Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


A Few Words on Penitence

A Sermon Delivered at the Synagogue* Mikve Israel of Philadelphia, on Sabbath Teshuba, October 4th (Tishry 8th), 5612.

By the Rev. S. Morais,
Hazan of the Congregation

The Lord sits on his throne of justice “to requite every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.”

*Tuesday evening, October 14th, 1851.

Dear Sir:—

I send you herewith a copy of a sermon delivered by Mr. Morais on Saturday a week, at the synagogue; the insertion of which in your “Occident” would oblige myself, as well as several other subscribers to your periodical.

Yours, very respectfully,

Rev. Isaac Leeser,
Editor and Proprietor of the Occident.

Children of the earth! bow reverently before your God. Oh that I might a moment cast off this mortal coil which encompasses my soul! Like the Archangel described by the inspired son of Amoz I would, from the altar of the Omnipotent, take a live coal and purify myself, ere my voice be heard among the beloved of God. But when I consider the solemnity of the occasion which brings us together, and the obligations devolving on me, can I, though as sinful as any mortal, can I forbear from calling your attention to the reflections which are crowding into my mind?

Dear brethren: It is שבת תשובה the penitential Sabbath—the herald of a new period in our life. One year has sunk into eternity with all we have enjoyed with all we have experienced and schemed, and another has just opened upon us; but who, save the All-seeing eye of the Eternal can penetrate through the darkness in which it is enveloped? It may prove to us abundant in joy and pleasure, but it may also weigh on us with sorrow and misfortunes. To beseech the Disposer of all events, that happiness may attend all Israel wherever then sojourn, we have already convened in the house of prayer on Rosh-Hashana last and now we have again repaired to this sacred spot in order to celebrate the first Sabbath of this new season. But ought we not to ask ourselves, how have employed the life which has hitherto been granted to me? What progress have I made in the path of righteousness? Have I garnered a treasure of virtues, or am I this day as I was three hundred and sixty-five days ago? Can I, if the Almighty calls me to Himself, produce a soul free from the dark spots which stained it, or am I still the same man with the same propensities, with the same defects and vices? Answer me, beloved hearers, would not such inquiries into ourselves befit the sanctity of the occasion?        

If you think so, bear with me a while, that we may examine together our past conduct, and by ensuring that which we deem reprehensible, we may learn to eschew evil and do good in future.

ידע שור קנהו וחמור אבוס בעליו ישראל לא ידע עמי לא התבונן

“The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”

When I first read this verse of Isaiah, it certainly surprised me, that, to portray the ingratitude of his people towards the Deity, the prophet should have contrasted with their conduct that of irrational beings and yet (I confess it with sorrow) after mature consideration, I was forced to admit that his comparison is but truly correct.

History has recorded incidents, when ferocious animals, led by an instinct of gratitude, became constant slaves to their benefactors and often mighty deliverers in time of peril. We read of a lion, who as a token of thankfulness to a man that had freed him from pain, tamed his natural ferocity and with child-like affection clung to him—of a panther, tending and protecting a man because he had rescued from imminent danger her young whelps—of a leopard saving his nourisher from the hands of his assailants, and even daily experience shows the faithfulness of animals which we have subjected for our own use or for our comforts. How is it therefore, dolefully exclaims the prophet, that of all creatures man, though endowed with reason, is the most ungrateful?

Will you have a proof that it is so? Let us suppose that a plenteous harvest falls to our lot, do we not esteem ourselves happy? we surely long the whole year to see our fields fast yielding their fruit, our vines laden with grapes, our plants smiling with sweet flowers, well let me ask you: Do we, when we have obtained our wishes, become more zealous in serving God? Do we then hasten to his holy courts to render thanks before his altar? Do we then, offer a sacrifice of a grateful heart to our Creator and Benefactor? No, this is what we do. We devise the means how best to enjoy the good we have shared, we then watch more closely over the gold we have amassed. Again: we for example, in our commercial pursuits commit to the waves a portion of our wealth—the winds are prosperous—a few days, and the happy news that success has crowned our enterprise reaches us. Do we, then to prove our acknowledgment to Him who rules over the earth and over the sea, open our treasury to our necessitous brother? Do we then like our pious father Jacob promise to God the tithe of that which He has <<446>> graciously bestowed on us? No; our prosperity then elates us, we say, “by the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am prudent.” And if we aspire to a higher station in society, and use all means within our reach to encompass our end—employ physical and mental powers to struggle against obstacles and finally come out victorious; do we attribute our elevation to the First Cause, the Creator and Author of all events? No, we ascribe it to mere chance, we forget “that promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south, but from God who pulleth down, and setteth up.”

