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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 8 of 26)
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death was necessary for the edification of the world or ourselves,
and for the glory of his God.

We will now define resignation, as a close to the subject
which we have been considering to-day. Resignation con-
sists not in indifference, in a brutal disregard of life, but in the
filial deference to the will of God, because it was his plea-
sure to afflict us. It proceeds from a well-grounded belief in
the constant supervision of Providence and in his overruling
goodness, in the unwavering faith that every thing which is
sent by Him is for the ultimate happiness of mankind. It far-
ther teaches us that all sublunary things, wealth, wisdom, power,
renown, nay even life itself are fleeting, and of uncertain dura-
tion, liable to be resumed at any moment by Him who gave
them. Therefore it impresses upon the pious man the neces-
sity of a cheerful submission whenever the evil reaches him in



($$ THE RESIGNATION OF AARON.

his turn, and admonishes him to look for support from the
Author of his being to sustain him amidst his affliction. It will
light up joy within him amidst the gloom of despair, and instruct
him how to extract the grace of life from the poison of distress
and sorrow. Yes, it will incite him to robe himself with piety
and meekness, to stretch forth his hand to the fruit of the tree
of life, to the words of the law, to the precepts of the everlast-
ing King, in whose presence there is the fulness of joy, and in
whose temple all speaks glory.

You, therefore, beloved brethren ! who have entrusted to the
cold earth the bodies of your beloved ones, rejoice in the Lord !
glorify His name, despite of your affliction ! bow your heads
to the rod that chasteneth you ! and learn to enter life everlast-
ing through the gate of tribulation. In the heavenly Gilead
there is a balm, a Physician too is there ; and if you say in the
sincerity of your heart : " Blessed art Thou, O Lord ! our God,
King of the universe, who art a righteous Judge;" if you thank
Him in the hour of anguish as well as in the moments of joy ; be
assured that the balm will be poured into your wounds, and that
the great Physician will heal your bruises by his everlasting
grace ; and you will be like Aaron of old endowed with strength
to submit with resignation and calm fortitude to the decree
which has sealed the portion of your beloved ones unto unend-
ing life !

Lord above ! bless thy people ; bless them in their going out,
bless them in their coming in ; guard them whilst sojourning
on earth, and guide them to thy holy sanctuary ; purify their
hearts in order that they may serve Thee unto evermore, and
comfort them in their affliction even as the mother comforteth
her son. ' May this be thy will ! Amen.

Veadar 20th
March 25th



69
DISCOURSE VII.

THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

To Him who sitteth enthroned in the assembly of his holy
servants, in whose presence all speaks of his glory, who is al-
mighty to save, who is faithful to his covenant, and to whose
ilays there is no end, be glory and praise unto everlasting, and
may his name be blessed for evermore in the assemblies of his
people Israel, and of all sons of flesh his creatures. Amen.

BRETHREN !

Moses, the man of God, was one of those favoured mortals
who have at times been permitted to arrive at a nearer approach
to the Deity than falls to the share of other men. In other
words, he was a prophet, a messenger deputed to work out by
extraordinary displays of power the mission of his Sender. He
came back into Egypt to a people debased by slavery and a
broken spirit, subdued by fear of their powerful task-masters,
and corrupted by the evil examples, the idolatry, and the moral
depravity of their highly-refined tyrants, as a messenger merely
of good tidings, not armed with worldly greatness, not followed
by a numerous retinue to enforce his demands, but as an indi-
vidual full of a high resolve, laden with a potent spell, to essay
the fulfilment of his message without a resort to human co-ope-
ration, without the employment of earthly means. He became
the chosen instrument of Israel's redemption ; and the Passover
which we now celebrate was instituted to keep the memory of
this event ever alive and unforgotten among our latest descen-
dants. He, the outcast, the shepherd of his kinsman's flocks in
the desert of Horeb, the man diffident of his own powers, un-
able to articulate correctly, because he was heavy of speech,
he who had sought refuge among roving herds of an inhospita-
ble land, became enabled to humble unto submission the proudest
and most magnificent monarch of that age, and by divine as-
sistance was permitted to raise those, who like him were de-
scended from the noble stock of Abraham, to the enviable



70 THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFK.

distinction of being made the depositary of God's covenant. In
this manner the oppressors and the oppressed changed positions ;
thev who had formerly wisdom to bestow could now well be-

/ *

come learners from those they formerly ruled over ; and thus
were shown, to the conviction of every one who thinks, the
nothingness of human power when contending against the will
of the Supreme, and the emptiness of a mortal's knowledge
when compared with wisdom flowing directly from the Source
of truth and light.

