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 4 of 26)
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ties. Divine vengeance and death were the punishment of
those who disclosed them. These doctrines probably aimed at
the explanation of the popular superstition and mythology, and
the interpretation of their true meaning. The mysteries incul-
cated the doctrine of one God, and the dignity and destiny of
the soul of man : they instructed the people in the knowledge
of nature and of the universe, and pointed out the traces of the
Deity in the beauty and majesty, the splendour and regularity
of the visible world."

It will be observed that whatever of superstition and pagan
worship belonged to these mysteries in this account are matters

VOL. in. 3


of history ; but the explanations attempted, so as to refer to
them a higher object, such as unfolding the knowledge of one
God and of the immortality of the soul, are evidently mat-
ters of conjecture only, and may be assumed to have been an
illustration attempted in modern times. But it is not my pre-
sent purpose to enter into a comparative value of paganism
farther than to exhibit the nature of prophecy as it existed
among the ancient Israelites, the predecessors of us the modern
Jews. You will have observed how carefully the higher know-
ledge was hedged round and kept concealed from the multitude
of the heathen ; the people had to be satisfied with gross super-
stition, no ray of purer light was to them vouchsafed. It need
scarcely be mentioned that all this necessarily precluded the
revelation of the existence of the Holy One, admitting even
that the few elect knew of his sole existence ; for the multitude
worshipped in those days of darkness invented absurdities
which were a personification of all the follies and vices of man
in a barbarous state, and war and petty intrigue were boldly
represented as the pastime of the Roman and other deities.
Whatever of prophecy was attempted, in order to fasten yet
tighter the chain of servitude upon the necks of suffering mil-
lions, was delivered by cunning madmen in double-meaning
words, interpreted by priests to answer their own, often sinister
views. To attempt reaching the truth was held a crime de-
serving of the most condign visitation, and wo to him who
dared to lift the veil of the Egyptian idol, death, or tortures
even worse than death, would surely have fallen to his lot.
While thus every communication of the Everlasting One was
scrupulously denied, or kept a profound mystery to the mass of
mankind : it pleased the God whom Abraham and his descen-
dants had worshipped, to announce through his chosen mes-
senger that it was his intention to descend in visible glory, yet
with no visible form, upon Mount Sinai, there to make known
to all the people those laws which He had ordained for their
government. It was, therefore, that the extraordinary display
of the Divine Majesty took place which was mentioned in the
commencement of this address, and from the midst of the fire, out
of the bosom of the thunder that shook the lofty Horeb to its base,
were proclaimed doctrines true as is the Creator himself; laws


unchangeable as is his wisdom ; and a code imperishable as is
the spirit which He has created. Ay, " And all the people
saw;" there is the great point on which we must reflect; it was
not in one spot of a distant district, not in an obscure corner of a
remote, unknown, lonely desert, not a few ignorant, perhaps
interested men ; but all the people stood by, in a position where
every thing that was transacted was done in the sight and
hearing of assembled millions, where the grandeur, sublimity,
and transcendent awfulness precluded the idea of human illu-
sion and deception. Still the Israelites stood by unscathed,
unharmed, alive, listening to the word of the Omnipotent.
Truth was inculcated to the million, superstition was over-
thrown, not to the chosen few in the recesses of a time-worn
temple, but to a new-born people of sixty myriads besides
women and children, and the strangers that were in the midst
of them, on the green oasis, near the fertilizing rivulet, on the
wide extent of the plains around Horeb. All this took place
contrary to whatever had been thought of or at all events pro-
mulged unto that day within the memory of men ; and therefore
did the Israelites say to Moses (Deut. v. 21) : " Behold the
Lord our God hath shown us his glory and his greatness, and
his voice we have heard from the midst of the fire ; this day
we have seen that God can speak with man, who yet may
live." Conviction was therefore wrought, a conviction which,
despite of sinning, despite of apostacies innumerable, despite of
persecutions bitter and agonizing, despite of allurements tempt-
ing and destructive, yet survives, that to God alone belongs the
government, that He is the sole Creator, that He alone is Sa-
viour, and that His commands are true, permanent and un-

