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 Shopping Mall of Zion


Reflections on Deuteronomy 10:12.

An Extract From a Lecture by [Isaac Mayer] W[ise].

ועתה ישראל מה ה׳ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה את ה׳ אלהיך ללכת בכל דרכיו ולאהבה אתו ולעבד את ה׳ אלהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך׃

“And now, O Israel! what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear (or venerate) 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 and all thy soul.”

The longer our eye dwells on these important words of the Holy Scriptures, the deeper we reflect upon them, the more shall we discover holy truth and divine wisdom in these plain and significant words. This verse contains, according to my humble opinion, nothing less than the whole basis and structure of the Mosaic Doctrine; it contains the ladder by virtue of which man can reach the utmost elevation of human  perfection; and it describes to the mortal the way he should pursue, which will lead him up to his Creator, to the throne of his gracious Father. Let us, my dear friends, pay close attention to this verse, and develop the holy truths it embraces, and then let us earnestly try to act according to its demands.

The immortal teacher of Israel asks his scholars: “And now O Israel! what doth the Lord thy God require of thee?” And his first answer is, “But to fear the Lord thy God.” Our ancient sages deduced therefore from this requirement, that the fear of the Lord is the first step in the ladder, which a man is to ascend, in order to attain the utmost perfection of which a mortal is capable of attaining. The first duty of man to his God is to fear Him; for he that fears Him will endeavour to know Him. Thus David said: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord;” Solomon likewise affirms, “The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge;” for to know God is the highest wisdom. We read also in Treatise Sabbath, fol. 91,אמר ר׳ יוחנן משום ר׳ אליעזר אין לו להקב״ה בעולמו אלא יראת שמים בלבד “Rabbi Jochanan: in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, said, The holy Blessed One wants nothing in his world but that all should have the fear of Heaven;” also ibidem, fol, 31:אמר רב יהודה לא ברא הקב״ה את העולם אלא כדי שייראו מלפניו 

<<134>>“Rabbi Jehudah said, The holy Blessed One created the world only that the beings therein might fear Him.”

We also read in Zohar, fol. 11:

בראשית ברא אלהים וגו׳ דא היא פקודא קדמאה דכלא ואקרא פקודא דא יראת ה׳ דאקרי ראשית דכתיב ראשית חכמה יראת ה׳ ועל פקודא דא אתקיים עלמא וגו׳׃

“In the beginning God created, &c. This embraces the first charge of all, and this charge is the fear of the Lord, who is called the ‘Beginning,’ as it is written, ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord;’ and in virtue of this commandment the world is preserved.” I suppose that these few quotations, selected from thousands of the same kind, are sufficient to prove that our ancient sages, from David down to the latest talmudic Rabbi, have regarded the fear of God as the first duty of man towards his God, as the key to unlock the door of divine wisdom and knowledge, and as the only means to ascend to the summit of human perfection.

Nothing in the world is easier to be learned than to fear the Lord; for lift up your eyes to the skies, and ask the bright luminaries why they pour forth light and heat to the inhabitants of the earth? Ask the innumerable host of stars why they glitter in majestic beauty? Ask the rushing thunder, the swift-winged wind, the roaring ocean, the gigantic waves, the heaving volcano, the tremendous earthquakes, these irresistible powers which cause the earth and its inhabitants to tremble; yea, ask the winged minstrels of the air, the savage beasts of the desert, the behemoth on the top of the ancient mountains, and the leviathan in the depth of the sea—ask them all, and each of them, Why do you act so? why are you here?—and they will answer in a language understood by every one endowed with sound reason: “We proclaim the unlimited power of our Creator, the omnipotence of our God; we chaunt solemn and tremendous hymns to the Author, Preserver, and Governor of the universe, glorifying his Holy Name. We teach the sons of men to fear Him who has called us into existence by his divine omnipotent will; we call to the mind of every rational being מה גדלו מעשיך ה׳ מאד עמקו מחשבותיך ‘How great are thy works, O Lord! how very profound are thy thoughts!’” Yes, wherever man is placed, we meet with angels of God, the messengers of his will, who constantly call to him: “Fear the Lord!” These words are written in letters of fire on nature's forehead, and every voice in the wide universe pro<<135>>claims them anew. Our Torah therefore begins with the history of creation, to teach us the fear of the Lord, even before we read, think, or speak about God and religion. The observance of the Sabbath is for this reason regarded by our sages as the principal duty of an Israelite towards God, because it is זכר למעשה בראשית “A memorial of the creation,” which memorial is well calculated to teach to reasoning man the fear of God, to make him reflect on God’s omnipotence and man’s impotence.*

* This investigation is a sufficient proof that it is very necessary for every Jew to study natural sciences, in order to become acquainted with the living witnesses of God’s omnipotence; and I am sure that any one who has studied will agree with me when I say, that by continual and attentive contemplation of nature, the pious man will be enabled to behold God’s majesty and glory, equally, though not to the same extent, as did Isaiah and Ezekiel. But where in nature do we perceive any evidence of a trinity? Maimonides says in his Comment on the Mishna, in exposition of the passage, “Not so is my servant Moses, he is faithful in all my house,” (Numb. 12:7,) that Moses was acquainted with the whole structure of nature.

