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 17 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 17 of 26)
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ble to expect that every well-informed person would as a mat-
ter of choice become pious. Yet the fact cannot be denied,
that piety is not loved by all, and that religion is more praised
than practised ; or in other words, that mankind fail to reach
happiness, and reap misery, temporary and lasting, as the re-


ward for their actions. It would appear almost, that, were we
to take an account merely of the outward pursuits of mankind,
they had no idea whatever of the importance of a religious life,
so much are they engaged in pursuits foreign to piety, and in
occupations which seem to absorb all the faculties and energies
with which they have been endowed by the God of nature. If
God now were to judge as men judge, if He were to condemn
as mortals condemn, who of all the living could hope for mercy ?
For do we not daily see how sin is heaped upon sin, iniquity
upon iniquity, rebellion upon rebellion ? We crave the evil that
is prohibited, even if we do not practise it ; and whenever the
least excuse can be discovered for transgressing, we yield to
our craving and openly contemn the divine commandments.
This is the course of folly, of forgetfulness of our duties which
so many of us pursue, in which nearly all incur the guilt of sin.
Is there one now who has never sinned, in thought, in word, or
action ? Who can say, that his heart is pure from deceit, his
mouth from wicked words, his hands from sinful deeds 1 Truly,
we see the good but choose the evil ; the road of life is clearly
pointed out to us in the law, but we walk in the path of death.
We surrender ourselves slaves to our unholy desires, and close
our ears against the admonition which the words of Scripture
constantly address to us. We say, therefore, that if God were
to judge us as mortals judge, no one would be justified, no one
could hope to see the life everlasting. But He is mindful of
our frame, He remembers that we are dust, and will not cut
off the sinner utterly although his deeds merit visitation. On
the contrary He gives him opportunities to again merit favour,
and to retrieve the errors he has committed. In other words,
the sinner has received a remedy by which he can again obtain
divine mercy : this remedy is " repentance." Let us explain :
every act which we do, be it good or bad, deserves a return ;
and for every deed of our life we shall accordingly be judged
by our God and Creator, and receive such a doom as our con-
duct will have merited. If our good actions therefore exceed
our sins, we shall receive blessing and happiness as the reward
for our past life ; but if our sins are more numerous than our
virtues it is evident that we ourselves can expect nothing else
than condemnation ; for we have voluntarily assumed the re-


sponsibility of choosing sin and its natural concomitant, retri-
bution, inasmuch as nothing compelled us to transgress but our
own evil inclination, and because we might have lived vir-
tuously if sin had not led us willing captives into the snares of
unbelief and iniquity ; and consequently we cannot complain
if we have to taste the bitter fruits of our unwise choice.

If now there were no atonement provided for the sons of
man, there could evidently be no happiness, since all have more
or less sinned, and sinned voluntarily, disregarding wilfully the
law of life ; and because but few of us, if any, can lay claim
to a great amount of virtuous deeds which would outweigh the
load of sin with which their consciences are burdened. It was
therefore consonant with divine wisdom to appoint so to say
checks upon our actions, and to ordain reasons which would,
from association, make it the duty of every one to institute annu-
ally an inquiry into his past conduct, to see if something does not
require alteration and improvement ; if there is not some trait
or quality in his character which is not in accordance with the
religion of the Lord. In this then we have another cause of
thankfulness, in that the law was not only given to point out
the way of life, but that it also contains constant reviving
springs, which are to fill up the waste of the precious element
caused by the avocations, the distractions, the bustle, and the
confusion incident to our peregrination through the mazes of
our terrestrial existence. We all know how exciting are the
passions and the desires which the Creator has implanted in us
for wise purposes, in order to insure the continuance of the
human race, and to give us incentives to labour and exertion.
But how would it stand with many, if not all of us, were there
no inducement or opportunity given to watch the operation of
these desires, and to see that they do not lead to vice and im-
morality, or to arrest their course if we discover that they have
led us astray 1 Would we not hurry on to destruction, slowly
perhaps at first, but with an accelerated downward speed, if
once we had yielded to their sway ? How wise therefore is
the provision of our law in giving us remedies for both these
dangers, by assigning us a season of repentance every year,
and by teaching us at the same time that repentance is effica-
cious and peace-making between the sinful creature and the


