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

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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 16 of 26)
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vitiated taste could be satisfied by nothing but habitual drink-
ing, which naturally disqualified him for any rational occupa-
tion, and rendered him a spectacle of horror and a by-word, as
one who chose death, when life was within his reach.

Or watch the man of deceit, who by a fair outward appear-
ance endeavours to impose upon the credulity of his neighbour ;
has he life? Certainly not. He imagines perhaps that his su-
perior cunning entitles him to prey upon the ignorant and con-
fiding. He accordingly lays his schemes with a far-reaching
view of self-aggrandizement, with a single eye to his own sup-
posed interests. He watches with anxious care, with sleepless
nights, every avenue which might lead to detection ; now appa-
rently his prosperity stands unmoved ; he reaps a golden har-
vest; he speaks with evident charity of the sufferings of the
needy ; he is foremost in acts of benevolence ; talks with com-
passion of the foibles and sins of others, as though he were in-
deed a man of truth and righteousness. Yet he is at heart full
of anxiety ; he suspects every one that approaches as likely to
become the instrument of detection ; but all his acts are un-
availing ; justice though slow points at him at last as a traitor
to the social compact: and when he stands exposed to the
world as a deceitful sinner, when deprived of his ill-gotten
wealth he roams over the earth a fugitive and alone, his steps
pursued by thousands panting for his punishment, he will bitterly
lament the moment that he lost sight of the divine command
which says: " Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, nor lie to one


another." (Lev. xix. 11.) And yet was this man. born innocent
as we all were ; and many years after his entrance into life he
must have remained unstained by the crimes which banish him
now from society ; and only because he confided more in his
own ingenuity, because he had not sufficient faith in the word
of God, he was induced to seek prosperity by injuring his brother;
and his punishment will therefore teach us, that avarice and
fraud, though cloaked by the mantle of outward sanctity, are
not conducive to that happiness and contentment which to ob-
tain should be the chief aim of our thoughts and labours, and
which can be found only -in the pursuit of righteousness, which
is found in the precepts of the religion bestowed by the Lord
upon Israel.

Or look upon the man who stands on the pinnacle of glory,
the conqueror before whose bloody sword thousands of slain
have fallen, the tyrant whose frown strikes terror into all who
surround him ; has he life ? If earthly greatness could confer
this boon ; if immense wealth could furnish happiness ; if flat-
tery of abject slaves, the homage of conquered kingdoms could
insure content : then indeed might he say that the had found the
treasure we are commanded to seek. But does power render
us immortal? does wealth confer satisfaction? do flattery and
homage prevent the assault of revenge or stay the hand of the
prowling assassin ? Where then is THE LIFE of the mightest
potentate who rises by murder and violence? O no! he has
not life, nor content, nor satisfaction. For how can he expect,
the first, when he has spilt wantonly much innocent blood, and
rendered desolate many a happy peaceful home ? He only re-
garded himself in his search for renown ; he forgot his mor-
tality, and that he too must appear to render an account of his
deeds done whilst in the flesh before the supreme King of kings
the Holy One who alone reigns over all ; and therefore the un-
erring and infallible decree of the Judge of all flesh will consign
him to that doom which his misdeeds merit. But even before
his final condemnation, he enjoys not content nor satisfaction.
The people whom he oppresses he can place no confidence in,
and he is constantly in dread of their rising to expel him from
the throne which he disgraces ; the kingdoms which he has
conquered will continually strive to throw off the galling yoke