The Unity then speaking was the same Saviour who had by
a display of his creative power redeemed the children of his
early adorer from galling servitude ; and this Saviour who had
redeemed their bodies from bondage was also the same Father
who promised to redeem their souls from earthly pollution by
their obeying his will. For what says the text of Exodus, xix.
5,6? " And now if you will hearken carefully unto my voice,
and observe my covenant, you shall be to me a treasure above
all nations, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me


a kingdom of priests and a holy people." These words can
bear but one interpretation, and this is evidently that God an-
nounced Himself as One, the Creator and Governor ; and fur-
thermore, that holiness, or the saving of the spirit from pollution
and its consequent condemnation and unhappiness, could be ac-
quired by a hearkening to his voice, and an observance of his
covenant ; no other terms, no other faith, no other condition
were stipulated ; where then, why then, should we look for con-
ditions which the words of the holy message do not require ?
But what is meant by covenant ? The covenant of circumcision
had already been given to Abraham, in consequence of which
observance the Israelites had been chosen as the people to
whom God would fulfil the promise made to this Patriarch,
that He would be their God ; and now to add to this covenant
already existing they were told the duties which they should ob-
serve in order to lay a claim to the appellation of " God's people;"
that is to say, they should observe the covenant of the Ten
Commandments, or those laws which the Almighty had or-
dained as the everlasting statutes which should govern the
people whom He had chosen. The only article of belief, from
which our creed so called is merely a fair deduction, which
was asked of them is a belief in the existence of God, the Om-
nipotent One, the Everlasting One who had delivered them
from Egyptian thraldom; but in' no way was it taught that
they should repose their hope of salvation upon the intervention
of any assistant, human or divine. For human beings must
like themselves be fallible, mortal, sinful ; and no divinity can
exist either dependent or independent of Him who is our God.
Thus instructed, thus convinced, the people felt that the living
God, let me repeat, the living God their Redeemer, had indeed
spoken to them from the midst of the fire, and that nought but
his terrors had been seen from the midst of the darkness. And
yet they had been permitted to survive ! how were the delu-
sions of paganism thus swept away ! how were the bonds of
priestcraft rent in twain by the Giver of light and reason. The
object of the descent of Sinai was thus attained, and thus was
accomplished the intention of the Lord to reveal to an adoring
people the basis of his everlasting covenant.
t Although the people had in this manner been taught that a


man might hear the living God speak, and yet be preserved
alive : still weak human nature dreaded to approach again the
great fire in which the glory shone resplendent. They were fully
alive td the truth and faithfulness of Moses, through whose in-
strumentality they had been redeemed, upheld and, so to say,
been brought to adore at the footstool of the great Father.
They therefore continued : " And now why shall we die, why
shall this great fire consume us 1 for if we again hear a second
time the voice of the Lord our God, we must die. For did
there ever exist any one human being who heard the voice of
the living God speaking from amidst the fire, as we have done,
and remained alive ? Do thou now approach, and hear what-
ever the Lord our God may say ; and do thou speak unto us
all that which the Lord our God may speak unto thee, and we
will hear and do." (Deut. v. 22-24.) This request was not
unpleasing to God ; He, on the contrary, deputed Moses on his
part likewise to be the messenger to the people, and thus was
the son of Amram made, as it were, the representative of the
people before the Lord of all, and unto them he was the me-
diator for the communication of the commandments with which
he was charged ; and in this manner was the law of Moses
handed down to us, a law which is the sequel and more par-
ticular definition of the basis of the covenant, the Ten Com-
mandments, which all Israel heard on Horeb.

