Isaac Leeser.

Discourses, argumentative and devotional, the subject of the Jewish religion. delivered chiefly at the synagogue Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, in the years 5598-5601 online

. (page 10 of 26)
Online LibraryIsaac LeeserDiscourses, argumentative and devotional, the subject of the Jewish religion. delivered chiefly at the synagogue Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, in the years 5598-5601 → online text (page 10 of 26)
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to his control, destructible at his bidding.

Heathens, the most enlightened even, imagined that there
existed local deities, tutelary powers over certain places and
countries, independent of each other, and not seldom engaged,
mortal-like, in a conflict for the superiority. Were it necessary
it would be easy enough to produce innumerable instances from
profane history as well as Scripture to prove this fact; but in-
dependently of its leading us too far into historical researches,
the house of God is not the place to open such a discussion ;


for the subject is connected with too many immoralities, and
exhibits too glaringly the degraded state of human reason when
unassisted by divine wisdom, not to give, when viewed at large,
more disgust than instruction. Enough, that heathens regarded
the earth, the sky, the sea, the infernal regions, the sun, every
separate planet, as beings capable of working their pleasure
under the sole limitation of some chief among them, and subject
to the decrees of an inevitable fate WHATEVER THIS MIGHT BE. If
therefore any event occurred it was easy enough for the priests
of falsehood to ascribe the cause to the temporary prevalence
of some one or more of their numerous tutelary objects of
worship. Moreover the idolaters of the olden days never ob-
jected to accept a new deity among and in addition to their
long catalogue ; provided, they could be made to believe that
the new claimant of adoration possessed some power for good
or for evil. They did not perhaps change their former gods,
but they certainly admitted the power and dignity of the new
claimants that were offered to them. A remarkable instance
of this fallacy (where a special and local power was admitted)
is found in the twentieth chapter of the first book of Kings.
Ben-hadad king of Syria had made an attack upon Samaria
the capital of Ahab, the sinful king of Israel. Unexpectedly both
to Ahab and Ben-hadad the latter was signally defeated in a
sortie made by a small number of devoted young men, by direc-
tion of a prophet, in order to convince the unworthy chief of
God's people, that it is only by the assistance of the Lord that
the affairs of man are directed. Ben-hadad's servants were
likewise convinced, that in agreement with facts recorded in
history it had pleased the Lord to grant victory to the arms of
Israel, though they were at that time deeply sunk into idolatry.
But whilst they admitted the power of Israel's God, they fan-
cied that it was not universal; and they therefore spoke to
their master : " Their gods are gods of the hills, therefore they
were stronger than we ; but let us fight against them in the
plains, and surely we shall be stronger than they." They
accordingly persuaded the king of Syria to renew his attack,
but to select a plain for his battle-ground, hoping thereby to
prevail through the power of their gods of the plain over the
mountain-sods of Israel. We now read in continuation: "And


there came a man of God, and spoke unto the king of Israel,
and said, Thus saith the Lord, Because the Syrians have said,
The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys,
therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thy hands,
and ye shall know that I am the Lord." Of course the predic-
tion was fulfilled, and the slaughtered thousands testified that
the power of our God is not limited by, nor confined, to any
place or station. All that was intended to be proved is, that
heathenism in its greatest perfection, in ancient times as well
as in the more modern, had always about the same idea of the
ability of God to effect his purposes ; that is to say, the idolaters
divided the authority which the Scriptures teach us to ascribe
to the Omnipotent alone among the various and independent in-
dividuals which figure in their so called mythology.