which he has imposed on them ; and he can only hope to keep
both in subjection by an unceasing vigilance and often by in-
creased exactions ; for, the course of violence once begun, it is
difficult to know where to stop ; and thus he is continually a
prey to anxious care and terrors ; and gladly would he choose
a brief space of contentment, no matter what the price might
be. Although therefore he is raised high, and despite the ex-
tent of his power, he will yet have cause to feel that disobedi-
ence to the law is not the way of life, and that the king even
cannot disobey with impunity the commandment implied in the
words of Holy Writ which says : " That his heart be not lifted
up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the com-
mandment, to the right or to the left." (Deut. xvii. 20.) Yet
he too how happy might he have been, had he not lent his ear
to advice of the wicked who crouch at the foot of power ; had
he not been misled by the glitter of outward splendour which
necessarily accompanies his station. Peaceful neighbours would
have served him better than the enraged conquered can do ; a
grateful country would have blessed a wise and virtuous ruler;
and an approving conscience and a well-founded faith in the
Sovereign of the universe would have rendered his sleep as
undisturbed and tranquil as that of the labourer when he has
finished his daily toil. And of one thing be sure, brethren ! that
human greatness never blessed with peace any one who had
not the heavenly light within him ; and it matters not whether
it be a Pharaoh standing abashed before the august prophet
when confessing his guilt ; an Ahab when he met Elijah after
slaying for no cause Naboth the Jezreelite ; a Nabuchadnezzar
when he was compelled to herd with the beasts of the field that
he might be taught humility ; a Cassar when he fell at the foot
of Pompey's pillar struck by the hand of his beloved Brutus ; a
Robespierre when in the moment of desperation he attempted
his own life, or a Napoleon dying an exile upon a lonely isle :
all have felt that the pursuit of glory, unawed by the standard
which God has given, is sure sooner or later to produce the
fruits of bitterness, and lead to death and destruction.

Nor are riches, and wisdom, and the pursuit of pleasure,
and the indulgence in carnal desires the sources of life. The
possession of the first leaves to those who view them as essen-


' tials to happiness, a vast void yet unfilled up, and they die with
not the half of their desire accomplished. Or speak of worldly
wisdom ; and can you point out one among the whole crowd of
philosophers, from the most remote antiquity to our own days,
who either was happy through its possession only, or beloved
by the unwise for no other cause than his learning ? Or tell
me of pleasures ; who did ever exist that had tasted enough of
the varied joys which this life affords, or who could say with
truth, that the most exquisite pleasure did not always leave a'
melancholy impression upon the soul ? We will not enlarge at
present by an investigation of the subject ; but will merely de-
mand, whether the happiest of mortals ever found what may
with truth be called LIFE in the pursuit of pleasure from his in-
fancy to the moment of his death, even if no cloud should ever
have darkened his horizon, or pain marred his enjoyment?
And with regard to indulgence in carnal desires and the follow-
ing of the dictates of the passions, it is almost superfluous to
assign any reason why they cannot offer life. For let a man
but commence a course predicated upon such rules, if rules
they may be called, and what will be his end ? Premature de-
cay, and early death on the one, and an ignominious punish-
ment for laws transgressed and rights trampled on, on the other

In following up these investigations it will become manifest
to you that if we commit ourselves to the allurements of the
external world, and have no regard to any guidance save that
presented by our own reason, interest, appetite or passion : our
life must pass away very unsatisfactorily to ourselves and pro-
fitless to others. The destructive operation of these false guides
upon ourselves we have already traced; and can you name
any benefit or service which the vain egotist who is proud of
his learning, the sordid seeker after wealth, the glutton and
drunkard, and the self-sufficient oppressor can confer on others
by the mere pursuit of their selfish ends ? On the contrary,
every act of theirs if it have any effect at all must be more or
less injurious to society, and the annals of the world and the
records of crime furnish us with thousands of instances to prove
the truth of this assertion. But turn we now to the man who
seeks to shape his course by the law of God, and we shall see


an entirely different result springing from his labours. Let us
regard him as the father of a family. He is there temperate in
the use of things, even those not prohibited by the law ; he
never exhibits himself before his children in a manner that they
must despise their parent; he is the friend not the tyrant of his
wife ; he is a kind master over his servants, and imposes no
unnecessary burdens upon his subordinates, knowing that they
are like him servants and children of Omnipotence, who merit
and therefore should receive kind and generous treatment from
those who employ their labour. He instructs his family in the
path they should go ; he watches their conduct ; and because
he spends all the time not necessary for his out-door occupa-
tions in his own home, at his own peacefnl fireside, he has
ample opportunity to correct whatever of fault he may discover;
and thus he is not only the parent in the flesh of his offspring,
but is likewise, conjointly with the mother, the spiritual guide
of the children whom God has given him. Who sees not in a
picture like this, where a righteous husband presides over the
good of the household, a legitimate consequence of obedience
to the commandments? and who can doubt that there is life,
and happiness, .and contentment, where we see regarded the
precept: " And thou shall teach them diligently unto thy chil-
dren, and speak of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when
thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when
thou risest up ?" (Deut. vi. 7.)