It must have been under the influence of feelings of this kind
that Moses composed the beautiful prayer which is the nine-
tieth in our collection of Psalms. He opens with an acknow-
ledgment of the divine protection which had ever been extended
to Israel from the beginning of the world. He then alludes to
the eternity of God, and his goodness in snatching man from
the ways of sin by timely admonition and the acceptance of
repentance. He next compares the infinity of the Creator with
the perishableness of the creature, which nevertheless dares to
provoke the wrath of the Omnipotent by its reckless disregard
of his precepts. He expatiates on the brief space allotted to
man during his sojourn on earth, and the sorrows to which his
sinful nature exposes him. Again he pictures the effects of
God's indignation towards the wayward child, and the terrible
power which the All-wise has over all nature. He endeavours
to contrast the Lord's greatness with man's insignificance, not
by entering into details, but by exhibiting so to say the brief
outline which his devotional feelings have called up in his mind ;
he is lost in the immensity of the Creator's goodness and might,
and only sees refuge for mortal man in a devout fear of the
Creator, and in a reverential obedience to his precepts. He
feels that there is safety in virtue alone, and then continues :



: a"' '* o'Snn : noDn y) N33i ynn p wo*

" Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wis-
dom." Ps. xc. 12.

Man in the vanity of his heart considers himself of immense
importance in the scale of society, he fancies himself the ob-
served of all observers, as one whose fortunes stand firm, and
whose days are of enduring length. What are to him the hum-



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIKE. ~j

ble in wealth, the meek in spirit, the old in years, the decrepid
by disease ? He is their superior ; he is of lofty station, of great
wealth, high in mind, and confident in his power; he is in the
spring-time of life, and disease and its corroding pangs are to
him unknown. He therefore steps abroad lightly and full of
confidence, he is assured that evil will not reach him, and that
he is born to command, or may be that death will not have
dominion over his body. To one so completely enamoured of
self, (and there are many such,) life appears but made for the
individual alone, all must yield submissively to him, and he
can learn but little from others ; for in wisdom and in learning
he fancies himself superior to almost all who are his compan-
ions, and he therefore spurns advice and instruction as dero-
gatory to his assumed dignity. It need not be that this fancied
great being should be actually of high importance ; for alas !
the number of those is great who claim a rank which neither
talent nor station does confer on them, and equally with the
actually wise and elevated in society they rely on their own
wisdom and their own strength of arm. But be the presump-
tion of mortals based upon worldly greatness or not, it is
equally destructive to the peace of its victim, equally injurious
to the happiness of the hapless one who surrenders his mind
captive to its fascination. It warps the understanding, it closes
the heart, and lies with a deadening weight upon the spirit in
its reach after immortal glory. For no sooner does man en-
deavour to conquer his self-love with a view of acquiring know-
ledge than this incubus drowns the resolution scarcely formed,
it presents to the mind the humiliating posture of confessing
one's ignorance, it evokes pride from a thousand sources of
mortification ; and knowledge is not asked, improvement is not
attained. Objects of pity present themselves, penury holds up
her shrivelled hand, her ghastly face ; the presumptuous turns
away in disgust, for he cannot have his equanimity disturbed
by unpleasant scenes. Religion claims his attention, every
fleeting hour admonishes him that life's sands are ebbing unto
eternity ; but he heeds not, he is occupied with thoughts of self,
with pursuits of gain, with indulgence of pleasure, with schemes
of aggrandizement. Should he listen to the disquieting A 7 oice
of adm'onition which the Holy One has planted in him ? can



70 Tilt: UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

he be diverted from his high aim of worldly ambition and carnal
enjoyment by the dread of an end that to him perchance may
never come ? Assuredly not ; he continues the slave of pre-
sumption, the willing captive of an unholy desire for ease and
renown, and he remains a stranger in the house of God, an
alien to the grace of his Maker.