Oh human ingratitude! “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel dot h not know, my people doth not consider.” Say, does not the Lord use any means to win our hearts? With a paternal eye He watches over us by day and by night. He orders the rain and it descends to fertilize the ground; He bids the earth and she discloses to us her hidden treasures. The seas he renders subservient to our desires—fire and winds become our ministers, all the elements He has made tributaries to man: And why does man so ungratefully repay his benefits? Why? Listen to the words of Hosea: “Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth  fruit into himself, according to the multitude of his fruit he has increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made godly images.”

Yes, it is when we enjoy the bounteous goodness of heaven that we become un­mindful of the rock whence we were hewn—it is when the Almighty reiterates his gifts that we do not recognize the work of his hands. It is there, where Israel shares the blessings of plenty, of freedom and of honours, that the behests of our holy law are mostly disregarded. Our fathers, who under the scourge of Egyptian thraldom, believed in God and worshipped him at the first call of Moses. No sooner had they seen the waters of the Red Sea recede before them, and the clouds rain down their daily subsistence, than they rebelled against their heavenly Protector: “they provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger.” Saul, who when keeper of his father’s flock, was the meekest among his people, grew, when a King most violent and pitiless. Joash King of <<447>> Judah cruelly ordered the death of his best friend Zachariah, when the honours he had received swelled his heart with pride. Uzziah turned sacrilegious when he beheld foreign monarchs bowed to his sceptre and their people tributaries to his crown.

“They were filled, and their heart was exalted, therefore have they forgotten me!” cries the prophet, and the same charge can be brought against us. Satiety alone has seduced us away from the service of God. Those laws which we observed at the risk of our lives in the holes of the rocks and in the caves of the earth, now that we may discharge them before the face of the Sun, we slight and scoff at. When poor, homeless and persecuted we kept the seventh day holy, and celebrated the festivals —is it because we now, thanks to an over-ruling Providence, enjoy ease, that we infringe the former and desecrate the latter?

But alas! that the evil is still greater: the holy seed of Jacob, who were set apart to their Lord, enter into a covenant with the gentiles, they deny their faith; they forswear their Maker.

What would we think of a man who at the moment we grant him a gift, should return us an imprecation, or when we rescue him from death, should fill us with reproaches? even were such an insult practised, I do not say, towards ourselves, a relative or a friend of ours, but towards any stranger, would we not feel indignant, aye, most ireful? And yet such is our deportment towards our benignant Father. Every day we hear his blessed name profanely mentioned; continually we postpone his sacred directions to our caprices. “He brought us through fire and water into a wealthy place” and how do we repay so much good. Tell me, do we evince our gratitude for his manifold wonders on our behalf, by implicit obedience to his ordinances? We, who would not sacrifice the least of our earthly enjoyments to do that which is right in his sight? We, who to gratify our animal appetites indulge in forbidden viands; we who under the specious plea of engrossing business refuse to array ourselves with the Tephilin; which are the means of daily signifying the submission of our heart and mind to the One only God; we, who would not fasten the scroll of the law (Mezuza) to the door post—posts of our houses, lest the strangers perceive that we are not of them, we <<448>>who neglect the commandment of the Tzitzit or the טלית קטן, to the performance of which thousands of national reminiscences are attached, we who would sit at a luxurious table and yet seldom, if ever, address a word of thanks to the heavenly Donor?

