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The Covenant

A Sermon Delivered at the Synagogue Nefutsoth Yehudah of New Orleans, on Sabbath Mishpatim, February 1st (Shebat 29th), 5611.

By the Rev. J. K. Gutheim

Minister of the Congregation Shangarai Chasad of New Orleans

“Blessed be ye of the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth.”

After a year’s residence in your midst, I enjoy the privilege to preach the word of God in this sacred edifice. Our two con­gregations, or, at least, the regular worshippers of these congregations, have this day united to offer up their orisons at the throne of the Almighty, to listen, side by side, to the reading and exposition of his revealed word. “Oh, how good and plea­sant is it for brethren to dwell together in unity; . . . for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore!” (Psalm cxxxiii.) Could men, could brothers, meet for a more sublime purpose, than to draw from the ever pure and inexhaustible fountain of life and blessing? Is there for the hearts and souls of pious Israelites a more beautiful, a more sacred, point of union than the house of God, where all our thoughts and feelings converge into the one all-pervading, overpowering sentiment, that we are all the children of our heavenly Father, that we are all alike dependent upon his bounty, and that it is our common duty to be grateful for his mercies, and be animated by feelings of charity and love one towards the other? Surely, the effects of such a union cannot but be of a salutary nature. Let us be guided by its influence in all the relations of life, so that union and harmony may find a permanent home among us, and redound to the welfare and blessing of all.

There are periods in our history when perfect union prevailed among the people of Israel. Unanimity of sentiment and of purpose inspired their ranks, when the solemn, everlasting covenant was made at the foot of Mount Sinai. To the consideration of this covenant we shall devote the present  hour of <<289>> devotion. I quote for this purpose from to-day’s Parashah, Exodus xxiv. 8, 4, 7 : “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord has said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, after the twelve tribes of Israel. And he took the book of the Covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said, All that the Lord has said will we do and obey.”

In order to understand more clearly the merits and requirements of this covenant, let us refer to Deut. v. 1-8 : “And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep and do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with. us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant alone with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.” These words were spoken forty years after the revelation had taken place,—after the whole generation that had gone forth from Egypt, and stood as eye-witnesses and parties to the covenant near Mount Sinai, had, except a very few, descended to the tomb. A new generation then stood on the frontiers of the promised land; but the messenger of God presents to their minds a picture of that memorable event in such glowing and vivid colours, that even while we read today, we cannot fail to form a true conception of the whole scene. “One generation passes away, and another generation comes but the earth abides for ever,” says Ecclesiastes i. 4 “but even,” (Ps. 28, 29,) “the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein die, and the heavens shall vanish away like smoke; yet our God is unchange­able, and his years have no end.” “But my salvation, says the Lord, shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” (Isaiah li. 6.) “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” His  covenant is an everlasting covenant. It is this truth which Moses meant to impress on the Israelites of his day, when he <<290>>addressed them: “Not with our fathers alone has the Lord made this covenant, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive.”

Over what a vast space of time do we now look back to that world-renowned event! how chequered is this interval by mighty events! And yet are the words of this covenant in as full force now as they were then. Indeed, for what other object are they read to us from time to time, but to call to mind a faithful picture of that remarkable scene, to transport our­selves in spirit to the mountain of the Lord, that we may again witness the awful manifestations of the Deity, again hear and know, learn and understand, the purposes of the divine covenant, again renew it, again with one voice call out, “We will do and obey,” in order that this covenant may grow still more lasting, and its benefits and blessings be permanently secured to us and to those that will come after us. This, too, is the admonition of the last of the prophets: “Remember ye the law of Moses, my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, the statutes and the judgments.”

A covenant, my friends, is a mutual consent of two or more parties to abide by certain stipulations; a solemn agreement; a treaty. The divine covenant implies the commands, prohibitions, and promises of God, or the whole revealed law on the one Land, obedience to this law and the consequent hope of temporal and eternal happiness on the other. The divine covenant was a voluntary act both on the part of God and on the part of Israel. No compulsory means were resorted to by the Omnipotent; the people exercised their own free choice; and not until the willing and full consent to all the provisions of the law had been given, was the covenant concluded with the solemn formalities and ceremonies then customary on such occasions.

