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Reflections on Atonement.

A Sermon For Sabbath Teshubah, 5610.

Conscious of our guiltiness, we approach Thee, O our God and King! to throw ourselves on thy mercy, that Thou wouldst deign to blot out our iniquity and to remove our transgressions from before thy  presence. Day by day hast Thou waited for our return with penitence; but we have stood afar, and would not listen to thy admonition; and we are even this day laden with sin; and whilst we crave thy pardon, do our deeds testify against us. Yet hear us, O Holy One! and let our troubles not be esteemed light before Thee, and extend to us thy helping hand, to lift us up from the depths into which we have sunk through the evil which rests like a weighty load upon us. And do Thou hear, Father! when we invoke thy aid, though we ourselves be unworthy of favour, in behalf of all thy erring children, and grant that Thou mayest lead them back unto thy mansions by gentle admonition and by paternal chastisement; but pour not out over them the fury of thy anger; for who can stand before Thee when thy wrath rebukes the world?—and why should the strangers to thy worship say that Thou hast cast off the children of thy servants, whom Thou chosest from all nations to be thine? Oh pardon, therefore, and forgive; and when our iniquities testify against us, remember thy everlasting mercies, which far exceed our guiltiness, and remove our sins, making them vanish like the misty cloud; because pardon is with Thee, and Thou willest that the guilty one should not die, but live to earn thy favour by repentance and an amended course of life. Do this, because of thy covenant with our fathers, and for the sake of thy glorious and mighty name, which dwells with us. Amen.


It is recommended by our teachers that those who have the word of God with them should address the people on the subject of repentance on the Sabbath between the New Year and the Fast of the Atonement. In compliance, therefore, with this recommendation, which has almost become a law in Israel, I mean to lay before you this day some considerations having reference to the subject of repentance. Often as it has been discussed, in every age and every clime,—presented, as it has been, in a thousand different lights and under various diverging doctrines, some of which, if admitted, would subvert the foundation of Judaism,—yes, much as has been said of the possibility of a man’s making his peace with Heaven, there remains yet much to be urged; and whilst mankind continue to forget the laws of God, it is but proper that they should be reminded that they ought to retrieve their moral delinquency, simply because God gave them the power and the means to accomplish this task, and that a refusal to repent is an addition to their already heavy burden of iniquity.

Whatever may be said by other religions about the beauty of their doctrines, and the assuaging power they have to calm the disturbed mind and to lift it up from the slough of despondence and despair: Judaism knows no superior in these essential elements of mental purification. It is true that it enjoins duties and obligations, the neglect or transgression of which will draw down on the offender the punishment denounced in the Bible against sinners; but this does not prove that it must therefore fail to bring peace to the inward man in a less degree than is accomplished by a system which enjoins no duties, which causes all salvation to depend on a faith in a doctrine which no one has yet correctly expounded, and which is capable of no rational and satisfactory exposition.

There may be many persons who can take up such a religion and profess to believe in its entire truth and efficacy, who fancy that in this blind yielding to an ill-defined dogma they have found peace and the assurance of a forgiveness of all their sins, and a certainty that nothing obstructs their onward march to celestial felicity, the moment that they have acquired this unnatural belief, and incorporated it with their being. But let us not blind ourselves by the appeals which such as these may address to us, that we should cast off our own religion of faith <<387>>and deeds, or that it is not holier, truer, more founded in reason and Scripture a thousand fold than is anything which they can advance.

All religious systems demand an acknowledgment of a Supreme Power, to whom the creatures are responsible for their conduct. Responsibility, however, presupposes duty; for without that, we can incur no indebtedness. Now if we have duties to perform, it means that without accomplishing them we have incurred guilt, no matter how strong and earnest our faith or belief may be in the one who is the author of the system of duties. Nay, the very presupposition of justification by faith makes faith itself a duty, paramount though it be represented to all others; for if it be absolutely necessary to salvation that we believe in a certain series of doctrines, the absence of this belief will insure our condemnation. If we thus sift the idea of a justification by other means than a submission to the dictates of active religion, we shall discover that the mode of obedience to duty is changed, not, however, that the necessity thereof is removed. Consequently the differences between Judaism and other creeds is but a consideration as to the nature and amount of duties to be observed, since all are agreed in fact, if not in words, that they are requisite; and having established this much, it is only necessary to ascertain from the most reliable sources what is demanded of us in the premises.