But wo ! wo ! man's fortune is not enduring ; a mortal's
foresight cannot save from destruction ; human wisdom is con-
stantly turned to nought ; and though we do bloom like the
opening flower in the morning, before the sun goes down we
may be cut off and left to wither. Often has this melancholy
fact been presented to our consideration, daily is our attention
arrested ; but we hide our face from the unwelcome sight, we
wish not to be disturbed by that harrowing intruder, painful
reflections upon the ills which befall others, we banish such
thoughts from our minds, simply because they teach us our
own insignificance, and point out but too surely what our end
will be. Were it that banishing thought could turn aside the
evil ; could want of reflection render our body immortal and
of ever-returning youthfulness : then indeed might we be justi-
fied in living forgetful of our end. But not thinking, not caring,
not heeding, render us not exempt from change and grief, and
the evil not apprehended will nevertheless come and fulfil its
errand. There is no stability in life, no certainty in worldly
possessions ; whilst we rejoice we are hastening unto death,
and the delights we fondly crave pass away like the vision of
the night. A thousand instances crowd on the mind as exam-
ples which could verify these remarks, and a man must have
lived without any reflection and to but little purpose whose
recollection is not stored with several instances of this nature ;
but one pre-eminently awful as a warning occurred not many
years since, and it may perhaps be well to call it up from the
mass of human sufferings which history has treasured up as
lessons and guides to our better nature.

In a port renowned for its extensive commerce and wealth
lay moored a bark of beautiful exterior and extensive dimen-
sions. Her leviathan-like length, her well-appointed machinery,
her endearing name, a name which the exile loves to dwell on,
which reminds the absent son of the roof of his father, all



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. 73

pointed her out as a desirable means to enable the returning
wanderer to reach his " home" speedily and safely. It was in
the beginning of autumn, the time appointed for our atonement,
the Sabbath preceding the great day of the forgiveness of sin ;
and sea, and earth, and sky alike appeared rejoicing in the bril-
liant light which a glorious sun was shedding on all around.
Multitudes assembled upon the deck of the vessel that was so
soon to be their only protection, under God, between life and
death, and gay faces and happy hearts looked forward to bo
ere long reunited in restored health to friends they had months
before left behind. Who thought of impending destruction ? of
a speedy death ? their path seemed even before them, and the
mother spoke cheerfully to the daughter, the brother looked
with confident anticipation on the brother, and the faithful wife
reminded gaily the husband that soon would they again behold
their happy dwelling and their beloved children. The bark
bears her power within herself, she needs not to wait for the
fickle wind or the changeful tide ; her powerful oars lash the
water as though eager for the start, like the neighing steed
paws the ground when the martial trumpet calls him to the
fight, or the tap of the drum summons him to the race ; the
hissing steam escapes from the opened valve, and the whole
fabric trembles at every joint as if impatient for the word of
command which is to release it from its tie to the earth. The
word at length is given, and away flies the bark with almost
unapproachable speed ; and from the shore saluting friends greet
the travellers with a final " God be with you," and when the
increasing distance quickly conceals them entirely from their
aching view, some commend their beloved ones to the keeping
of their Father in heaven, whilst others have full reliance upon
the skill of the builder and the excellence of the ship's crew,
and in their_ vanity and confidence of human means they resort
not to prayer.

Soon the ocean is reached ; and its surface is smooth like a
polished mirror, and the wide-spread waters are smiling all
around, and almost invite the traveller to venture abroad on
their level plain. Barely a ripple ruffles the sea, as it spangles
and glitters against the reflected light of day's bright luminary,
and onward hies the bark toward her destined haven with



