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True and False Worship

A Sermon for Shabuoth, 5611, Delivered at the Synagogue Beth Israel, Philadelphia, on the Second Day of Pentecost, by Request of the Congregation

By Isaac Leeser

Father of Israel, we call on Thee for thy blessing and thy aid, to be with us when we rise up to pursue our daily toil, and also then when we are engaged in thy service and in the study of thy law. For if we labour without thy blessing, we sow for naught; and if Thou sendest not the rain, the seed we plant will not shoot up from the ground; and if thy sun does not send down the light and heat with which he is endowed by Thee, the fruit will not ripen, and the corn will rot in the field. But also in spiritual things we are nothing without thy help. Vain and proud of our intellect, confiding in our experience, we would stumble in the plain path of duty, were we not enlightened by Thee—had we not thy wisdom to guide us safely. It was therefore thy will, O most holy God! to descend before the visible eye of thy children, to let them see thy glory, and to let them hear thy potent voice; and from the fire Thou spokest to their outward senses, that they might know thy law, to fear Thee and to lore Thee, that they may live for ever. And therefore, we entreat Thee, be not wanting to us at this day, and be graciously pleased to open our minds to receive the full impression of thy greatness and holiness, that we <<170>> may be enabled to appreciate the commandments which we  have received, that we may follow thy guidance, rejecting the inspirations of pride and self-conceit, which would counsel us to prefer worldly glory to thy favour, carnal pleasures to thy service, and self-aggrandisement to the love of our neighbour, as we are commanded in thy law. Yea, remove from our path the stumbling stone of sin and temptation, and give us full understanding of our subjection to thy gracious Providence, in order that we may live as Israelites, as men in covenant with Thee, who, in obeying Thee, have obtained thy good will, which is life everlasting, and the unending pleasures of spiritual delights, which are at thy right hand, stored up for the righteous, in whom Thou findest pleasure, Which no eye has seen save thine alone, O God! our Redeemer and King, Amen.

Brethren:—One of our ancient prophets, one of those chosen by God to diffuse a knowledge of his being and will among men, thus spoke in the holy enthusiasm with which he was filled at the contemplation of sin around him:

הוי אמר לעץ הקיצה עורי לאבן דומם הוא יורה הנה הוא תפוש זהב וכסף וכל רוח אין בקרבו׃ וה׳ בהיכל קדשו הס מפניו כל הארץ׃ חבק׳ ב׳ י״ט כ׳׃

“Woe to him who saith to the wood, Awake; Rouse up. To the inert stone, This should teach? Behold, it is set in gold and silver, and no spirit what­ever is in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; be silent before him, all the earth.”—Haba. ii. 19, 20.

This is the festival of the promulgation of the law on Mount Sinai, when the Lord appeared in a manner never before or since witnessed, to instruct mankind in his will. This was an event which is most fitting to be celebrated whilst the earth stands—whilst the seasons follow each other in their ceaseless succession—whilst the sun shines as a light by day, and the moon and the stars rule the night; for by it we were lifted up from the ignorance of the nations, and were brought into connexion with the Creator, to serve Him alone, and to know no other god and saviour. Let us therefore dwell on the words of the prophet which have been quoted to you, in order to draw from them such lessons as are fitting to the occasion, since the festivals of <<171>>the Lord are not seasons for mere rejoicing, but are all  a memorial of our going out of Egypt, which means incentives to recall to our minds, the benefits we have received, and the duty which rests on us to be grateful to our eternal Benefactor.