As it was now the purpose of God to erect the descendants
of Israel into a people holy to his services, it was but proper to
imbue their minds at the outset with convincing proofs of his
omnipotence. He therefore did not merely effect their libera-
tion by a solitary exhibition of superior power, which as we
have said it was possible for Him to do ; but He permitted the
stubbornness of Pharaoh to yield by degrees only to the con-
viction which was wrought gradually through the exhibition of
deeds which showed beyond the possibility of doubt the utter
insignificance of all the gods of Egypt to do the least in ward-
ing off, or staying, or diminishing any of the inflictions which
it pleased God to send. The river rolled sea-ward in one
bloody stream, the fishes it harboured were thrown dead upon
the pestilential shore ; but the healthy flood only returned upon
the bidding of the Lord. Frogs in disgusting swarms insinuated
themselves everywhere ; but they quitted the afflicted land
only when the prophet prayed to God to spare his treacherous
enemies. Noxious insects and savage beasts desolated the plains
of the sons of Ham ; a pestilence swept off the cattle of the
Egyptians whilst of Israel's not one died ; terrible blains infected
the bodies of the priests even ; hail in destructive masses deso-
lated the fields, locusts devoured what the hail had spared ; and
still it was only the prophet's supplication that afforded enlarge-
ment. At bright daylight too the sun was darkened, for three
days impenetrable gloom rested on the dwellings of the Egyp-


tians ; and still no power save the Lord's granted relief. And
lastly the terrible slaughter of the first-born and the demolition
by invisible hands of the statues of idols told in language not to
be misunderstood, that to God alone belongeth the kingdom, and
that his rule extendeth over all. The whole display of these mira-
culous events must therefore have stamped upon the minds of
Israelites as well as of Egyptians, that the Power which set Israel
free is a universal Power, a Deity not only of mountains, but also
of valleys ; not a God merely of light, but also the God of dark-
ness ; not alone the Dispenser of life, but also the Dispenser of
death ; in short the universal God, the sole Creator, the only Ru-
ler ! And so we read (Exodus ix. 15, 16) : " For if I had de-
sired I could have stretched out my hand, and smitten thee and
thy people with the pestilence, and thou wouldst have been cut
off from the earth. But for this cause did I suffer thee to remain,
in order to show thee my power, and to declare my name
throughout all the earth." We therefore see, that the lessons
in obedience to the divine command conveyed to him by Moses
which Pharaoh received were the only natural way, though the
means employed were miraculous, to force conviction upon an
obdurate heart ; and these means produced at length the effect
which the Lord had in view, and the Israelites were driven
forth from Egypt to meet their destinies in the desert of Arabia.
Let us consider : if Pharaoh had in this manner been in-
structed and taught how great, how irresistible God is, the
same lesson must naturally have been impressed upon his own
people and the Israelites also ; for the former had shared the
punishment of their king, and the latter had been they for whose
behalf all these great and fearful things had been done. With
this knowledge the Israelites arrived at the shore of the Red
Sea. But still their confidence was not completely established ;
they were terrified because of the horsemen and chariots of
their pursuers, and they deplored that thay had not remained
the willing slaves of the Egyptians. These too had speedily
forgotten their sufferings no less than the others their delivei*-
ance. Again therefore a mighty deed was done ; the waters
divided, being piled up like walls by the stormwind of the Lord ;
Jacob's sons passed through on dry land, and they who threa-
tened to enslave them again to hopeless servitude were over-


turned amid the returning billows. Faintheartedness then fled,
when the shore was strewn with the bodies of the horse and
his rider, " and the people feared the Lord, and they trusted in
the Lord and in his servant Moses."

All this mighty work of God had well prepared the Israelites
to acknowledge Him the Lord as their Sovereign ; for to Him
alone were they indebted, almost spite of themselves, for their
freedom, for their glorious liberty, which now cheered them on.
They might now speak how for their sakes great deeds had
been done, how their trusty leader had exhibited a power which
humbled a great king, and brought a whole people to repentance.
An insidious enemy too, who had surprised them with his armed
bands had been signally overcome by the blessed prowess of the
young disciple of Moses. Farther, when they asked for bread it
was bounteously showered down to them without requiring of
them ploughing or reaping ; and when water was needed, in a
land sterile and dry, the flinty rock yielded the refreshing ele-
ment. After all thes.e things had been accomplished, when
every day almost had given them new inducements for thank-
fulness and admiration : our ancestors were brought to the foot
of Horeb, where they should, as had been foretold, be taught
how to serve their God. And now continues the text (Exodus
xix.) as follows : " And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord
called unto him from the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say
to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel. Ye have
seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on
eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now, therefore,
if ye will obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then shall ye
be a peculiar treasure unto me above all nations, for all the
earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt
speak unto the children of Israel." Here are clearly stated the
reasons of the redemption and the terms of the covenant. Says
the text, " Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians." You
yourselves were witnesses of my power ; it is not upon hearsay
you are to acknowledge my omnipotence it is not a doubtful
authority which you are to regard ; for you in your own per-
sons were the recipients of the bounty, witnesses of the glory
of your God, that you might know that I, even I alone, am the