It is, indeed, very easy to learn the fear of the Lord; for open the books of the history of mankind, and read the development of man, his progress from barbarism to civilization, from ignorance to the high state of knowledge of our modern times; from superstition, prejudice, and darkness, to the pure light of self-consciousness; if we consider all the revolutions, which the human spirit had to pass through; what tyrants and obstacles it had to conquer, what high mountains it had to level, and what iron rocks it had to soften; if we farther consider that man always found the means to pursue his course coming ready to his hand, even by the labours of those who acted against the general course of development, or at least not with the intention to act for the common benefit; if we reflect that thousands of hands and heads unknown to one another, laboured on a plan which was altogether strange to themselves, and which became afterwards the source of happiness or misfortune for many generations: then ought we to fall down and worship the invisible Power, the infinite Wisdom, who has drawn out, at the beginning of the world, the plan of action for all nations, and placed in their way the means to accomplish it; then must we humbly confess: “The Lord slayeth and bringeth again to life, he carrieth down to the grave, and bringeth up again. The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich; he bringeth low and lifteth up. He raiseth up the <<136>>poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory; for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them.” (1 Sam. 2:6-8.) And “Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever, for wisdom and strength are his; and he changeth the times and the seasons; he removeth kings and setteth up kings; he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding. He revealeth the deep and secret things; he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.” (Dan. 2:20-22.)

Look at the history of mankind, and you will find everywhere this great truth, “that all the nations on earth, and each individual thereof, are in the power of the Lord; our fate, our weal and our wo are in his hands.” Is not this consideration strong enough to make man fear his God? To make the mortal tremble before the omnipotent Bestower of life and death, of riches and of poverty, of joy and of grief? History is the second witness of God’s omnipotence and grandeur; therefore is our Torah connected with the history of our fathers, with the beginning of nations, and with the mighty progress of the human spirit; therefore are all our feasts memorials of historical facts, that we may never forget the words of our immortal teacher: “Remember the days of old, the years of generation and generation; ask thy father, and he will show thee, thy elders, and they will tell thee.”* (Deut. 32:7.)

* It is hardly necessary to notice that a complete knowledge of universal history is inseparable from true theology. I have already stated in a former communication, that Maimonides calls the Rock whereupon Moses stood when learning to know God and his divine attributes, Nature. The word צור (Rock) may be derived from יצר (to create), on the principle of Kimchi, that דרך אחד לכל הנחים “There is one peculiarity for all the quiescent letters,” and thus the quiescent ו in צור may supply the quiescent י in יצר. Nature, also, is always reproducing things by the will of God, and is constantly engaged in forming new figures out of old matter. Rocks are properly called צור because they were the first part of the earth that was elevated above the water, on which the earth was formed into a globe. As nature is never at rest and always producing new forms, and therefore also properly called צור, so may history be called the same with perfect justice. By adding therefore to Maimonides’ opinion “nature” the word “ history,” we can understand the deep meaning of the verse, Exodus 33:23, “And when I remove my hands, my hind part shall be seen, but my face shall not be seen;” since we merely are enabled to see the past in history; only what is passed is open to our view, to admire God’s wisdom and greatness, but the very next moments and their events are wisely hidden from us.

<<137>>It is very easy to learn the fear of the Lord; for if we open the Bible we read of wonders and miracles which God performed in times of old, in the sight of all Israel, of Pharaoh and all the Egyptians, and many other nations; so that even Jethro the heathen priest heard of them, and surprised at the report, he came to the camp of our fathers. We read of these miracles in a book, the divine authority of which is acknowledged equally by Israel and all the civilized nations on earth, by sound common sense and speculative philosophy. Why has God performed these miracles? Was it to teach the world his unlimited power? Is not nature itself a sufficient proof of this? Or was it to demonstrate the truth of the revealed law, as the evangelists sought to fill their books with miracles, copied partially from the prophets and partially from the sick phantasy of the superstition of the third and fourth centuries, mixed up with fragments of the downbroken heathenism, in order to make the people believe what sound common sense will never be able to understand? No; this was not the motive; for the truth of the revealed word is proved by our reason.