Habakuk, in common with most of the prophets whose works have come down to us preserved in the canon of the Bible, lived at a time when fearful sin had usurped the place of the worship of the Lord, which the law was given to institute. Israel had indeed departed from the way of righteousness, and their land was full of idols, and the number of Judah’s gods was equal to that of its cities. The instruction of the sages learned in the history and legislation of their people was not sought; but the sinful multitude resorted to priests of falsehood and deceptive oracles to tell them what the future would bring forth. The temple at Jerusalem was not visited; but, instead of thin, men rushed to the altars at Dan and Beth-El, wherefore the last was called by the prophets Beth-Aven, meaning no longer the house of God, as it was named by Jacob, when he dreamt of the angels who watched over his flinty pillow, but the house of iniquity, as it had become through the enormous transgressions of the chosen people. Therefore did God send fearless men, who only saw in their fellow-beings perishable creatures, whose anger they could well despise, and whose vengeance they could well defy, in the holy work for which they were designed, to lead back the erring  children to the embrace of the Father who wished for their reconciliation. Hence we have the long list of prophets and teachers, who faltered not before the frown of despots, and halted not in the presence of a riotous multitude, though carnal weapons were lifted up against them, and they knew that by their perseverance their hours would be few on earth. They, however, taught boldly against the prevalent follies of their age. It mattered nothing in their estimation that it was the king who said to the wood “Thou art my father,” or that the high priest spoke to the stone “Thou hast born me;” for their mission was from on High, and they regarded not the earth nor its allurements, in view of the great destiny which was theirs.

Therefore says Habakuk, “Woe to him who saith to the wood, Awake.” Yes, so senseless had the people become in that generation, that they felled a tree in the forest, cut it into pieces, and fashioned a portion into the shape of a man, to stay with them in the house, whilst the other was perhaps used to bake the very bread they ate; and then they fell down on their knees before it, and addressed it in the words of prayer, in order to invoke the assistance of the idol, the fancied god, which had been made from a block of wood by the skill of the sculptor, and the decorations of gold and silver which it exhibited being merely the tinsel trappings of a cunning artisan, who had perhaps exhausted his skill in thus adorning the work of his hands, to render it a fit object of worship to himself and others.

Now, behold, the idol is done; it is introduced into a gorgeous temple, with magnificent portico and elaborate ceiling; the light of day is mellowed into a dreamy twilight by a skilful arrangement of the windows; a refreshing coolness is spread around, even in the midst of noonday heat, by means of sparkling fountains gushing forth from a variety of fanciful forms, discharging the watery element into snow-white marble basins; heavenly music re-echoes along the dome from many high-sounding instruments and mellifluous organs; a cloud of sweet incense obscures the view, as it rolls along, opens and closes, wafted by the slightest puff of air which circulates through the vast space within the fans; numerous priests, with snowy robes, rude habiliments, or magnificent attire, are there, to participate is the ceremonies of the day; and there stands the idol, dressed out with all the meretricious art which a diseased imagination can conceive, either in the shape of a beautiful youth, a grim warrior, a sage counsellor, a sweet maiden, a ripe virgin, a shameless woman, a monster with many heads and arms, with bead or feet of beasts—nay, even the figure of a brute or reptile; and all shout, “Rise and help for thou art our god.”

Or suppose that a long time they have been calling on their object of worship to come to their aid, and no heed is taken of their cries, no answer is given to their entreaties, in vain has flowed the blood of a hundred victims; to no purpose have been the gifts that were <<173>> poured into the coffers of the deceivers: and a servant of the true God mocks them, and says, “Call with a louder voice, for he is a god; perhaps he is engaged in conversation; perhaps in a battle; perhaps he is on a journey; peradventure he sleepeth, and may wake up.”

What reply can they make, who so surrender their sound judgment to the inspirations of folly and self-deception? What matters it that the statue of their god is formed in the highest style of art?—that the temple itself is fashioned so as to challenge admiration from all beholders, and is destined to endure for ages? Does all this invest the wood with knowledge and life, and impart intellect and power to the inert stone?

You will think it strange that intelligent men ever could be thus misled to fall down in worship before deities thus fashioned; that enlightened states could legislate to institute different orders of priesthood, to attend to the large variety of idols which were set up all over the land; nay, that even mariners did not venture to sea without devoting a part of their vessel to the tutelary gods, as they conceived them, to which they paid adoration.

You cannot understand how the mind could so far go astray, and lose itself in the labyrinth of folly; but so it is recorded in history that these things were, and so it is witnessed in distant lands that idols yet claim the homage of mankind, and that enormities are practised, at which humanity shudders, and which degrade man in ferocity and recklessness below the level of the brute. Most of you have no doubt heard of the practice of women burning themselves alive on the funeral piles of their husbands, as husbands, as though they thereby performed a religious duty; of crowds falling down to let the idol wagon with its enormous weight, pass over to crush them into shapeless masses, a willing and senseless sacrifice to brutal superstition; of men who devote themselves to murdering on the highway any unfortunate travellers who may fall into their hands, imagining that in this manner they bring an acceptable sacrifice to their abominable goddess, in whose mission they travel far and wide, to extinguish, by cunning, craft, or open violence, the sacred life of their fellow-beings.