Or let us visit the man who conducts his business in the fear
of the Lord. He is scrupulous to deal fairly with all men ; he
uses no subterfuges or artful tricks to enhance unduly the price
of his wares in the eye of others ; he makes no false representa-
tion of any kind so as to deceive with regard to the extent of
his means ; in competing with his neighbours he will never
undervalue their merchandize or throw a slight or doubt upon
their fair standing ; he engages in no wild speculations by which
his own property or that of those confiding in him may be
jeopardized ; and when any unforeseen misfortune should
occur, he will deal alike with all who have claims upon him,
and prefer honourable poverty to dishonourable wealth gotten
by fraud, deception or concealment. In his pursuit of gain,
which in itself is both lawful and praiseworthy, he will place


unlimited confidence in the blessing of God, and transact his
business so, that in giving to each man what is his due, he will
also direct his views to the commands contained in Scripture,
and give to the poor according to his means ; support as be-
comes him the service of his Maker and the schools of instruc-
tion whence virtue, knowledge and piety are scattered abroad ;
and when the time of rest arrives he will cease speaking of his
worldly affairs and refrain from pursuing his usual avocations,
but resort with those who are of his household to the places
where the sons of Israel meet to pray, and where the holy law
is proclaimed freely and openly to all who may come. Such
a course is surely one of much peace and enjoyment, and the
certain reward will be the obtainment of life, the life of the
soul, and the possession of tranquillity and content ; for thus
says the text : " A perfect and just weight shall thou have, a
perfect and just measure shalt thou have, that thy days may be
lengthened in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."
(Deut. xxv. 15.)

Again, place a servant of God in an exalted station ; and
what will his conduct be 1 He will look upon himself as a de-
pendent upon a superior Authority, as a representative of a
higher Power, to dispense, in a limited degree because of human
weakness, justice and mercy to all who may come under his
supervision. He will not presume over those placed under his
control, and not impose unnecessary burdens upon the people ;
but knowing his accountability he will govern with moderation,
endeavour to instil true piety and submission to divine rule,
and promote peace and good-will among the children of men.
Shall I name you instances ? Then look upon Abraham ; he
called himself dust and ashes, and yet he was the first that pro-
claimed aloud the greatness of God ; and what was his reward t
not alone that the Lord made with him a covenant to be a
Protector to him and his seed after him, but the gentiles too
acknowledged their indebtedness to the peaceful shepherd, and
called him " a prince of God among them," and sought his
friendship for themselves and their descendants after them.
Then we had a Joseph who, raised to the throne from a prison,
forgot not the fear of God when they who had deeply injured
him were in his power. Not to speak of Moses who was the