But I hear some men devoid of reflection observe, that these are mere forms; that the Almighty desires the heart. True, the Almighty wants the heart רחמנא לבא בעי; but it is not him who needs these outward signs, it is we that require them.

They are not indeed the ends, but they are the means. They are meet to rouse our thoughts, to occupy our minds, to link our souls with the tender cords of love to our Father and God. Neglect them and the spirit of religion will sink into a shadow. It is thus, say our Rabbis, that man’s evil inclination carries him headlong into the way of sin. He commences by foregoing that which he reputes of secondary importance, till he abandons what is most essential. And yet I know, that were we to receive from a man, one of the innumerable favours the Almighty incessantly showers on us, we would eagerly strive to prove our acknowledgment. How would we faithfully serve our neighbour who gave us a house or a field? And if he would grant us the health we enjoy; the air we breathe; the light which illumines us, what would be our demeanour towards him? What an affection, what an attachment would link us to that beneficent being? And why shall we not act alike with God? Is it because the gifts are so frequently bestowed, that we must appreciate them less? Do we abhor the light of the glorious luminary of the day, because it irradiates the earth every morning? No, for we rejoice at his appearance, and admire his powerful and salutary influence. Or is it perhaps easier for us to evince gratitude to man than to God?

Well, were it really so, I would cease to complain. But, no, we can show acknowledgment to man whose aid is fleeting and who can bestow but transient favours, and we are ungrateful to God whose boons are everlasting. And yet our sin is still heavier. We know that our conduct cannot affect Him, who is the essence of purity; we are made to believe that fulfillment of his precepts, our felicity depends, and nevertheless we heed them not.

“And now Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart aid with all thy soul. To keep the commandments of the Lord and his statutes; which I command thee this day, for thy good.” It is for our good, beloved hearers, that He wishes us to walk in all his ways, that is, to imitate his merciful deeds. It is for our good, that He desires us to serve him with all our heart and with all our soul, that is, to recognize him as the bestower of life, the dispenser of every human happiness, the fountain of all good: the benignant Father of all his creatures. It is for our temporal and eternal good, that He requires us to keep his commandments and his statutes; namely, those external forms of our religion, which we sometimes hold as almost unnecessary, but on which the spiritual maintenance of our nation entirely depends. It being thus, my brethren, shall we persist in our forward career? Oh! let us say, we must become better men—more pious Israelites, and we shall become.

Let me believe, that we all stand here in the house dedicated to our God, with the unwavering determination to cast off the impure garments with which we have hitherto been habited, and attire ourselves in new apparel. Let me believe that we all will sanctify ourselves to day and the morrow, to be ready against the third day, when the Omnipotent will declare who are his. “Come and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up.”

It is him solely who is רופא נפשות that can heal the diseases of our souls; and bind up the plagues of our hearts. “After two days will He revive us; in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.” But if we wish to be entirely cured from the diseases of our souls, we must follow the directions of our heavenly physician—in other terms, our repentance must be sincere. He who acknowledges his sin and yet has not firmly resolved to relinquish it, is wicked, “he shall die in his iniquity.” He who willfully pursues a sinful course, trusting for forgiveness to the day of atonement, is wicked, “he shall die in his iniquity.”

האומר אחטא ויום הכפורים מכפר אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה

He who <<450>> designedly trespasses on the law and relying on the mercy of God defers his repentance to the time when the object of his sin will be removed, is wicked, “he shall die in his iniquity” האמר אחטא ואשוב אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה A true repentent, says one of our teachers, is he, who when placed under the same circumstances which had formerly caused him to err, can master his passion and conquer sin and to so worthy an individual must our Sages undoubtedly have alluded, when they promised the repentent a higher degree of beatitude than that which the perfect righteous shall enjoy.

