physical wants, which admit of human power to remedy them. It is, therefore, the bounden duty of all of us to endeavour to furnish it. I said, advisedly, all of us, because it is in the power of all to aid in improving the dwellings and condition of our poorer brethren. Some can assist with money, others with counsel; and all are bound to co-operate to carry out the wholesome measures which no doubt will be taken by the Legislature in this matter. Let no one say, that his power or influence is too limited to do anything useful in removing such an extensive evil, for what is impossible to individuals becomes easy to associated numbers. Those who cannot originate, may assist those who can; and even the evil which cannot be entirely removed, may most often be considerably mitigated. Few things are impossible where the will exists, and when we have once become thoroughly convinced of the truth and necessity of a thing.

Experience has constantly proved that no truth is ever established without it leads to some better knowledge, or to a beneficial act. Now every good act contains within itself the germ of another good act, which is sure, sooner or later, here or hereafter, to bear its good fruit. שכר מצוה מצוה The quantum of good, therefore, which every person may confer on the world, becomes actually incalculable. Neither are the veriest poor excluded from this merit, and from the reward which accrues from it. However limited their means, provided their inclination is good, they have it in their power to do more good than would be readily believed by those unacquainted with their habits, or overrate the power of money, and are ignorant of the extent and effect of the charity of the poor to the poor. For even as the dew which, descending unobserved at night, when all are wrapped in slumber, acts more beneficially on the tender plants, than the more abundant supply of moisture supplied by violent rains: so, also, does the unostentatious aid, the kind look, the encouraging word, and above all the assistance which one poor person cordially renders to another in times of affliction and disease, prove in most cases of more consolation and effectual aid than much money bestowed by the wealthy in charity. לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר יי צבאות  “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, sayeth the Lord of Hosts,” (Zech. iv. 6,) in the spirit of the Most Merciful, in that spirit which He wishes to be imitated by all his creatures to each other, so that all may co-operate to effect the general happiness of the species.

The application of what I have endeavoured to prove is easy and obvious, as is also the answer as to how we should render thanks to the Lord for all His benefits towards us. Since His love has been great towards us כי גבר עלינו חסדו, we are surely bound to reciprocate the love He first showed unto us. How can we reciprocate it? By our unreserved love and obedience towards Him, ואהבת את יי אלהיך וכו׳ (Deut. vi. 5); and by obeying His commands to love and assist each other, ואהבת לרעך כמוך (Lev. x. 18).

I have also endeavoured to prove that God’s providence renders even evils conducive to our good. The pestilence just passed adds another proof. For if the apprehensions excited by that dreadful visitation should induce a penitent and better life in the survivors,—if the condition of the poor be improved,—if more acts of charity and mutual kindness be shown by poor and rich,— if it should lead to the better observance of the precepts of our holy religion, of its dietary laws, those enjoining cleanliness of body which lead to purity of mind, to the Sabbath not being desecrated, and God’s commands not immolated to interest and worldly lucre,—if it should remind men, that our business on earth, in the short span allotted to us, and which in a moment may be cut short, is not confined to the business of this world, and to live for ourselves alone, but to prepare us for a better and eternal existence:—then, assuredly, good, much good, will result even from the past severe visitation. מי חכם וישמר אלה ויתבוננו חסדי יי—“The intelligent will observe this, and comprehend the loving kindness of the Lord.” (Ps. cvii. 43.)

We have seen that physical evil is unavoidable in the great scheme of the providential rule of the world; therefore, now that this calamity has departed from us, let not the admonitory signs it has given us be lost sight of, and let us be better prepared for the future. The expression of our thanksgiving will be illusive; the prayers we have uttered, the word of God I have announced to you, my humble address, and what I still more rely on, your <<588>>own reflections, and good resolves, which this solemn occasion have excited, will be of no effect, should they be suffered to pass away with the occasion, and relapsing again into apathy and torpor, the fear this visitation has caused, should be only like a stone dropped into a pool of stagnant water, which but for a moment disturbs it, and then soon returns to its fatal repose. Be assured, my brethren, that when you have, done your duty, God will not forget you in the hour of distress. כי הוא יצילך מפח יקוש וכו׳ He will deliver thee from the fowler’s snare, and from the destructive pestilence, which stalketh in darkness, and wasteth at noonday,” and though “Thousands fall at thy side, and myriads at thy right hand, yet shall it not approach unto thee,” for “our God and refuge” will guard us, when we ourselves are unable to see and avoid the danger. If we resolve to do our duty, and execute our resolve, we will merit and obtain that Divine protection. Then will our thanksgiving be perfect and acceptable, and then may we hope once to render our solemn thanks

בחצרות בית יי בתוככי ירושלם אמן ׃

“In the courts of the house of the Lord, in the midst of thee, O, Jerusalem.” Amen.