VOL. in. 14


meekest of men, and to whom no other man ever yet was
equal : we may claim David, who, though he occasionally
sinned, and thus proved by his example the efficacy of repent-
ance, was nevertheless a devoted adherent to the Lord, and
called down upon himself and his house the punishment of sin,
rather than that the people over whom he had been called to
rule should suffer. And who does not remember David \ who
that is of Israel's slock but proudly claims a share in the son of
Jesse ? And not to extend our inquiries too far, let us call to
mind one more Israelite, the virtuous Josiah, who purified the
land of idolatry, repented because he was certified of the will
of God, and was the means of a renewed spirit of devotion in
Palestine. Much was he loved, and his early death was deplored
by the poet and seer, the prophet Jeremiah. And of those who
are aliens to our race we may also number many who have
done honour to the image of God which they bore. We in-
stance a Grecian Aristides, a Roman Cincinnatus, an Alfred of
England, and the good Washington, a man evidently the in-
strument of Providence to effect a great change in the opinions
and customs of men, and who with but a small sacrifice of
human life was the means of establishing a mighty state where
freedom and civilization might find a home, and Israel dwell
safely with none to be a hindrance to them or their faith. It
is thus that at the height of human power a regard to the law
will ensure the happiness of the individual as well as of those
connected with him ; and as says the Psalm : " Lord ! the king
will be glad in thy strength, and in thy salvation how greatly
will he rejoice ! He asked life of Thee, and Thou gavest it to
him length of days for ever and ever. For the king trusteth
in the Lord, and through the mercy of the Lord he shall not
be moved." (Ps. xxi. 2, 5, 8.) And say, who would not sooner
be an Abraham, the shepherd-chief and the founder of our
now scattered nation, than a Nimrod, the builder of mighty
cities, the renowned ruler of remote antiquity? a Moses
rather, whose grave is not known, than a tyrant Pharaoh, for
whose corpse a pyramid was raised as a suitable burial-place \
or prefer being a Josiah, the restorer of the worship, than a
Nebuchadnezzar who overthrew mighty kingdoms 1 And lastly,
to bring the matter closer to our own days, let us ask, who of


proper feeling does not believe the fame of Washington, who
retired from power when his services were no longer needed,
more enviable than the renown of Napoleon, who could not
rest till he had usurped the dominion over a people he pre-
tended to honour, and become the terror of many nations, who
at length combined and hurled him from a throne erected upon
the bodies of slain millions ? Is it not evident, that a ruler
governing in humility is a blessing ? and that he earns life for
himself when his race is run, and can enjoy content and peace
whilst yet on earth because he has obtained the satisfaction of his
God, and is secure in the love of those over whom he is placed ?
Upon the whole it will be apparent to you, beloved brethren,
that the way pointed out by our blessed religion is the road of
life and happiness ; that the acts it prohibits are the paths of
death and evil. If now we want to know, " How we are to
obtain life ?" it necessarily becomes our duty to investigate the
holy Scriptures to enable us to obtain the requisite information.
And what does Moses say in continuation of our text ? " In
that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to
walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, and his statutes
and his judgments : that thou mayest live and multiply, and
the Lord thy God will bless thee in the land whither thou goest
to possess it." Whoever therefore wishes .to obtain the boon
of life, must correct at every stage of his being every evil pro-
pensity he may discover within himself; he must watch his
passions, subdue his inclinations, and restrain the advice which
interest and self-aggrandizement might whisper into his soul.
At every occurrence of life he should ask himself whether the
contemplated action is in consonance with the ways of God,
whether the deed intended be one of mercy, of righteousness,
of benevolence and justice. If called upon by any circumstance
whatever to .do any thing be it great and small, he should first
consult the Bible, to discover whether or not it is agreeable to
the commandments, statutes and judgments of the Lord ; or
rather, as we are continually and unexpectedly compelled to
be active, it is evidently unavoidably necessary that we be pre-
pared beforehand, and make ourselves constantly more familiar
with our duties, both by inquiring from others and a constant
study of the word of God for ourselves, so that we may be able


to act rightly whenever the time of action may come. If then
our peace is threatened by the allurements of the world, we
shall in this manner be prepared to stand firmly, unmoved and
obedient, amidst the tumult of passion, interest and ambition.
The dazzling glitter of folly may then strive to entice us on-
ward to death ; but the steady light of God's truth will point
out the way which leads unto salvation. So also the prophet :
"I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day;
the life and the death, the blessing and the curse I have set
before thee ; but do thou choose the life that thou mayest live,
thou and thy seed."