This consideration brings us at once to the records of Scripture; because all the religions of civilized men take this as a foundation, and all endeavour to prove themselves correct by arguments drawn from this source. But what is the evident sense of the Bible? Is it that mere faith is demanded?—or are duties of various kinds therein specified? Strange, however, as it may appear to those who know not the truth, there is nevertheless not a single expression in all the books of Moses which can even be tortured to mean that there exists any method whatever to obtain the divine favour, except by an obedience to the revealed words of God before we have yet transgressed them, or a return to obedience with repentance, and a thorough regret, in case we have neglected the teaching of the Lord.

To oppose this with any show of argument, a flat assertion is often made that deeds are of no importance, since all men fall far short of a full measure of obedience, wherefore all are under condemnation <<388>>in not accomplishing all which the law demands; whence they infer farther, that there is yet another power capable of assuming our guilt, if we place confidence, faith, or trust in his ability to relieve us from the wrath of our heavenly Father.

Many loud assertions are made in this connexion, that Judaism is a religion of forms, since it cannot assure its votaries a full pardon by anything it teaches, and that, on the contrary, the faith of our opponents is full of such assurances, and therefore better calculated to assuage the spirit in sickness and death. But the whole of this is an error.

First, deeds are of importance, or else God would not have enjoined them; He is not a capricious tyrant, to ask of us what He afterwards will not value or estimate. Consequently we must say that the performance of every duty will have its beneficial results, and be of advantage to the soul of the one who practises it.

Secondly, in admitting that all men fall far short of a full measure of obedience, we only acknowledge what the Bible already teaches, that the heart of man is prone to evil. Nevertheless, we see that God declared, in Gen. viii. 21, that He would not thenceforth curse the earth, as He had then done, for the sake of man; wherefore we are authorized to assert that, notwithstanding man’s dereliction, he will not be condemned, provided only that he has faithfully and honestly observed and done all in the line of his duty that was accessible to him, according to his means and opportunities; and that even an occasional sin, or a direct contradiction to God’s laws, will be leniently regarded, provided it proceed not from a rebellious spirit, and is not repeated till it becomes a habit.

And thirdly, if it be at all true, or even possible that there is a power, other than our God, to assume our guilt, or, in other words, to shield us from the debt of accountability to the Deity, it follows that this power must have an independent existence, able to do something to the Creator which He could not do himself; or, in other words, a second and separate God; for in no other sense could there be an assumption of which the Lord could not or would not pardon without such an intervention.

How, now, does this contrast with the fundamental truth, not of Judaism alone, but of the entire Bible? Evidently in direct contradiction; for what is the first assertion in Genesis? “In the beginning God created.” Only one creative being is represented as producing the whole,—<<389>>only one will as presiding over the entire organization of matter and mind which is found in all creation. The same idea is reiterated in the Decalogue, where it is said that we shall observe the Sabbath as a sign that we acknowledge the creation of all things to have taken place in a period of definite time by the Lord God,—the same One who spoke to Abraham, “I am the Lord; who brought thee out from Ur in Chaldea,”—the same One who blessed Isaac on Mount Moriah, and appeared to Jacob in the vision at Beth El.

Again was the belief in one universal, all-pervading principle repeated, when Moses thus spoke to assembled Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Eternal Lord our God is the Lord one,” meaning, is alone, solely, and absolutely without addition or division, the One who is all-powerful, and exists for ever. I know well enough that those who deny Israel’s hope of salvation have carried meanings into these passages which they have not in their literal acceptation, and which would never have been imagined to exist, had it not been that new doctrines had been broached, which cunning men sought to force upon the attention of our people, by making it appear that they were in some sort of consonance, or at least not in direct conflict with our Scriptures.

How little they have succeeded in this, let our being here this day before the Lord prove to the satisfaction of the most skeptical. What has not been done to aid the scriptural proofs by the potentates of the earth! What cruelties, what briberies, what persuasions have not been resorted to, to make the wrong appear the better reason! But what has it availed all? We have rejected the idea, foreign to our faith, that the Lord is incapable of pardoning, that we must seek for another who does not exist, to screen us from the fiery arrows of Him who slays and brings to life again, in whose right hand there is salvation, and with whom dwells the eternal light; and we have assembled here in his presence, to ask of Him that forgiveness, that pardon, that indulgence which He has promised to those who repent of their errors, and pray of Him that atonement which will render the spirit acceptable in his mansions.