justly offended Creator. Ceremonies therefore were instituted,
and days of abstinence from labour, one of which is the great
solemn day for general humiliation, appointed, to awaken the
attention of all Israel, and to admonish them, each and collec-
tively, to search into their past conduct, to sift their actions, to
accuse themselves of every wrong they may discover, and to
resolve on an amended course of life for the future. The only
obstacles to such a procedure are ignorance and stubbornness,
and neither is of sufficient weight to excuse a continuance in
the path of sin. Let us examine the first difficulty, ignorance.
Says the sinner, " There is nothing wrong in what I do; I fol-
low the bent of what I consider right, and surely my conscience
would approve of nothing that is wrong, and 1 feel no com-
punctious visiting of the inward monitor ; my sleep is sound,
my reflections by day are not disturbed by a consciousness of
sin ; consequently the course I am pursuing cannot be displeas-
ing in the sight of Heaven." It is, brethren ! presumption like
this which keeps the greater number of those who transgress
the law in the road to perdition which they are pursuing, and
this simply because they will not see the truth which is to them
accessible no less than to the righteous. But what man who
understands properly the operations of the human mind will
say, that a tranquillity of conscience in religious matters is a
test of innocence ? If we do not inform ourselves of our duties,
how can the conscience be awakened to rebuke us if we ne-
glect them ? For instance, if a youth at the age of twenty were
for the first time to see his father, and not be informed of the
relationship subsisting between him and the person before him :
is it possible that he would show him the obedience due to a
parent ? or would you suppose that there exists a mysterious
connection in nature which would at once reveal to the one
owing duty the person to whom such duty should be paid ?
Most assuredly the uninformed debtor would pretermit the obe-
dience, till he is certified that it is indeed his father who claims
the same. Or suppose a young man who has from his infancy
been trained among a band of thieves to steal or commit other
violations against the social peace ; what do you think are his
sensations when he abstracts another's property ? Certainly not
those of a consciousness of sin, although he may have the fear


of detection before him, knowing as he must that no one likes
to lose any thing once in his possession ; and if such a person
is apprehended, he exhibits not unfrequently what we com-
monly call a hardened disposition, because we cannot imagine
how one can help expressing contrition when he has violated
his neighbour's rights. But the truth is, the moral perception
of wrong has never been awakened in the delinquent, it is igno-
rance which hardens him, and mere punishment arbitrarily in-
flicted will most assuredly fail of producing reformation. If it
were necessary we could adduce a hundred examples, and vary
them at pleasure to prove that the human conscience must be
awakened, trained and instructed to make it a fit arbiter of our
actions; it is in short a capacity 'in our soul which, like all
other capacities, would lie dormant and useless if not called
into life by proper education. If therefore we are ignorant of
the Bible, if our education has been of that nature which takes
no cognizance of our accountability to a higher tribunal than
human authority : how is it possible that we should be correct
judges of our own conduct ? our conscience, it is true, does not
accuse us ; but is it not because it is uninformed, torpid, asleep ?
Our repose at night is calm and undisturbed ; not because we
have done no wrong, but simply because we are not alive to
its existence ; our reflections by day are not disturbed by a con-
sciousness of sin, only because we are not informed of the acts
that are sinful. If now a man who proclaims the word of sal-
vation to his brother were to admonish him to beware of the
wrath that is impending, would he be properly answered that
the sinner's conscience does not accuse him of wrong ? Assu-
redly not ; for he would be compelled to advance that the sin-
ner's ignorance produces this self-satisfaction, even if this be
real and not assumed, in order to excuse unto men fallible like
himself his misdeeds. He would tell the sinner that he ought
to search the word of God, compare every action by that uni-
versal standard of righteousness, and look with humility into
his past conduct to see whether his conscience has not been
burdened with many a deed, for which he has rendered himself
accountable. If one were farther to say, that his parents before
him had done as he does now, that he has never been taught
to look upon the like things as sinful : what can such excuse