Let us not forget however, that the mercy of God towards the sinner is limited to the crimes committed against Him alone. If we have injured our fellow-man in his property or in his reputa­tion, and a false pride deters us from seeking his pardon, or if we have hardened our heart and refused our brother the forgive­ness we ask of God for ourselves; we may fast and weep, chas­tise our flesh and implore remission, the Lord will turn away from our supplications. Again, let us not lose sight of another impediment which debars repentance from being accepted. If we see our offspring bent to sin, and we, through mistaken affection, do not try all our efforts to eradicate the destructive seeds which contaminate their hearts; if we, through recklessness of habit, do not use our authority to reclaim our children from the way of perdition, we forfeit the grace of our Celestial Father.

O ye parents, who have the happiness of your dear ones at heart, let me entreat you for the sake of theirs and of your souls, think not lightly on the responsibility you have in the face of God and of our nation at large. Look, the eyes of Israel are towards you. From you they expect a generation of men, who shall become the pillars of our faith, and it is in your power so to do.

Between a maternal kiss and a paternal embrace, whisper in their tender ears words of pure religion, let the spirit of love for all mankind which breathes in the heavenly volumes, grow with them, let it be entwined in their innermost soul. It will become to them a second nature, of which no worldly allurements will rob them. Endeavour by your example, that the performance <<451>> of religious observances, so necessary to assist and strengthen inward piety, be to them an easy and agreeable task. Reason with them on the statutes of God and on his laws; teach them diligently to your children ושננתם לבניך, is the Hebrew text, meaning, from the root שנן to sharpen—that you must, by continually expounding to them the word of God, quicken your children’s mind, make it as it were, sharp and bright like a steel-weapon, that they may learn to look up to heaven not with servile fear, but with heart-felt love. Love, says Maimonides, is the highest degree we can attain in serving the Lord our God. And happy you and happy your children, if you can early teach them to love the Almighty will all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their might.

And you my young brothers and sisters, whom the Almighty has allowed to enter into a new year let me exhort you also to penitence. You always offend God, whenever you disobey your parents, or cause them the least displeasure. They are the guardians whom the Omnipotent has placed over you, to lead you on high. Cling therefore to them with confidence, with reverence and love. It may sometimes occur that their directions lack in your estimation a peculiar aim, because you cannot see an immediate result, they even may appear to you whimsical, because opposed to your youthful gratifications, but rest assured, that if you steadfastly adhere to them you will ultimately reap vast benefits. Let me then, beloved children of our people, strenuously recommend you to honour and cherish the authors of your days. Cheer, by unabated tenderness, the winter of their life, be to them a prop, an asylum, an inexhaustible source of comfort. Oh! never, never allow yourselves to embitter their old age by a wayward behaviour, remember that “the eye which mocketh at his father, and despised to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out, and the young eagles shall eat it,” but on the contrary he who honours his father and his mother shall live happy in this world and contented in the world to come.

And you all beloved souls created for eternal glory, join me in acknowledging our transgressions to the Lord—in imploring <<452>> mercy and grace from Him who is ever ready to pardon; for “he who hideth his sins shall not prosper, but he who confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy.”

Almighty God! Greatly have we sinned to thee. It was to secure our everlasting happiness that Thou didst graciously grant us thy law, and we transgressed it. Thou didst endue us with reason to discern between good and evil, that we might walk uprightly before thee, and we perverted our ways. Long time indeed we have gone astray from tee, but we now return to the; penitently. Turn us not away with anger, for whom have we in heaven or in earth but Thee? Father! we sincerely repent of our evil-doings, and promise to cast them away from us as an abomination. In the day when all our actions are brought before thy righteous tribunal, suffer thy mercy to overcome thy just wrath. Pardon us O Lord, as we pardon our brother who has willfully or unwittingly given us offence. Oh God! dispel sorrow, dissipate jealousy, banish dissension from among thy people. Grant that this year may be a year of plenty, a year of joy, a year in which the heart of the Father shall turn to their children, and the heart of the children to their Father; a year when all those who are sealed with thy covenant may acknowledge thee.

And to our distant brethren, who groan under a cruel yoke, grant them release from suffering. Inspire their rulers with benevolence towards them, that they may not perish in the land of their captivity. Inscribe all Israel in the book of life, in the book of salvation and speedy redemption. Amen.