In what, now, does Judaism fail of comforting the soul? in giving an assurance of a renewed acceptability? In nothing, let us answer, which any other religion can legitimately impart; for since all assume that man is sinful, and that sin can only be re<<390>>moved by divine favour, no matter how obtained, and as there can be no evidence in the mind of any rational being that his guilt has been removed, unless each one assumes to himself an especial revelation, to which absurd length indeed many have proceeded: it follows that we have in our religion just as many elements of favour with God as any other system can possibly produce to a mind not overclouded by fanaticism or blinded by the grossest ignorance. For we too hold that man is sinful, and that he requires the divine guidance to teach him the way of truth; but we believe that this requisite knowledge has been imparted to him in the books of revelation; wherefore he has the means of uniting himself to God by acts of obedience, daily and hourly performed in the pursuit of his duty, nay, in the prosecution of his business, for every act of common honesty and fair dealing—every deed of benevolence and charity—every kind word spoken to the afflicted and sorrowing—every friendly salutation which causes pleasure to a fellow-man—all, all are acts in the fulfillment of duty, and by all and by each a man earns a portion of divine favour. For it is not the mighty acts of heroism, of a public display of an ardent faith and devotion, by which the great leaders whom the Lord raises up from time to time as the lights to their fellow­men, are distinguished, which is asked of the masses who are animated with a living soul; because they are not called upon so to serve the Lord, their calling is at the domestic fireside, in the open field, in the workshop of the artisan, the busy mart of commerce, or the other various employments with which the sons of man are busied their space on earth; and if they in each are mindful of the duty which has been prescribed to them, they will earn the favour of God, and be decreed to everlasting life, because in all their walk they trusted in Him, though no human tribunal would adjudge them to have accomplished great things, to have been felt beyond the humble roof of their domicile; for to our God, the high and the low are alike, and He alone can properly measure, weigh, and appreciate every little deed, every fleeting thought, every passing word.

And should a man have been false to his mission—if he have been deceitful in his worship—rebellious in misfortune—proud in prosperity—arrogant under success, or faint-hearted under sorrows—let him have strayed ever so far from the line of duty as indicated in <<391>>our religion, he is bidden not to despair of mercy, but to return from his evil way, ask of the Most High to forgive his transgressions, and wait patiently, cheerfully, to see the issue of things, in the full assurance that that only will happen which is the most conducive to his eternal welfare.

Does any system of belief do more? can it actually secure a man against the recompense of his crimes at the hands of the Judge of all? who is there bold enough to assert that all sin, all transgression can be atoned for, can be completely wiped out by a faith in a redeemer? and unless it can go this whole length, of the complete eradication of every stain of sin caused even by murder, incest, and idolatry, there is no use in this newly-invented addition to the scheme of repentance; because it leaves the sinner precisely where he stands under the Mosaic dispensation.

And suppose there be no exceptions, what horrid prospects do you open to a community! Men of a fanatical spirit will, as they have actually done in history, commit the grossest outrages, under a full faith of pardon through a blood that, as they allege, was shed for them; and they will thus coolly glory in crimes which make the blood curdle, and cause the hair to stand on an end. This is no exaggeration; this is no air-drawn picture, but the result of sober inquiry; the wonder only is that transgressions are not more frequent, when you find so easy a method to disburden you from them.

But our religion teaches us no such a plenary extinguishment of moral indebtedness; no such an easy riddance of responsibility for whatever we may have done. We are accountable, though repentant, and no regret can of right wipe out any consequence of our wrong-doing, which we, by our own acts, can repair. Therefore teach our wise men: “For sins between God and man the Kippur day will make an atonement; but for sins between one man and his neighbour, the Kippur day will not make an atonement, till he have satisfied his neighbour.”

Because, how can a man enter the house of God with lips burning with fervid devotion, with many words of praise and thanksgiving on his tongue, while in his house he harbours the plunder of the poor and helpless, whilst the orphan cries to Heaven for the vineyard unlawfully withheld, or the field in the possession of the powerful oppressor? In every consideration does <<392>>Judaism present itself as the effort of the highest reason, as the most enlightened progress; and it assures the returning sinner of pardon and favour in no greater degree than it does the righteous who has never sinned. But when we have made a true faith in God’s mercy our own, when we are fully impressed with the conviction that all his ways are just: we shall do good because it pleases the Creator, and if we have sinned, we shall return from evil, because He counsels us to do so. In neither case, however, can we come to bargain with him for so much reward for so much obedience, or for so much pardon for so sincere a repentance.

No, brothers in Israel! in this manner would all our piety, would all our penance only be demanding a return, when perhaps, there is nothing due to us; when, perhaps, we are barely entitled to escape from some condign punishment which we have incurred under the strict rule of justice.

“But what mental satisfaction does our religion then confer?” I hear you ask. I will tell you: It teaches us that all is from the Lord, that nothing, ever so great, nothing ever so little occurs, but it has proceeded from his ordaining; that prosperity is not scattered abroad at random, without design or foresight, but with the strictest eye to the general good, although we be not able to distinguish between the undeserving and the meritorious, and not capable of seeing what connexion such a one’s success has with the whole economy of the world.