Let no man therefore plead in extenuation of his sinning, that
he is much tempted, that he is engaged in active business pur-
suits, that the commands of the law are not suited to his taste,
that his high station exempts him from obedience, nothing of
this nature will plead his excuse for disobeying the will of the
supreme King. For if we are much tempted we should place
before us in lively colours, that momentary gratification will be
followed by long years of repentance, sorrow, and perhaps
sickness, death, and condemnation of the guilty soul ; that habits
of evil are gradually acquired from trifling and small begin-
nings ; and that at last every sin will not only make us ame-
nable to the vengeance of Heaven, but will likewise render
more difficult for us the ascent to the mountain of the Lord,
where is the holy mansion of the righteous who have done his
will. If we are engaged in active business, the greater is our
need of divine consolation. So many are the vicissitudes to
which we are hourly exposed, so many dangers continually
surround us : that we ought to have peace and life within, to
resist the blast which one time must assail us from without ;
and where can this peace be found but in obedience, and piety,
and a reliance on divine assistance, as we have shown ? If the
words of Scripture are not palatable to us, can this be an
excuse for our transgressing ? O wo ! for the sinful folly that
seeks to place itself above the balm of life ! If we have any
doubts, if our faith is feeble, let us apply ourselves with double
diligence to investigate the precepts of the law, let us prostrate
ourselves before the foot of Mercy, and ask for light to dispel
our darkness, for grace to combat our unbelief. For when


proper devotion has taken possession of our hearts, we will
readily embrace the scheme which God has laid before us, we
will choose it as the way of life, in which alone we can move
onward to happiness. And if our exalted station would instil
pride into our spirit, and mislead us to forget our accounta-
bility : then let us call to mind how soon over the mightiest in
genius and power the rod of confusion may be stretched out,
and how speedily our highest power and brightest wisdom must
yield to the conqueror of the most renowned conquerors, and
the destroyer of the wisest philosopher, the terrible but sure-
coming angel of death.

If thus now we survey the evils attending on sin and the
happiness consequent upon obedience, and call to mind that
earthly gifts will soon fade and vanish from our grasp, or we
be taken from them ; and that at last we are in the hands of
Him who gave us the law of life : we must be penetrated with
devotion and a willing spirit to yield ourselves subjects to the
yoke of the law. ^ To us the choice is given we have before
us life and the good, death and the evil ; there is no power on
earth to prevent our choosing wisely. O ! let us take up eagerly
the portion of life, and fly to the ranks of the righteous and
pious of all ages and all nations who have executed the will of
their Maker according to the best light they had obtained. Let
many, let all, resolve to unite themselves to God in the year
which is now coming unto us, let us hope, in peace, life and
prosperity ; let the youth, the man, and him who stands on the
brink of the grave seize hold of the life which is in the law ;
and when the cornet sounds in the habitations of Israel, let all
be awakened to a sense of their dependence on God, and pro-
claim aloud that they receive Him as their King and Saviour,
and seek for life and light in his presence where there are peace
and joy to everlasting !

O God ! send upon us, thy people, the good we need ; inscribe
us in the book of life, of maintenance and salvation ; and cause
the spread of righteousness to become abundant among us, and
let thy grace be with us, even as we hope in Thee. Amen.

Elul26th I
Sept. iJ4th $




Ix thy law, our God ! Thou hast written, that even in the
lands of our enemies Thou wouldst not cast us away, nor abhor
us to destroy us utterly and to break thy covenant with us ; we
beseech Thee now to fulfil thy word, and to keep alive in our
hearts the sense of our duty and the remembrance of our cove-
nant with Thee, so that we may be awakened to a knowledge
of the sinfulness of our backsliding from thy righteous com-
mands ; and do Thou, O omnipotent King ! not withhold from
us thy protection and goodness ; but protect us when enemies
assail us in their wrath and pride, and shield the worm of Jacob
from the merciless persecutor, who lies in wait for thy heritage.
And in thy mercy do Thou forgive our sins unwittingly com-
mitted, our wilful transgressions, and our presumptuous iniquity,
and wash us clean by thy grace from the pollution of rebel-
lious disobedience. Yes, do Thou purify us, that we may be
pure, and stand before Thee renovated with a new heart and
a new spirit to serve thee alone, O our God ! who art our
Father, our Creator, our Shepherd, our Guardian for ever.
Amen !


In my last address I attempted briefly to exhibit the beauties
of a holy life, the happiness attending on obedience, and the
evils consequent upon a dereliction from the path of duty pointed
out by the law. It was there shown to you that piety has so
many attractions to the rightly thinking, that it is but reasona-

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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 16 of 26)