Being who cast down and exalt, the sole Almighty, to whom
all must submit. You also experienced my protection after
you quitted the land of your servitude. You were surrounded
by dangers, the sea before you, behind you the vengeful host
of the pursuing tyrant ; again Amalek attacked you, when you
thought only of pursuing in quiet your way ; but you were
borne aloft clear of all obstruction by your God and Saviour ;
like the eagle who soaring in his flight above the whole fea-
thered tribe bears away her young to a place of safety, inter-'
posing her own body to the dart of the fowler : thus were
you shielded, protected, and saved. But if you ask, " Why
was this done ?" then know, that to your ancestors I have sworn
that I would redeem you when the time of your wandering had
expired, to raise you up to be my people. It is for the fulfil-
ment of this promise that I bared my arm against your oppres-
sors, that I smote them with many plagues ; that I humbled the
pride of idolaters ; that I proved the helplessness of the idols
they worship, in order to teach you to regard me alone as your
God, who alone am holy, who alone am able to save. It is
now in your own option to merit my blessing ; by this, that
you rigidly obey the commandments which I am about to offer
to your acceptance, and do on your part all that your God can
ask of you as the people who have entered into a covenant with
Him, to do his behests for the protection which will be vouch-
safed to you. It is not any benefit for myself which I ask ; for
all the earth is mine, you cannot benefit me, your virtue, your
righteousness cannot render my happiness and my perfection
more complete than they now are ; but all the good which is
to result is to revert to yourselves ; you shall be a treasure
more than all the nations of the earth ; more favoured, more
instructed, more holy, more beloved, but also more watched,
more accountable for all your doings, because having more
light and being nearer to me, you must expect to receive retri-
bution whenever you merit it. Says the verse, ' For all the
earth is mine." I have reared you under suffering and tribula-
tion to know that I am the Lord, capable to do all that my will
desires ; you have learnt this lesson more than any other peo-
ple ; therefore in my wisdom do I now appoint you, if you are
willing, to receive my law, my covenant, which you are to


keep sacred and untouched, as your birthright, your inheri-
tance, as men of the house of Israel, and which will at length
be THE blessing to all the earth, which I announced to your

Thus spoke the Lord of Hosts. Moses descended from the
mount and announced the word with which he had been charged.
It is possible, nay probable, that the people had all along believed
that they were merely to offer sacrifices, after the manner of
their ancestors, to the Lord after their deliverance ; but they
could hardly have known that a new dispensation was to be
entrusted to their safekeeping. How great, therefore, must
have been their joy when their high destiny was announced to
them, and with how much willingness must they have an-
swered : " All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." The
Father of all received in favour the reply with which the prophet
was charged, and He spoke as follows :

pyn zyi ytf KS DJK run

'o D* maw

" Behold I will come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear
when I speak with thee, and in thee also they shall believe forever."

EXODUS xix. 9.

The people having signified their readiness to become the
servants of the Lord, He informed Moses, that the legislation
should be public, that the whole entire nation should be the"
witnesses of their spiritual as they had been of their bodily
disenthralment ; so that not one should have occasion to tell the
other what are the doctrines of salvation. Another reason for
this procedure should be the attestation of the truth of Moses,
who had been the instrument of their redemption. God in-
tended to crown him publicly with the attribute of faithfulness,
to impress upon all that he was a righteous servant, and to
insure that whatever he might hereafter be deputed to teach
should be received by his brothers as the truth received from