VOL. III.-



74 THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

almost unobstructed velocity. But lo! the treacherous element
assumes a different aspect ; the winds are loosened from their
treasures ; and the curling waves soon proclaim that the de-
ceitful calm is broken. Now the mariner exerts his skill, he
fears a rocky shore, he looks with dread alarm to the gloom
which marks but too plainly where destruction would await
him. Onward yet staggers the doomed craft, as if conscious
that upon her depend the lives and fortunes of many a throb-
bing heart ; she ploughs gallantly through the angry billows ; the
sinking hopes of the crew are almost re-animated in the fond
expectation that the fury of the storm will soon abate; but,
hark ! the crash of timbers tells that the fabrick which human
hands have so skilfully joined is yielding itself to the blast, to
the strength of God's serial messenger. Still the progress is
onward, the element of fire with which the bark is armed yet
battles with the floods without, and though crippled she never-
theless keeps on her way ; but this last refuge also ,is soon taken,
and the living fire is quenched by the rising waters w r hich steal
into the wreck ; and the last hopes of its precious freight are
extinguished too. It is night ; the day is the third from their
departure ; the hour the close of the Day of Atonement ; and
many who belong not to the seed of Abraham have unwillingly
spent a day of fasting and humiliation in anxious dread because
of their peril. And some children from the house of Israel
are also there, and see the working of their God in the storm
and the billows, their hearts subdued because of his might.

The vessel now drifts shoreward, bereft of control over her
motion, at the mercy of the storm and waves. The timid
maiden claims the prelection of the manly youth who stands
mute beside her ; the wife clings in despair to her husband, as
though he could save her ; the daughter appeals to the helpless
mother, and man asks vainly the aid of a fellow-mortal. But
hark again ! what betokens this crash? The vessel has struck,
she remains immovable, her onward course is checked by the
reef on which she lies. Billow after billow strikes the wreck,
piece by piece is every joint dissevered, and one long shout of
wailing tells that the work of death is done. A hundred human
beings are engulfed in one instant of time; and by the friend
the maiden sinks; wife and husband linked together go down



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. 75



into the deep, and mother and daughter, who were loving in
life are not separated in death. Few only are left to battle
with the sea upon detached planks and broken timbers, fewer
yet reach the shore in the gloom of the night exhausted and
benumbed, and are left living witnesses of the goodness of that
Providence which rescued them from impending danger, which
spared their lives when so many others were taken. Many
families look anxiously forward for the return of a father, a
husband, a mother, a son, a daughter, a sister and a brother ;
but these come not, and no more in this world will they meet
the beloved, not even will their eyes be permitted to look upon
the face of the dead which the ocean will not give up till the
graves are opened unto everlasting resurrection ; and long will
many a bereaved household dwell with grief upon the recollec-
tion of the wreck of the HOME.

It was not, brethren, for the purpose of telling you a tale of
wo, that I have called your attention to this sorrowful recital ;
but only to ask you to let it awaken in you reflections upon the
uncertainty of your earthly existence. Would the many that
perished on that melancholy occasion have ventured upon the
deck of the frail vessel which became their grave, had they
known their danger ? and yet they ventured thither full of con-
fidence, calculating with certainty to meet their friends in the
space of three or four days. If any one had called upon them
before their embarkation and admonished them to repent of their
wickedness, because in less than a week they would be sum-
moned before the great Judge of all : would they have heeded ?
would they not have called the preacher an alarmist ? a false
prophet of evil? Still their security would have been imaginary,
and their deferred repentance been no safeguard against the
evil which had been decreed. Our end does approach, our
death will come, whether our life has been well or ill spent ;
the dissolution of the connection between body and soul is the
common fate of the good and the wicked, of him who feared
God, and of him who did not serve his Maker. But how dif-
ferent is the condition of the one from that of the other ? The
servant of God sees his end draw near, and his stay is in the
Lord; with his last expiring breath he sanctifies his Creator; he
rejoices in the coming reunion, and he breathes forth his spirit