But it is not necessary to enumerate <<174>> all the horrors of idolatry, as it is at the present time, to exhibit the degrading effect it has on the soul; much less will it be requisite to go back to antiquity for illustrations which are met with on almost every page of history. All this only shows how weak man is without God—how utterly helpless he is, if the Almighty’s wisdom and strength do not support him. Boast not, therefore, that you, my hearers, would not be so silly—that you could not have sunk so low, if, instead of being educated as Israelites, you had been instructed by Brahmins. Believe not in your own superior endowments; for, however our faith is congenial to our minds, however true it is that the doctrine of the unity of God has found its strongest supporters and defenders among the descendants of Jacob, do not imagine that we are not liable to fall away from the truth, if ever we are neglected in our early training, or that unhappy period should arise, as it almost was in the time of Menasseh and Amon, kings of Judah, that the law be nearly forgotten among us.

For it was in those disastrous times, and previously thereto, during the reign of other wicked kings of Judah and Israel, that the prophets of God and the chosen teachers of Jeshurun were not permitted to speak in the name of the Lord; yes, we doomed to capital punishment those who were bold enough to reprove the back­sliding of their sinning brothers; and a Zechariah and Isaiah thus perished, besides many others, but more especially in the reign of Ahab, in the fulfilment of their mission. How ignobly did we then sink—how deeply were we fallen—when, like the uninstructed heathen, we resorted to our idols of wood and stone, which, when called upon, could not be awakened—which, when entreated, could not be roused up, to ask of them for advice and counsel, and when we came to the priests of deception to unravel for us the dark and known volume of the future.

But do not for a moment imagine that there are not powerful means resorted to, to deceive the people, so that even the intelligent might occasionally be startled by the uncommon and strange coincidence which the event accomplished had to the cunningly devised prediction; for there have been at all times persons who flourished upon the degradation of their fellows, and who made <<175>> the follies and vices of others subservient to their own advan­tage, or who, without any profit to themselves, rejoiced in becoming the corrupters of their race. Hence the means of deceiving were reduced to a perfect system, and you could scarcely frame a question to which the priests of darkness were not able to contrive some cunning, double-meaning reply.

Now, observe, the morals of the age had become corrupt; the voice of instruction had been effectually silenced so far as the masses were concerned; a more showy worship was introduced, and this everywhere, than that exclusive, simple, awfully silent one at Jerusalem; every one that chose could be a priest, and the sons of Aaron were not the only ones who could claim the right to officiate, for here was a system in which all who chose might participate; add to which that answers about the future could be obtained, such as they were, at all times, by every one who had the means of satisfying the avarice or ambition of those who duped the simple, whether they were high or low: and you have some solution to the curious phenomenon that Israelites ever could have been idolaters.

Perhaps some of you have even doubted the evidence of Scriptures about the universality of the defection. Some may have even gone so far as to suppose that the prohibition against image worship could not have existed among us till after the rebuilding of the temple, at the return of our remnant from Babylon, since when idolatry has never been practised nationally among us. But such an assumption would be against the evidence of history; and, however mortifying the confession must be, we cannot deny that Israelites have often lapsed into error regarding the nature of God and the worship of other divinities; and though these apostates from the truth cannot claim the benefit of conviction in favour of their adopted creeds, whether these be Nazarene, or Mahomedan, or absolute heathenism, they certainly have outwardly assumed the religion and manners of our opponents, and their children will assuredly be hostile to Israelites, and aliens to our faith; and if you examine into the families of every European and Asiatic nation, you will find among them the descendants of Jews, and these are not less devout and zealous <<176>> in the service of the popular religions than those descended from their original professors, if any such can really be found, except among the people of Hindostan and the countries farther to the east thereof.