Three days after the annunciation the people were aroused
by the loud voice of thunder ; fires flashed from amidst the


deepest gloom, the earth shook, the mountain trembled, the
Israelites were awe-struck, and he alone who was called " faith-
ful in all God's house," was calm and intent on the issue of his
mission. He led forth the people to meet their God, and in
silent expectation they stood at the foot of Sinai. Soon a voice
resounded, a voice unlike that of a mortal, it penetrated to every
ear, it struck to every heart, it moved every spirit. All the
people heard, remember this, that more than two millions of
human beings heard at the same moment in an audible manner
the self same voice ; there was consequently no room for doubt
or uncertainty, for all was made manifest, perceptible and
clear; and the voice which then spoke still re-echoes again and
again to this very day. Truths, never before so comprehen-
sively given, were surrendered so to say from the treasury of
Heaven to the custody of the Israelites, and well was the cus-
todian chosen. What revolutions have passed over our heads !
how much misery has fallen to our lot ! what persecutions had
we to endure ! but still the covenant is ours, its words are dear
to our hearts, its precepts find a response in our bosoms. Do
I exaggerate ? where is the Israelite, who deserves the name,
but is willing to suffer for the glorious inheritance which is his ?
where is the son of Jacob, who is so in truth, but calls the law
of God his greatest treasure ? Men may call us enthusiasts for
saying this ! but who can be otherwise than an enthusiast when
the contemplation of the great blessing of our religion is pre-
sented to his mind ? It is more than our native land ; it is
more than our earthly parents ; it is the bond of union which
unites us to our everlasting home, which binds the humble
creature to the infinite Creator ! to the overliving Father !

Now mark, brothers and sisters of the house of Israel who
are here to-day to celebrate this great event, how well the
prediction has been fulfilled. It is to-day more than thirty-two
hundred years ago since the promulgation of the law. A
hundred generations and more have been gathered to their
fathers since the fire of glory blazed on Mount Sinai. There is
no visible trace left of this great event on Horeb ; no monument
to mark the spot where Moses stood ; no house of worship is
there where the Israelites could adore ; the tables of the co-
venant are no longer known among us ; and all our glory all,


all is gone, for the temple too which our fathers thrice upreared
is destroyed, gone, vanished. And Israel ? they have wandered
through deserts and mountains ; crossed the wide ocean, been
scattered away among a thousand isles. It seemed at one time
as though death were their only guardian, the grave their only
refuge from the many bitter, scalding calamities which seemed
to be entailed upon them for their sins. As I said, all, all is
gone ; the outward glory of our race has been cast down to the
ground, and all that remains is the Voice which we heard on
this day. Amidst all our sorrows THIS never left us, it was
ever near us in all our wanderings, it always cheered our
drooping spirits when we fainted under the exhausting influence
of our own apostacies and the gentiles' persecution. Yes,
brethren, nations mightier and more numerous than we ever
were, whose memorials are written in splendid ruins and me-
morable remains of architecture, of sculpture and of arts ; who
had thousands of temples for our one ; whose arms and prowess
subjugated many and powerful nations, have passed away, as
though they had not been, and of some their very names have
been forgotten. But it was not our might, our numbers, our
conquests, our architecture, our sculpture, our arts that upheld
us, it was the possession of the heavenly truth, that charac-
terized us always from other men. There may be those among
us who value it not; though it is hardly credible that any son of
Jacob can be so forgetful of what is the source of his salvation.
But be the apostates ever so many, be their motives fear, interest,
ambition, or unbelief: of this we are assured, that the law will
never be forgotten, that that time will never be, when the mass
of our people will cease to regard Moses as the prophet of God,
and to believe in the truth of his mission ; for the word which
has endured unscathed so many vicissitudes is yet endowed
with life, and exists this day in its original vigour and beauty.