avail ? We will admit, for argument's sake, that his ignorance
hitherto might perhaps plead an extenuation for him ; but he is
no longer ignqrant as soon as his attention has been called to
his sinfulness. He before knew not that he offended, and his
sin was therefore unconscious ; he was not accused by the in-
ward monitor, because the monitor himself was ignorant ; but
now conscientiousness has been awakened, a new light has
been kindled in his breast, and guilt henceforward will attach
to every departure from the right marked out by the Bible.
For so we read in Ezekiel iii. 19 :" Yet if thou warn the
wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his
wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity ; but thou hast delivered
thy soul." It thus will appeaV that perseverance in any wicked-
ness after instruction has been given is not, cannot be availing
to save the soul from death. But let the transgressor open his
ears to instruction, let him alarm his conscience when he listens
to the admonition that divine grace permits to be addressed to
him ; and surely he will accuse himself of the wrong he has
done, though before then he was not aware of sin, not alive to
iniquity ; and abhorring the filthiness of his ways he will hasten
to the waters of cleanliness, even the word of God and his holy
spirit, and endeavour to wash away all the pollution which
adheres to him, and make himself a new heart, and become a
member of the brotherhood of those who fear the Lord, and
have a regard to his name. This change of conduct will have
also the farther effect of producing a thirst for more extended
instruction in the ways of the Lord and his law ; it will incite
the regenerated son of man to lay up a treasure, whence he
may at all times draw sustenance to invigorate himself when
temptation and opportunity to transgress again present them-
selves ; and as formerly his ignorance made him torpid and
unconscious, his new zeal and increased knowledge will render
him quick in perceiving any and every remissness in the fulfil-
ment of his duties ; and he will no longer boast of that hardy
indifference which is nothing else than a living moral death,
but will acknowledge that he now fears to offend, that he now
dreads incurring divine wrath ; yet that withal he experiences
more real tranquillity, more real joy whenever an act of virtue is
accomplished ; for he now bears within him the conviction that


he is within the operation of the moral life which is alone found
in the words, and in the obedience to the commands, of the law
of our God I

On former occasions we have examined the causes of sin,
in so far as they produce the actions which are contrary to
the commandments. It is not requisite at present to go again
over the whole ground, and we will confine ourselves merely
to the obstacle which " stubbornness" lays in the way of a
thorough reformation. It is a notorious fact that habit makes
us forget either the good or bad qualities, either physical or
moral, of any thing which is placed within our sphere of action
or enjoyment. The sensation becomes blunted by constant re-
petition, till at length we lose sight of the very nature of the
thing before us. The delicate ear of the musician will detect
errors and jarring discords in the sounds which delight the un-
initiated. The latter has enjoyed his false melody so long, that
he wishes no better ; the former however is at once aware of its
blemishes, and he therefore justly condemns it, and wonders how
such a mass of inconsistencies can please any human ear.
With regard to taste, even with entire nations, the difference is
equally great. The food which shocks many as absolutely dis-
gusting, has been converted by habit into a delicacy to many
others. The same is the case with dress and ornament. Some
forms subject themselves to pressure which constant practice
alone can render tolerable ; and some again require a large su-
perfluity of garments, which others would, as they think justly,
consider a useless burden and injurious to the free and active
use of the limbs. But in the moral world habit has no less an
affect on the mind. Whatever we have practised from our in-
fancy will become natural to us, and we will often wonder how
it is that any one can think even of differing from the views we
have taken. Any act, when first we do it, may appear either
ridiculous, or superfluous ; but if we repeat it, we shall con-
stantly feel less of strangeness in it, and we shall lose at last all
sense of its either being a matter of merriment or extrava-
gance. The first transgression accordingly which we permit
ourselves causes doubtlessly a severe struggle and self-accusa-
tion ; but if we repeat it often, we by degrees will cease feeling
the like unpleasant sensations to mar our unnatural enjoyments-.