So also is no evil sent without its powerful reason; it is requisite, or else it would not be. And then, again, if we examine ourselves occasionally, we shall discover that want of success, disease, sorrow, and disappointment of all sorts, are not so much providential inflictions as the result of our own folly; we rush upon danger with both our eyes open; we discard the rules of prudence; we indulge to a point far beyond the strength of our frame to sustain, and then we wonder that we are poor, disappointed, or afflicted.

Must the course of nature be suspended that we may escape the consequences of our own misdeeds, when nothing but rashness or  obstinacy was the cause of our affliction? So, also, when sickness invades our home, when our body is racked by pain, our brain filled with unendurable fire, the man who knows how to lean on God, will submit without murmur, and  wait with cheerful submission the moment when the decree of his restoration shall go forth. Because, is he not <<393>>in the power of the same who fashioned him, body and soul, before he had yet seen the light of the world? and has not our Father many messengers to do his bidding—to bring healing and cure to the aching frame if He deem a recovery necessary? And in case it be the will of the Most High that the hand of death shall not be stayed, that the soul shall be severed from the body, and the flesh return to the dust as it was, and the spirit go back to the Fountain whence it sprung: does not the believer know, that though he walk in the valley of the shadow of death he need not fear evil, because his God is near him to guide him with his justice and his mercy to green pastures of undying verdure, and lead him by water-brooks of unfailing streams?

And this God never dies, is never wearied, and his wealth is inexhaustible; wherefore, He can always bless; He can always protect; He can always remunerate whatever faith, whatever virtue, whatever mercy, man has made his own during his existence on earth.

And what more can we ask? are our deeds of any value to the Lord? do we increase his or our happiness by our virtue and piety? is not all the reward of good deeds for ourselves? can we ever do enough to repay Him for the many favours He bestows on us, without ceasing, from our coming into the world till our departure hence?

Now, brethren, this was always the firm reliance and unfailing trust of the men of Israel from the beginning; this enabled Abraham to offer his son on the altar; this nerved Isaac to be bound a willing sacrifice to his Maker; this consoled Jacob during his long and weary pilgrimage, and made him trust in God, despite of his fearful trials; thus armed, Moses went before Pharaoh, though he had fled from his wrath; thus feeling did King David acknowledge the justice of the chastisement which his sin had called down on him; and thus convinced, not to add any more examples, Daniel resolved to remain faithful to the minutest precept of his religion, though he was a captive in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, and subject to the caprice of him and other rulers.

And was it not also this beautiful faith, which is willing to sacrifice all without stipulating for any reward, which upheld our fathers amidst all their trials? Yea, in the dungeon arose to them the star of hope; on the broad ocean which they traversed from servitude to slavery they were guided <<394>>by the cynosure of God’s law; and amidst the terrors of a violent death there whispered to them a voice which never deceives, “Well done, ye faithful, the Father of mercy has accepted you and your deeds.”

And shall we of the present day be less trustful in God? shall we ask for more than his word has revealed to us? And say, where is the new light which is better, the promises which are more faithful than those of the Bible? Appeal to history; search all the records, and you will find no predictions which have stood the test of ages like those of Moses, none which have not been falsified by the unceasing course of events, except it be the foretellings of the messengers whom God sent to instruct and warn his people.

And, therefore, if we have sinned, if we have, true to human nature, been faithless in our mission, then let us not abandon the path of duty which is laid before us, but let us heed the words of the prophet who says:

לכו ונשובה אל ה׳ כי הוא טרף וירפאנו יך ויחבשנו׃ הושע ו׳ א׳ ׃

“Come, let us return unto the Lord, for he hath torn and will heal us he hath struck, and will bind up our wound.”—Hosea vi. 1.

Come, says he, to every one, let us return together; let all who feel the wound of a bruised spirit, of a contrite heart, repair to the presence of God, who is ready to receive all who may return, and He will heal every bruise which his justice has struck, and bind up every wound which unerring wisdom was bound to inflict. Twice or thrice though we have sinned, though we have incurred spiritual death: still will He again and again breathe new life into us, that we may in the end stand regenerated before Him, and shine in the brilliancy of eternal life which is the reward of those who heed his call, who obey and return, because it is the voice of their Father who promises them mercy, because they grasp that almighty Hand which is stretched forth to snatch sinners from destruction, and blesses all who trust in his mercy. Let us, then, heed the call, and live eternally, even as the Lord hath spoken. Amen.

Tishry 5th, September 21, 5610.