There is not a law, not a commandment, not a principle in the five Books of Moses, that does not perfectly correspond with our reason, or that is not well adapted to our nature, and promotive of humanity, civilization, and happiness among mankind. The whole Mosaic system is well calculated to enlighten man, and elevate him to mental liberty, to purity of conduct, and temperance in all carnal enjoyments. This spirit is found at times embodied in forms and ceremonies; but they are well calculated to lift up man, a being, as he is, of a mixed organization, his spirit acting with a material body, to the height of spiritual elevation; and they were, through many dark ages, the best vehicle of the spirit, and its safeguard in the times of persecution and suffering. The best and surest argument for the truth of the revealed law is our reason; for if we even explain away the miracles of sacred history in a natural, or any other way, its positive value, the moral principles and laws, the pure doctrines of God’s and man’s nature it inculcates, will still not be <<138>>diminished in the least, or be less satisfactory to our mind.* So far as man’s speculative science has advanced, it never has produced a system better agreeing with the mind of man, both that of the learned and ignorant; nor has a single moral truth been discovered, which is not included in this polity. There exists no other religion besides the Mosaic code which, after it is deprived of its mysteries, will not lose its basis and fundamental proofs; and mysteries, it is evident, can never be viewed as arguments to sound reason, since they are necessarily above the horizon of our comprehension.

* We beg leave to call the attention of our readers to this important position of our learned correspondent. The law of Moses, and the narratives of the prophets, contain many surprising events, or miracles, which are related as having taken place. But for all that, they are not the basis of legislation or doctrines, and if you even strike them out from the record, the Law itself will nevertheless be what it alleges to be, the revealed will of God, and therefore the guide of man.—Ed. Oc.

But God performed so many miracles in the sight of Israel, to teach us and mankind at large a truth of which the world was entirely ignorant, and would probably still be at this very day; it was this—the eternal truth, that the omnipotent Creator of all nature likewise directs and controls it according to his supreme will; He has written a code of laws on Nature’s bosom; but He can also change and annihilate the same if his wisdom requires it to be done; the tremendous powers of nature obey tremblingly his voice; the earth is shaken and reels, the foundations of the hills are moved and upheaved, the channels of the water are seen, and the foundations of the world are laid bare at his rebuke; “He rebuketh the sea and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers; Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth. The mountains quake before Him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burnt at his presence; yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.”

If nature and its rude and mighty powers fear Him, what shall the feeble mortal do? אם בארזים נפלה שלהבתיה מה יעשו אזובי קיר “If the fire of God has seized on the cedars, what will become of the hyssops on the wall?” If the ocean trembles at his rebuke, and the mountains skip like rams, and the hills like lambs at the presence of the Lord, how much more must man fear Him? This consideration alone would be enough to make man reverence the Lord; therefore is the Sabbath so highly regarded in the <<139>>Talmud, because it is זכר ליציאת מצרים “A memorial of the departure from Egypt,” a memorial of all those soul-subduing, heart-elevating miracles which were then witnessed, and each returning Sabbath then teaches us “the fear of God.” For this reason did the revelation of Sinai commence with אנכי ה׳ אלהיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים “I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt,” thus indicating “I am the Lord and Master of the universe, whom thou oughtest to fear.” Therefore have we Tefillin, Zizith, Pidyon Bechor, Pesach, in order to be constantly reminded of this holy truth, and never to forget to fear Him.

I ask now of every impartial thinker, whether we need to have a scientific education, or a deep reflecting mind, to learn fearing the Lord our God? whether we need to see additional miracles and wonders, a new revelation in all we behold?—or must our heart be circumcised, our natural feelings altered; or must we be redeemed (I know not from what); must God come down to be a man,—eat, drink, sleep, and be put to death as another man, that we may learn to fear Him truly? No, no, no! every man endowed with sound common sense, can learn easily, by studying the Bible, nature, and history, to fear God, and this fear is the first step to perfection, as I will prove in my next essay. This fear of God is, therefore, the first thing required of us by our religion, because its attainment is very easy, because it is within the power and reach of every human being. And now, O ye children of Israel, and all ye sons of Adam! look at nature, the handiwork of God; review carefully the records of history, the re-echo of Providence; pay close attention to the miracles and wonders which God performed, the proof of God’s supreme and absolute power, and learn in the first place to fear no mortal man; but to fear the Lord your God כי אם ליראה את ה׳ אלהיך; learn this with all your heart, and all your soul, with all your feelings, and with all your reason.

(To be continued.)