70 THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

with " The Lord is One" upon his tongue in a perfect reliance of
a better world, where there is no pain, no sorrow ! The sinner,
however, stands upon the threshold of eternity in doubt and
trembling ; he fears to quit this life, because he has no hope of
joys hereafter ; his unwilling spirit trembles as it is summoned,
and the feeble prayer, haply too late essayed, dies away un-
uttered amidst the agonies of a violent death or the pain of
helpless maladies. Do we, however, attend well to this con-
sideration ? is our conduct such as reason would ask ? do we
choose wisely ? are we servants in the house of the Lord, or
are we unwilling and but occasional attendants ? how does the
account of our sins stand with which our soul is loaded? Alas!
we regard but rarely our perishable state, and we act as though
we were immortal, or if mortal, unaccountable. We venture
heedlessly upon the bark of life, we are impatient to commence
a brilliant course, we wince under restraint, and trusting to the
apparent strength and security of our position we hasten upon
the broad expanse which the world opens to our charmed
view. How gay and bright every thing appears in the hey-
day of youth ! how unruffled, how calm does the ocean of life
seem to our sight ! we dream not there is danger, we heed not
the quicksands and the rocks which beset our career. Speak
to us of caution, we scorn the thought ; remind us of the duties
of religion, we laugh at the folly as we term it of doting age,
at the superstition of frosty years; we deem ourselves wise
above the ancients, more intelligent than were our fathers
before us; we wish not to know the law of God, our own
reason we think sufficient to guide us rightly, we care not to
bow at the altar where our brothers worship, for we ask not
heavenly aid to bless our undertakings. It is well ; God is
long-suffering, He punishes not instantly the sinner in his trans-
gressing, and years roll on, and we imagine that we have fairly
proved : " That we can tempt God and yet escape." But our
calm Is deceitful, the apparent beauty and elegant proportions
of the bark in which we have trusted are delusive, and the storm
of adversity will assail us ere we heed its approach. We may
struggle a while against the contending billows ; we may essay,
in our confidence upon our own strength, to avoid the destruc-
tion which we see impending ; but in vain ! we contend against



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. 77

One far too mighty for our feebleness ; we strive against the
decree of unerring Wisdom, and lo ! the fire of our resistance
is quenched by the accumulating ills that beset us, and our bark
lies broken upon an inhospitable shore, and we are driven from
our security, floating so to say upon some portion of a wreck
at the mercy of the waves which are curling and wreathing
over our devoted heads.

Happy indeed would we be, if amidst adversity we would
return and seek the Lord and his strength ; if we would learn
to break the stubbornness of our hearts when chastisement has
awakened our attention. But unfortunately our memory of
things once endured is very short, the effect of calamity as an
improver of the heart is soon blotted out; and as the ship-
wrecked mariner, who alone survives of an entire crew, will
immediately, on his wound being healed, again brave the
treacherous main : so do we throw off the recollection of suf-
ferings when healing has been vouchsafed to our sorrows, we
sin anew, unmindful of the Power that fain would teach us
wisdom, like Pharaoh of old who transgressed again when he
was no longer terrified by the unusual voice of the thunder, the
flashes of lightning, the murderous hailstones, and the sweeping
rain. Yes, the flood of adversity is past, and the good resolu-
tion we had formed is also vanished ; we go on as we were
wont to do, and we stand with a bold front, daring sinners, in
the presence of the merciful Creator, we brave afresh his ter-
rors, forgetful that though of unending kindness He is an up-
right Judge who suffers no evil to go unpunished. Whilst
suffering, we perceived as it were dimly that we are mortal ;
whilst calamities assailed us we yielded that our power is not
all-sufficient ; whilst the weight of sorrow pressed heavily on
our spirit we discovered that our reason can become clouded
and uncertain. But now we presume again to tread ambition's
path heedless of our end ; we dive into business speculation, as
though we could command success ; we are again confident in
our wisdom, we again press onward, transgressing the wisdom
of God, relying on our own judgment as infallible. What else
remains for a merciful Providence but to afflict us again and to
renew the admonition which w r e once neglected ?

You will thus see, beloved brethren, that the calamities of life

7*



78 THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

are the messengers of peace, the monitors of better things which
are to fit the spirit for a happier and better life. Mercies make
us but more confident of our own prowess, more relying on our
own wisdom ; but adversities prove to us the nothingness of all
we cling to ; the ills of life strip it of its delusive colours, and point
out to us where our safety lies, where the haven is prepared to
offer us refuge against the fury of the storm. Therefore says
Moses in his prayer : " Thou lurnest men to contrition, and
sayest, Return ye children of men ;" meaning that the dispen-
sation of woes will lead us to offer the sacrifice of a contrite



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 8 of 26)