When Moses now was told that his end was approaching,
that soon his body too must be yielded to the earth, that though
in his vigour at the age of sixscore years, with his eye-sight
undimmed, and his intellect unclouded, his hours were num-
bered, and that notwithstanding his earnest entreaty to see the
goodly land which was on the west side of Jordan, he should
die in the land of Moab, because he had not sanctified the Lord
at the waters of Meriba : he prayed to God to appoint a man
over the congregation who should supply the place which he
under heavenly grace had filled for the long period of forty
years. His wish was gratified, and Joshua his disciple was
endowed with the divine spirit, and guided by holy wisdom he
led on the Israelites to the conquest and the possession of the
land of Canaan. -But in addition to this the people were pro-
mised, that with the death of this one even the gift of prophecy


should not be withdrawn; but that from time to time teachers
should be sent who should speak in the name of the living God
and the everlasting King. This \vc are taught in Deut.
xviii. 15 :

: i"o n"- onan

" A prophet from the midst of thee from thy brethren, like unto myself,
the Lord thy God will raise up unto thee; unto him you shall hearken."

Let us understand well what was promised, for upon this
depends much, and it is necessary that we should be able to
show that this announcement refers to no other character than
a human prophet. In the first place, a prophet is a term inap-
propriate to the Divinity ; for who can depute Him ? in whose
name is He to speak ? who is the superior to whom He shall
be accountable ? Farther, " from the midst of thee" refers evi-
dently to a human being, one like the people, fallible, mortal,
sinful ; more upright, more devoted to the service of God, if
you will, but nevertheless, fallible, mortal, sinful. Again, " from
thy brethren ;" who can be the personage meant, if it be not
one from the seed of Jacob ? who else can be the brother of
Israelites, if it be not one of the same origin ? But the next
characteristic, " like unto myself," must banish every doubt, if
any can rest on the mind of correctly informed and correctly
thinking Israelites. Who was Moses ? was he an integral part
of the Divinity ? was he a person removed from the rest of the
world, in an exemption from sorrow, from error, from death ?
did he act of his own accord, in working the mighty deeds of
which he was the instrument, from an inherent power, or as
the delegate for the time being from the One Supreme ? Next,
for what object were the miracles performed ? to aggrandize
one ? to depress another 1 no ; only to confirm again and again
the minds of the wavering multitude in the observance of the
promulgated covenant, in short, to establish on a permanent
basis the service of the Lord of all. We may maintain farther
that not to atone, not to save, not to reconcile a sinning world
to an offended God was Moses deputed ; only to be the mouth-
piece of the Lord, and to distribute, to use a simile from out-


ward nature, as a canal enriches, from the supply of the parent
river, with refreshing waters the thirsty soil, the benefits with
which he was charged to the people to whom he had been sent,
and ultimately through these to all the sons of Adam. This then
was Moses, this his office, this his prophecy. When, therefore,
God promises one like him, a prophet descended from Jacob,
He means not a saviour, descended maternally from Israel,
whilst his father was more than man, sent to atone for the trans-
gressions of Adam's sinful race ; not one through whose blood
shed for mankind they could alone be rendered worthy of para-
dise ; but a messenger of tidings of good or evil, one deputed
like Moses was to speak in the name of his Sender, to demon-
strate the truth of the unalterable law, the unchangeable decree
of our Lord ; in short, to instruct, to lead, to admonish, to
labour in the holy calling with the zeal becoming one so emi-
nently favoured, in order that his brethren might turn, repent,
and regain the favour of their offended God, and to obtain
again through obedience the happiness which their sins have
taken from them. And continues the text : " All as thou didst
ask from the Lord thy God in Horeb on the day of the assem-
bly, saying, I do not wish any more to hear the voice of the
Lord my God, nor see again this great fire, lest I die," v. 16.
The people had asked that Moses should communicate to them
the decrees which might be revealed to him, to instruct them
in the way they ought to go ; but they did not ask, they did
not think it requisite to ask that he should become their surety
to obtain for them salvation ; inasmuch as the very law itself
was the instrument to effect this ; because this was the sole
object of its promulgation, as we are told in the words of Scrip-
ture : " That it may be well with them and their children for
ever." (Deut. v. 26.) Indeed, for what other purpose was or
could the great display have been, were it not to bestow a law,
the observance of which should confer life and peace ? When
therefore God promises a prophet on their petition and that of
the father of prophets, He evidently could mean no other than
had been asked for, a deputy to certify them of the will of the
Lord, not a son of god, to use a phrase foreign to revealed re-
ligion, to atone with his death, inflicted by the people of his


mother, for the sin of Adam, and to render man again fitted for
admission to a share of everlasting happiness.