When a man has therefore for a length of time been sinning,
he has no longer any pleasure in the pursuit of virtue, because
this course would deprive him necessarily of the things which
habit has rendered requisite to his perverted taste ; or because
it will impose on him duties the exercise of which is foreign,
and, therefore, unpalatable to him. He for this reason perse-
veres ; not because he is ignorant that the Bible condemns his
conduct, but because he is used to sinning. Now it so happens
that most men are either too indolent to institute a rigid self-
examination, or are too proud to confess that such a search has
resulted in convicting them of guilt. They at all events profess
outwardly that they have perceived nothing in their conduct
deserving of blame, or which should be altered. They therefore
continue to do as they are wont, and pass their days in life-de-
stroying follies. But could this pride, or this pride and indo-
lence combined, be once humbled, could the creature but once
acknowlege in secret before God and in public before men, that
the past acts were habits of sin and iniquity ; and could the
sinner, thus confessed, but once be brought to break off from
unlawful pleasures and seek to find delight in the exercise of
religious duties, and could all Israel, could all mankind be in-
duced to embrace the happiness resulting from piety and devo-
tion : how readily would a thorough reformation be effected in
every individual, and how rapidly would the empire of sin be
banished from the face of the earth !

So many appeals are addressed to us to act after this manner;
so much love is expressed by Scripture towards sinful man ; so
much regret is recorded about the death of the unrighteous :
that one would think that every Israelite would gladly be pious,
or, if he has offended, endeavour to merit a return of divine
favour. But alas ! the human heart is too proud, habit is too
inveterate, passions are too dominant, for us to humble our-
selves and to cast off the evil of our ways ; we cling with a
bold front to iniquity, and will not listen to the voice of admo-
nition that is addressed to us. But why should we remain
stubborn ? what is there so lovely in sin ? what so absurd in
piety, that we should choose the first and reject the other? why
should not the dust of the earth stand humbled before the
Creator? why should the child not fly for protection to the

VOL. in. 15


everlasting Father 1 Brethren ! there is nothing disgraceful in
our publicly confessing that we have acted unlawfully, if we
are sincere in our regret ; there is nothing humiliating to ac-
knowledge that we condemn our past conduct, when we feel a
conviction of sin. Let us reflect, that the disgrace is not in the
change but in the perseverance in doing wrong; that the humi-
liation now endured before those equally mortal and fallible
with ourselves is infinitely less than if our guilty spirit should
stand abashed before the unending One, with all its sins un-
atoned, with all its transgressions unconfessed. But even the
mortification of confessing by a change of conduct that we
thought ourselves hitherto in the wrong will soon lose all its
disagreeable effects, if we but resolutely determine to disregard
the sneers and malicious remarks of our associates. Let them
say, that we are grown wonderfully pious, that we are be-
coming saints, that we are no longer pleasant companions;
what do we suffer by this? Certainly not any injury which is
worth minding ; it is merely a little ridicule, perhaps a little
pleasant raillery, which we can easily silence, if we candidly
state that such jests are unpleasant to 'us, since we are sincere
and serious in the new mode of life we have adopted. And
grant, that we should all the remainder of our days be exposed
to the jeers of the ungodly, or to the taunts of our friends who
may perhaps be inclined to censure our strict observance and
to wonder at the great change that has taken place within us :
admit that such taunts may have a disagreeable effect upon a
sensitive and irascible mind in seeing its best acts so misinter-
preted and its motive so falsely explained : still is even this more
readily borne than the constant self-accusation of the sinner
when his attention has been awakened ; and may not the un-
charitable remarks of a selfish world be the requisite temptation
which our new-born zeal has to encounter ? Moreover, is not
virtue always exposed to the same trials ? do not those who
never grievously sin meet with similar provocations in their at-
tempts at leading a godly life? What reason then has the sin-
ner to dread these annoyances more than they who have never
sinned, if such can be found ? He will say perhaps, that the
latter are so used to obedience that it costs them no efforts to
persevere in righteousness, and that they are easily able to dis-