It is true, it was impossible for the Israelites to refuse so great a boon as the revelation from on high, since, irrespective of its transcendent merits, the benefits they had but recently experienced at the hands of its Divine Author were of too overpowering a nature as not to convince them that their heavenly Protector only designed their happiness;—still, their assent, <<291>> though indeed willingly rendered, was a voluntary act. Mark well this elementary feature of our religion. “Man is a free agent,” is a cardinal doctrine of Judaism. If this were not so, the ides of reward and punishment would be an absurdity, totally irreconcilable to the justice of the Almighty. To this principle, too, may be traced our aversion to making proselytes, save such as are prompted by conviction and voluntarily offer themselves. The fountain of truth is open to all, and those who are thirsty may come and take a refreshing draught. But in no period of our history, not even when we yet formed a distinct body politic, were any sinister means or force employed for the purpose of making converts. Will this criterion be recognised in those religions which claim a superiority over ours, and contend to have superseded it? History,—“that tribunal of judgment of mankind,”—shows but too clearly that those two branches which were engrafted on by degrees and completely severed from the parent stem, owe the spread of their foliage, and their luxuriant growth in many a foreign clime, to the fertilizing effects of human gore;—it was the sword which cleared the way for conviction. Not so with us. We never lost sight of the circumstances that attended our voluntary acceptance of the revelation. “When the Lord came forth from Sinai, and rose up from Seir; when he shone forth from Mount Paran, and came with myriads of saints,—in his right hand a fiery law,—Revealed Religion!” it was then that the people said, with one voice, “We will do and obey.”

The divine covenant of Horeb is fraught with the greatest benefits, with the highest blessing, for man. It imparted to him the will and the true knowledge of his Maker. The glimmering dawn, which, since Abraham’s time, had well-nigh faded away, assumed the brightness and warmth of midday. Presentiment grew into joyful reality; conjecture and doubt gave way to a firm conviction, to a distinct knowledge of God and of truth.

“The people that walked in darkness saw a great light; they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, a brilliant light burst upon them.” (Isa. ix.1.) Knowledge and wisdom are the prerogatives of man which place him above the brute creation.

The animal, guided by its instinct, safely walks through the darkness by which it is surrounded; but man is at fault, errs and stumbles at every step, if his mind’s eye is not opened,—of knowledge and wisdom do not accompany him, and remain at his side as guides through life. How necessary indeed are knowledge and wisdom for the cultivation of his thoughts and feelings, for the direction of his wishes, aspirations, and deeds, for his enjoyments and his wants! How indispensably necessary for his religions life! Certain as it is that man derives his origin from the Eternal;—“that he is created in the image of God,” and destined to a blissful immortality,—quite as requisite is it for him to be fully conscious of this fact, and clearly to understand whence he comes, whither he goes, and to what grand purposes he must devote his existence. It is true, religion requires the deed: לא המדרש הוא עקר אלא המעשה “Not the study, but the deed, is the principal.” But in order to be perfect in practice, we must needs understand the theory. And although the expressions used by our fathers, when they assented to the divine covenant,—first נעשה “We will do,” and then נשמע “We will hear,” (for the Hebrew term שמע is a synonymous for hearing, hearkening, obeying, and understanding)—were accounted to them as highly meritorious and praiseworthy, inasmuch as they signified thereby their unqualified faith in their divine Lawgiver yet, in every subsequent exhortation addressed to them by the messenger of God,  there is to be found the term וידעתם “you shall know,” or, as in the passage already quoted, “You shall hear and learn, and then, keep and do.”

Knowledge and wisdom elevate man. In the possession of truth he is in his true element, comprehends his true dignity. As the light is necessary to the plant, respiration to animal life, quite as inseparable is from man his inherent desire after knowledge and truth, quite as natural that he go forth and do not rest quiet until he has explored the nature and object of whatever lies within the grasp and reach of his senses, or of those things which are beyond them. But there is but one truth which does not deceive; there is but one knowledge worthy of the utmost exertion of man;—and this truth is God, and <<293>> this knowledge is his covenant, his revelation. God is truth: and, himself dwelling in light, He requires no blind service, nor blind attendants but of such as approach his holy mountain, He delights only in them who are attracted thither by its light. Knowledge and wisdom alone render man capable of walking in the ways of his Maker, and through them alone God reveals himself to man. Therefore is the knowledge of God called the beginning and the end of all wisdom.

Whoever builds upon this foundation builds securely, and whoever is guided by this light will not mistake his way.