And, though European nations have not that gross idolatry which prevailed in ancient Greece and the modern East, their belief is not less injurious to our peace and permanence than the worst system that ever was invented. Tell me not that to pray through a mediator is but a small offence; say not that to believe in the abrogation of the ceremonial law is a harmless error; imagine not that to permit us to mingle silently with the other families of man is not destruction to Israel. No, Israelites, no! He is a traitor to your God who would permit himself to address any being save Him alone who is the Creator of all; who would believe in the asserted plurality of the Blessed One, like whose oneness—simple, uniform, uncompounded— nothing else exists. He is a renegade to truth who asserts that any change has taken place in the Almighty’s holy law—that one jot or tittle has passed away from all that the Lord our God has taught us. And he is an enemy to Israel who would in the least weaken your attachment to your own nation, one and entire—a family of priests, as you are all, amongst whom no unaccepted stranger dare to mingle.

Still, brethren, we have known that such apostates have been; that some have left us who could not claim ignorance as their excuse; who could not even plead in their defence a pressure from without, and the weight of intolerable tyranny. Hence, if even our sufferings did not attest the fact, we should have ample reason not to doubt of the authenticity of Israel’s shame; that almost universally they called on the wood to “Awake,” and spoke to the stone “Rise up,” at the period when the prophets were sent early and late to indite them, to return from their evil path; but they would not, until the wrath was poured out, and they who would not receive correction when they possessed all that could embellish life, had to go forth, naked and famishing, into captivity, driven out of their lovely inheritance by the fire and sword of their enemies. Yet this signal chastisement was needed, to root out the evil from our hearts, and to implant <<177>> therein an abiding love for our faith. Hard was the lesson, and dreadful the teachers which enforced it. Kindness and affectionate appeals would not move us. It therefore required the unbending will of arbitrary men, who could hear, without flinching, the groans of the dying on the field of battle, and who spurned the uplifted hands of the petitioning widow, who interceded on her knees for the life of her sole surviving offspring. And thus we wandered abroad, chased by day by the savage hosts of our invaders, and by night by the fear of our own hearts, which would not let us rest.

Well, therefore, commences the prophet with the awful “Woe,” “Woe to him who saith to  the wood, Awake.” Yes, woe in this life, woe in the next, to him who, living in the world which the Undying One has formed, still doubts of his providence and power, and addresses his prayer to the carved block, or calls for aid on the sculptured stone, or inquires of the things set in gold and silver for counsel and advice, or who entreats a god who cannot save, “who has no spirit whatever in him.” And now that we are here, no longer in dread of our life because of the adversary, let no one be deceived, that he may swerve from the truth, either by permitting his children to go astray, either through uncircumcision, or by intermarriage with gentiles, or by an habitual disregard of the ceremonial laws, by all which a gradual amalgamation is necessarily brought about, or by direct apostacy, by which the union with Israel is at once severed, without danger of retribution; for the same God who denounced his anger against those who lived at ease and in plenty in their own land, defying the commandments which they had received, still lets us hear his “Woe” against any who, either themselves, or through those they might have restrained, but did not, call on any one in whom there is no spirit whatever, who is not the Creator, and has therefore no share or portion in the salvation of mankind.

It was not, understand, brethren, to teach a merely relative truth to mankind—by which I mean something which is pernicious than another system, which is only in a less degree false and evil, but an absolute truth, or an idea which, if compared with what you will, is true, and only so as it <<178>> is in every view you take of it—it was only to teach the absolute truth, that God revealed himself to our forefathers in all his  inconceivable glory, on the first Pentecost after their redemption from slavery. He taught us then what we yet repeat to our children, to our brothers, to ourselves, that there is but one God, and there is no one else; in the words of the Decalogue, אנכי ה׳ אלהיך “I am the Lord thy God,” not “we are,” which might perchance imply a multitude of divine beings, though our reason would reject this doctrine upon the basis of our history, inasmuch as the same uniform Power has always been with us; but “I am,” one, and only one, without a second to rule and save, just as there was but one to redeem us from thraldom, and just as there was but one at the creation of all things.