regard the jibes of their friends. But this is not altogether
true. No one is so righteous that he is in no danger of falling ;
no one is so perfect but he feels unpleasantly if he is exposed to
detraction and ridicule ; it is easily said that one has a hearty
contempt for malice and slander ; but I fear that but few in-
deed actually are so far removed above human frailty as to
feel really the contempt they express. In short, it is as much
the duty of the sinner to look towards the law of God for in-
struction undeterred by the shame of appearing self-accused
before the world, as of the always righteous to be mindful, and
to persevere in the exercise of, the duties enjoined in the same
law. And if therefore we wish truly to escape condemnation
for the sins we have done : we must remove the hardness of
disobedience from our soul, expose our shame, if need be, before
all the world, and pursue the way of righteousness just as we are
taught in the words of salvation. Let us consider moreover at
whose request, yes request is the word, we are thus to bid de-
fiance to the world ! It is not a man who calls us to him, not
a mortal whose power is limited, whose days are brief; but our
God, the Everlasting, the Omnipotent, the Omnipresent. It is
He who appeals to our better judgment, to our love for his
favour, to our fear of his power. He tells us to make ourselves
familiar with his precepts, and to throw off our stubbornness;
He appeals to us to change our actions if there is evil in them,
and to return unto the good which we have forsaken. And we
are promised, that such an open profession will meet its reward,
in the return of the grace of the Lord which we have lost by
our transgression. For thus says the prophet :

invm iruop iNsom 'n n**
inarm 'n hx wi vnatrno pK BJO i:m

: 'T 'i n": rrjw ; niSoS HST O WnS

" Seek ye the Lord, while He may be found, call ye upon Him, while He
is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his
thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord and He will have mercy upon
him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon." Isa. Iv. 6, 1.

In these few expressive words the whole scope of repentance


is clearly laid before us. " Let the wicked forsake his way ;"
suppose a traveller has strayed from the proper road into a
barren trackless desert, where death threatens him at every
step he takes ; would he be wise to stop where he is, or to con-
tinue his perilous journey despite of all dangers which surround
him, if a benevolent sage were to appear and offer to lead him
to the secure highway in a fertile district whence he might
reach the haven of his destiny in peace and safety ? We would
assuredly say that his blood be on his own head, if he disregards
the admonition and refuses to be led by his kind conductor.
Just the same is the appeal to the sinner. He has strayed from
the road of the law which is the way to salvation; he has de-
viated into the howling desert of transgression, which is unpro-
ductive of contentment and charged with death and destruction,
and every act which he perpetrates when under the dominion
of sin is plunging him deeper into the abyss of hopeless degra-
dation. But he is met in this miserable condition by the grace
of the Ancient of days, who addresses him in endearing terms
of love through the words of Scriptures and the advice of the
friends of man, the teachers of the word, and the pious asso-
ciates whom no one is altogether without, to return to the high-
way of salvation in the law which, as we have said, is the
course of life : what should he do, but seize the favourable op-
portunity which is offered him, and unite himself to the God
from whose service he has strayed ? " And," says the prophet,
" (let) the unrighteous man (forsake) his thoughts ;" yes, if we
are anxious to be secure in our renewed pursuit of righteous-
ness, we must not resort to half-measures, to say " we have re-
pented for one day, we are now again in favour with the Lord."
This course is but a mockery of Providence ; He cannot be sa-
tisfied with an attempt to defraud Him by a pretended conver-
sion, by an evident exhibition of an ephemeral penance which
is forgotten when the day has closed. But how are we to re-
pent ? Even as the prophet says, by first pretermitting our sin-
ful deeds and then purifying our iniquitous thoughts. We must
abhor sin altogether, we must feel that we are unworthy through
transgression in the sight of God, and that through obedience
alone, continued during the remainder of our life, we can be

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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 17 of 26)