What a complete change has the light of this covenant wrought in the affairs of mankind! In how many directions has it sent forth its beams, and penetrated the human mind and heart, elevating, warming, and invigorating them! How has it destroyed idolatry in a large portion of the earth! How has it exposed and driven from their dens the ghastly monsters of darkness and superstition! How has it nursed, cherished, and promoted the progress in arts and sciences! How has it reclaimed man from the customs and practices of a rude and barbarous age, and caused refinement and civilization to prosper in his midst! What a mighty influence has it exercised upon all the pursuits of man, upon the spirit of legislation, upon the intercourse of nations, and their mutual relations! And how much more is the light of this covenant destined to effect, until the prediction of the prophet will be fulfilled: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. xi. 9.)

Every light of religious truth which now illumines the world, has been kindled by the “fiery law” of Horeb. The truths revealed in the divine covenant of Sinai, of God who Unity, incorporeal, eternal, immutable, holy, and just,—of a loving Father, who bears the whole human family as on eagles’ wings, solicitous of bringing them near unto Him: these truths are now the property of the greatest portion of the inhabited, of the entire civilised world. In the covenant of Sinai, no more one people is blessed, but many a people, and many nations, from the rising of the sun even to its setting. And where these truths are yet mixed with falsehood and error, where they are <<294>> yet vested with a spurious garb, that prevents their pristine beauty and purity from being recognised at the first glance: there it is the fault of men (call it priestcraft, or whatever you may), who have surrounded these simple truths with incompre­hensible mysteries; who are not honest or not bold enough openly to renounce long-cherished, inveterate errors, as if they begrudged the world the unalloyed enjoyment of the blessing which God has conferred upon it in his revelation.

But the benefits resulting from this covenant to man in his individual capacity are not less striking. How many, my friends, from that remote time to the present hour, may have exclaimed, with the pious Psalmist, “Thy word, thy covenant, is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path!” (Ps. cxix. 105.) How many happy beings may have lived since that time, possessing the goods of this earth to a large extent, who were not dazzled by looking down from the eminence of fortune’s wheel, who in their prosperity did not forget the duties they owed to God and to their fellowmen, who enjoyed peace and contentment here and the hope of salvation hereafter, because they firmly and undeviatingly clung to the divine covenant. How many unhappy beings may have sighed away a great por­tion of their existence in anxiety, trouble, and misfortune, whose every prospect was shrouded in darkness,—every avenue to happiness blocked up, until they turned their eyes to the sunny heights of religion, and their hearts to the covenant of God. Then, the lowering clouds on their horizon were dispelled, and peace and happiness restored to their bosoms. How many honest friends of truth may have lived since that time, how many deep thinkers and sceptics, who soared on the pinions of their minds to an immeasurable height, and again dived into a fathomless depth, in search for truth; who constructed systems, and pulled them down, reconstructed and again destroyed them,— “baseless fabrics of a vision,”—and found no rest, no solid foundation, no solution to their problems, until they directed their inquiring glance to the revelation of God, and built upon the divine covenant! Then the intricate mazes of the labyrinth in which they had lost themselves disappeared from before their <<296>> eyes, and the way to happiness and salvation lay open to their view, smiling in the mild effulgence of a heavenly light. Are we able to calculate the benefits and blessings of the divine covenant? Let us pause! “How precious are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is their sum! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand; when I have concluded, I am still with thee.” (Ps. cxxxix. 17, 18.)

The divine covenant was a boon voluntarily granted to Israel; it was an act of grace. Being an emanation of divine love, it can be kept by love only. Our whole existence, my friends, is an evidence of the infinite mercy of God, of the innumerable benefits which he daily strews about. But his greatest blessing is the covenant, the law of truth, which he has bestowed upon us. Whoever, therefore, does not carry out the stipulations of this covenant from motives of love towards his heavenly benefactor, cannot well be determined by any other inducement; whoever is not moved to gratitude, to obedience, to religion, by that which God has done for him and still continues to do,—for such a one faith, religion, law, covenant, God, are but hollow sounds, without sense or meaning; whoever may not be united to his Maker in love, does not comprehend the true relation in which God stands to man. It is not in slavish fear and sullen compliance with the provisions of the law that true religion consists, but in a cheerful acquiescence in the will of God. In the free, intelligent submission of the spirit, in childlike obedience and filial gratitude, religion celebrates its proudest triumph. Let us be guided, therefore, by the noble example of our fathers. How much more eventful is our past than that of our ancestors! What a remarkable history is, comprised by the covenant of Horeb and the present day! What an ocean of time is rolling behind us, from whose heaving bosom each towering wave peals into our ears the words of God,—“You have seen what I have done for you; how I have borne you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto me!” May not this appeal pass in vain. Let us once more renew the covenant, all of us who are here alive,—once more, call out, with one voice and with one heart, “We will do and obey!” Amen.