I have deemed it necessary to be more diffuse than customary
upon the explanation of a text in the Pentateuch and to illus-
trate it more, even by an introduction of extraneous matter, than
is perhaps agreeable to you or than I have been in the habit of
doing hitherto. But observe brethren, our religion is always
assailed, by infidels on the one side, who would gladly destroy
all belief, and by zealots of another people on the other, who
wish, and endeavour to, impose a creed upon us, foreign to
our faith, and not consonant with the Bible. I therefore con-
sidered it my duty to show you as briefly as one lecture can do
it, the infinite inferiority of pagan knowledge of God, even as-
suming for it the highest tone which unbelievers ascribe to it ;
and then to prove on the other hand, that the opinions of the
people among whom we live are inconsistent with and therefore
repugnant to the wisdom and goodness of God. Not however
to controvert the belief of others or to make converts to our
mode of thinking has this been attempted ; but only to afford
those who may hear me, and whose hearts I trust the Lord will
fill with wisdom to understand and to instruct, some argu-
ments which on their face appear unanswerable, to contend
with those who may wish to invite them to rebel against the
Most High. Yes, rebellion is the word to denote the act which
we are called upon to accomplish ; we are told to forsake the
Rock of ages for a deity which our forefathers knew not, of
whom the Bible does not speak, to whom the law and com-
mandments do not even allude. Shall we yield, brethren ? are
we to be wheedled out of our hope ? shall it be said, that we have
surrendered up in times of repose, and liberty, and enlightenment,
and equality, that to which we clung, ay, clung unto death,
when persecution, when hatred, when oppression, when chains,
the rack, the scaffold were the certain doom of the people held
forsaken of God and afflicted ? Or are perhaps the arguments
now adduced stronger or more cogent when held out flatteringly
than when preached with the fire and sword ? By no means ;
the law of God as delivered to Moses, free from human admix-
ture, stands as erect at this moment as on the day of the assem-
bly at Horeb. You, Israelites ! are its guardians ; you, sons of



Jacob ! are its sentinels ; it is your inheritance ; guard it, save it,
watch it ; hold fast to its blessings, and never throw idly by the
gift which to bestow God, your Creator, came down in his glory
followed by multitudes of his holy angels, to bless therewith the
people whom he had chosen. Holy are its statutes, purify your-
selves through them ; life-bringing are its precepts, live then by
obeying them ; instructive are its ordinances, become wise there-
fore by studying them. Yes, live in and for your faith, and ever-
lasting life will be your reward ; be erect in your captivity, un-
flinching as the defenders of Heaven's best gift, and the glory
of Israel which is dimmed will shine again ; and when misfor-
tunes befal you then, as misfortunes are the trials which God
wields for the purification of nations as well as individuals, Isra-
elites will truly appear the people of God, who in Palestine and
in foreign lands remained firm and true and devoted servants of
Him who chose them because of the love He bore to their
fathers. Thus also will be fulfilled the prophecy which was
spoken by Isaiah, lii. 10: "The Lord hath bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all nations, and all the ends of the earth shall
see the salvation of our God."

Father above ! give us thy blessing, grant us the light of thy
countenance, and give us peace and security in the lands of our
captivity ; raise up also again unto us prophets who shall teach
us in thy name, and pour out thy holy spirit over all flesh, as
Thou hast promised ; all nations will then acknowledge that for
our sins we were punished, and that by thy favour we have been
redeemed. Amen.

Elul 2nd
August 23d




O THOU, who hearest prayer, to whom the sincere offering of
a contrite spirit is sweet savour, who pardonest the sinner and
forgivest transgressors against thy holy will, when they in re-
pentance return and seek thy presence : do now hear our sup-
plication, and have regard to the outpourings of the heart which
ascend to thy throne from the thousands of assemblies of Israel
in all the places of their dispersion ! Wash them clean from their
iniquity, cleanse them from their sins, that they may be made
whiter than the snow. And write them and seal them unto life
and happiness amidst the righteous who are thy beloved, and
remove from them all sorrow and affliction ; that they may
live devoted to thy service, and regain by serving Thee thy fa-
vour of which their sins have deprived them. May this be thy
will, now and for ever. Amen.