But shall it be said, that as we advance in civilization and
liberty, we are becoming indifferent to this blessing ? shall the
reproach be cast on us, that we cannot be entrusted with civil
freedom without losing our character as Jews ? The foul
charge has been made ; and they who wish to annihilate our
people, have at times counselled to place us on an equality, in
order to consume us by a gradual admixture with foreign


nations. They aver, that equality would render us careless of
our distinctive character, and that \ve would then be willing to
yield to flattery what no force could ever tear from us. Let
me appeal to you, friends and brothers ! to contradict such an
aspersion by your conduct. In this land you enjoy the largest
personal liberty,; you are equal with other citizens ; no one can
lay any hinderance in your way on account of your religion, no
one can molest you for your belief in one God. It is therefore
lamentable that one is compelled to confess that we do but
little to merit the continuance of so much happiness. Alas!
that religion should be so much neglected ! When troubles
thickened upon us, we could call on our God for enlargement ;
and now, when we need no longer fear the adversary's sword,
we have become careless. This is not well, brethren ! it is time
that this stain should be wiped from our name. There are
signs already visible, that in this country too there is increasing
a thirst after the word of the Lord ; that persons daily become
more alive to the necessity of drinking the waters which lead
unto salvation. Let us hope that the signs may not be falla-
cious, and that daily some one may abjure the sinfulness of his
ways, and become a sincere follower of, no less than a believer
in the truth of the Decalogue. It is the province of each of you
to contribute to this result by acting rightly yourselves, and
inducing others to do the same. Every son of Israel is called
upon to be a teacher of the truth ; every daughter of Jacob
should spread the word. But above all it is the bounden duty
of parents to see that wholesome religious instruction is liberally
and daily bestowed on their offspring, for knowledge like this
outweighs far the acquisition of mere worldly sciences. Let
also your visits to the house of God be constant, lay aside your
avocations to attend divine worship, bring your children with
you, let them see that you are in earnest, teach them by precept
and example : and you will prove to the world that we can hold
fast to our law, whilst we join our brothers of other opinions in
the discharge of duties as citizens of one common country. If
thus you act, then will every returning Pentecost enjoyed in
this land of liberty be indeed a day of thankfulness unto the
Lord for the blessing of freedom now vouchsafed and the pos-
VOL. in. 9


session of the law announced amidst terrific signs from Sinai
of old.

May the grace of God the Lord be with us, and may He
strengthen our hearts to fear Him and to obey his command-
ments, from now and for ever. Amen.

? iva " 3 , d }5600.
June 4th \



O LORD of all flesh! who art of infinite power and wisdom,
hear our prayer this day, and plant in our hearts brotherly love
and union ; remove from our midst causeless hatred and dissen-
sion, and grant that all this congregation and all Israel thy peo-
ple may be a band of brothers, united in faith, united in love,
made one by charity. Strengthen the superintendents of this
house, let their doings be guided by the spirit of wisdom and
conciliation ; multiply the worshippers within these walls dedi-
cated to thy service, and frustrate the devices of those who may
now or hereafter endeavour to sow dissension where there
should reign love, union, and harmony. Do grant, O our
Father ! that thy holy name may be glorified through our teach-
ing and our humble striving ; and pour out thy liberal spirit over
us all, that we may truly know how to worship, how to reve-
rence, how to follow Thee in thy deeds of mercy. May this be
thy will. Amen.


In all human labours, be they works of a spiritual or temporal
nature, we will speedily discover, that by our own unassisted


striving, we are able to accomplish but little indeed. In the
smallest effort we make, in the smallest implement we handle,
we are, although unconscious perhaps, indebted to the united
labours of many sentient beings like ourselves acting to accom-
plish a given purpose. The bread we eat, is this the product
of one individual? No ! there was the ploughman to open the
soil by the labour of his hardy hands, amidst the sweat of his
brow ; there was the seedman, who scattered the seed into the
furrows which had been drawn over the yielding soil; there was
next the reaper, who under the glowing rays of a midday sun
cut down the rich blessings of the Lord; next the thrasher, then
the winnower, then the miller, and lastly the baker, who all had
to unite their efforts to produce this simple bread, our daily food.
Now take a view of the tools which these various labourers
use ! They are the products of the mine, the forest and the
forge. Into the dark bowels of the earth, guided by science and
skill, the laborious miner digs his way ; unerring tests tell him

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Online LibraryIsaac LeeserDiscourses, argumentative and devotional, the subject of the Jewish religion. delivered chiefly at the synagogue Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, in the years 5598-5601 → online text (page 10 of 26)