Whatever else is offered to us, as an object of worship, is a being in which there is no spirit whatever, be this the idol carved out by the hands of the cunning workman, or an ideality, the invention of yet more cunning deceivers;—they are all to be rejected, because their worship would militate against the reverence and homage due to the Lord of all, whom we have been taught to acknowledge as all-pervading—who is the living God, the Lord of the dead and of the quick, the Master of earth and of heaven, the Creator of the first and the Preserver of the last. As such He appeared before us, and as such his majesty illuminated the summits of Sinai, and spoke to our senses audibly and distinctly, so that there was not a servant in the camp of Israel who did not feel convinced that there is not a god in heaven and on earth who can do like the works and mighty deeds of our Father.

We were chosen as the messengers of this absolute truth, and for generations many millions have ever proclaimed it aloud before friend and foe, amidst prosperity and the deepest affliction. The unity of God has been our battle cry; and, perishing under the torture of the Roman tyrant, or at the stake of a Spanish Inquisition, we exclaimed, “The Lord is one,” and closed our eyes to the earth, its joys and its sufferings; and from the howling desert and the raging sea there ever ascends the same exclamation and, go where you will, the heart of the <<179>> Hebrew re-echoes the familiar sound, “There is none else.”

And is this nothing to accomplish? Was it not a result every way worthy of the Almighty’s power, to establish for himself thus a nation of witnesses—an unbroken chain of teachers, which stretches onward, onward, till the mind aches to fix the end? Yea, it was a glorious spectacle, that assemblage at Horeb; it was beautiful to see more than twenty times hundred thousand of men, women and children, listening eagerly to the same beatifying announcement of an imperishable faith; but more glorious still is the continuance of the same race of witnesses, of the same people of listeners, who even now rise up when the Decalogue is proclaimed among them, to receive again and again the joyful message which is announced to them in the name of the Universal Father. And earth and heaven speak of his might, and millions of suns recount his goodness, and an endless number of planets attest his mercy, and all space is filled with his being, and all revolve, exist, and live in Him; and still He watches over all with parental care; the highest angel veils his face before his throne; none may abide the effulgence of his light; and still He hears the orphan’s prayer, and marks the cry of the needy one; and He feeds the hungry, and provides raiment for the naked, and saves the oppressed from a hand too mighty for them.

This is our God, one, great, eternal, omnipotent, and all-pervading; yet He delights in the worship of his creatures, and He who gives us all is willing to accept our gifts; He who is everywhere is willing to dwell in a house which we have built of perishable materials; and He who knows all our thoughts is willing to listen to our entreaty, when we humble ourselves before Him in our distress, or thank Him in our prosperity. Human reason would not, could not have invented such a religion; but it is to Him alone we look as the Author of our faith, as He is the Author of our life. Therefore says the prophet properly, after exhibiting the folly of idol-worship, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; be silent before him, all the earth.” Go where you will, over land or sea, in sunshine or darkness, there is God; no space is free from Him, and no imaginable state of existence can <<180>> be without his supervision. Let, therefore, wickedness tremble; the Lord is in his temple; the whole world is his house; the highest is not too high, the lowest depth is not too deep for his power, or removed from his government. Let discontent be hushed; for all is from Him, and He elevates the one and humbles the other, and who knows what is best for us, who can tell but that joy might have caused us to forget our Maker, and that it is affliction alone which brings us back to his embrace. Let pride and arrogance lower their look at viewing the universal power of the Lord, who is so great, yet so humble; who dwells amidst the host of adoring angels, and yet disdains not to regard the contrite and lowly.

Let the virtuous hope on amidst difficulties; for they are watched over unceasingly with more than a mother’s love, with a tenderness which knows no abatement; and let all and each reflect that whatever takes place on earth is treasured up in the book of memorial, and that at the appointed time all will be brought to light, and the good and the evil will receive the recompense due to their deeds.—Yea, the Lord is in his holy temple; universal nature is his dwelling; not a spot but is full of his might; and, though He accepts our service, it is that we may be blessed through our own merit, not that He may be more exalted. Be silent, therefore, before Him, all the earth, and let the afflicted hope on in the salvation of their God, and always know that their Redeemer lives, to whom be praises for ever. Amen.

Sivan (June) 5, 5611.