Could we but at all times know the consequences of our
contemplated actions, could we be permitted to dive into the
recesses of futurity: how often would we hesitate before
we acted, and would leave many an intended action undone.
For we frequently do that which in its consequences is per-
nicious not alone to others whom we sought to injure, but
also to ourselves, when we only thought of being .benefited by
our conduct. Appearances are so well calculated to mislead,
excitement is so apt to blind, interest will so generally deceive,
that guided by these only our whole life would be nothing but
one continued scene of rashness, its consequent misconduct, and
subsequent regret and sorrow. The wisest of men like the
most foolish is liable to the same infirmities, and if he is left to
judge for himself, he must, acting in ignorance of the conse-
quences, very often, nay, almost uniformly, choose the evil, de-
ceived by the semblance it may bear to the useful. For great,
wonderful and far-reaching as is the mind with which God has



blessed his creature, man, still it is but the field in which the
seed may be sown ; and good or evil fruits will be the product
according to the cultivation which the fruitful soil has received.
But how does the agriculturist cultivate his soil? He first en-
deavours to enrich it by mixing it with substances which boun-
tiful nature every where supplies to restore its lost vigour ; he
next ploughs in order that the loose furrows may be ready to
receive the seed which he entrusts to the bosom of the earth ;
and when the germ first appears he watches with care lest the
chill frost and the gust of the storm nip the tender shoot ; and
even when growing up to maturity he must carefully remove all
weeds and noxious undergrowth which when suffered to mul-
tiply would injure the developement of the plant by their hurtful
presence. All this done he must leave the ripening to the careful
vigilance of Him above, who sendeth down the rain to refresh
the earth and the warming rays of the sun to bring all to ma-
turity. Even so> brethren, should we strive to cultivate our
minds, and endeavour to reap a rich and blissful harvest from
the field of mental cultivation surrendered to our charge. You
must understand that in our natural state the mind is liable to
receive impressions of every kind, and it may often be said that
a wicked man might have been a good one, had he only trained
himself or been trained by his parents and guardians in a dif-
ferent manner. It evidently becomes therefore the duty of the
superintendents of children to go before them with a holy ex-
ample, in order that they may early behold the beautiful effects
of piety and uprightness ; children will soon see how happy this
renders their parents, and naturally enough they will seek to
reach the same state by emulating those whom they love, and
from whose kind care so many of their enjoyments spring, and
who generously provide for all their wants. When the child is
thus prepared, how easy is it to awaken in him feelings of grati-
tude (so to say plough in him the field for religious seed) towards
the great Giver who has enabled his bodily parents to be kind
and beneficent to him f Yes, he should be told how it is that
all the beauty of nature is beautiful through Him alone ; how
-He makes the sun to shine ; how He clothes with verdure, how
he adorns with flowers, how he blesses with fruit the field, the
meadow and the garden. That every bird that sings amidst


the new-clad brandies of spring, sings by Him inspired ; how
the cattle that low, the sheep that skip in exuberant joy on the
wide spread meadows are there by His ordaining. Tell him
when the dew-drop glows in the early rays of the rising sun,
that this resplendent diamond and this matchless brightness are
scattered from the hollow of his hand in one night over all the
earth; yes, fill his heart' with the vastness of the Creator's might;
tell him that the bright luminary which lights us by day never
rests in his course, that scarce have his beams sunk to rest ap-
parently behind the lofty mountain, when from the summit you
see them illumining the land beyond. Tell him but what needs
it for an humble mortal to recount the greatness and awful
working of his Maker ? can we reach the extent of his power ?
Still it is by words only that the sensations of our hearts can be
conveyed to others ; and when therefore the greatness of the
Everlasting One is the theme, how does the heart swell, how do
words come involuntarily, .how does our soul heave forth the

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 4 of 26)