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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 9 of 26)
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heart to our Maker, who then will be graciously ready to
receive back into his paternal embrace the returning children
of men, though they have grievously sinned. It is in his dis-
pensations that God speaketh to us, and well it is for us if we
have arrived at such a state of holiness and humility that, like
the bee which extracts honey from every flower, we are able to
learn wisdom and a lesson of piety from every punishment
which is sent to try our constancy. Therefore also continues
the prophet: "Teach us to number our days;" meaning, he
prays that God may make us sensible of our perishable nature,
that He may instil in our mind the conviction that our days are
numbered numbered and limited by the indisputable will of our
Creator, and that all our striving, all our working, all our
reaching after greatness, all our hastening after wealth, all our
lust for renown, will be cut short by the enemy that lies in wait
for us unperceived upon every step we take, ready at all mo-
ments to bear us hence whenever we are summoned. Yes, he
earnestly entreats for grace to assist us to humble ourselves as
becomes mortals before the undying One ; and he adds therefore
" That we may apply our hearts to wisdom." Does he mean
that worldly wisdom which consists only in an accumulation of
ideas derived from others, a great and general knowledge of
the structure of various languages, a comprehensive under-
standing of scientific things, or that peculiar perception of
merely tangible advantages which enables the merchant to
dispose of his wares to the best advantage, and stimulates man
to try schemes for the acquisition of wealth ? By no means ;
for such wisdom, useful though it be in its own peculiar province,
is not that which will assist us to number our days, it is not



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. 79

that wisdom which can teach us how to make our peace with
our Maker. The wisdom for which Moses prayed is the
knowledge of our own relation to God, is the clear perception
of the duties which it behooves the creature to assume as the
child of the great Parent. As we read elsewhere (Job xxviii.
27) : " And He said to man, Behold ! to fear the Lord is
wisdom, and to eschew evil is understanding." If we are
endowed with this wisdom, if our understanding has reached
this point of perfection, we can then look upon life with correct
views; all our acts will then be for the glorification of the Lord,
and even our daily toil which we pursue for the support of our
bodily functions will then have a holy object, that is, we will
labour in our calling cheerfully, willingly, relying upon the
mercy of God to prosper our undertaking as He may deem
best, and we will then not repine if our well-matured schemes
fail to answer our expectations. This wisdom will teach us to
moderate our desires, it will enable us to restrain our passions,
and to confine all our actions within the limits of the law of
God. It will assist us so to number our days, that looking upon
each of them as a step nearer to dissolution, we shall become
anxious to mark it with a virtuous deed which is to speak for
us upon the book of memorial before the Lord of those that
fear Him and think upon his name ; in order that when our
race is run there may not be a single day which could accuse
us of having neglected to offer on it an acceptable deed to the
Deity.

But, brethren, is this our conduct ? does not many a day pass
in utter forgetfulness of God's holy law ? do we not offend
daily in our body, in our possessions, in our spirit? How many
of us there are who regard not the Sabbath and the festivals,
who continue their labours on the days when labour is sinful,
not minding the commandment which bids them rest, because
the wisdom of God has so ordained it ! They imagine that
their wealth will be increased by constant toil, by unceasing
attention to business ; the Sabbath therefore comes, ushering in
rest and joy to the servants of the Lord, but it brings no rest,
no joy to them ; the house of prayer receives the devout wor-
shippers, but they are away ; they bear publicly burdens from
their houses on the Sabbath ; their places of business are open ;



80 THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

the usual enticements to the passers by are exposed ; their
workshops are not closed, their tools and implements of trade
are not unemployed, and they restrain not their feet on the day
of rest, but they pursue journeys, attend to their avocations,
and will not put faith in the words of their God wh6 promises
to bless their repose from bodily labour on the day devoted to
his service. How many excuses are framed for such iniquity !
If one is poor he avers that he cannot live without being
constantly employed ; and if our substance is great, and our
engagements extensive, then we cannot spare the time, we
would be too great losers by an obedience to one of the Ten
Commandments. So fruitful in inventions is our sinful pro-
pensity ! They therefore among us who place so high a value
upon the world and its allurements will find excuses enough to
satisfy themselves for their wrong-doing. But let them beware !
They deceive not by such miserable pretences the Searcher of
hearts; He will judge of their doings according to their merit:
and their neglecting his precepts, their pretended unbelief of
their necessity and usefulness will not screen them from responsi-
bility. Yet men say, that they see no evil in their conduct; whilst
they oflend at the recurrence of the appointed time, and but rare-
ly does any special occasion summon them to acts of worship,
to a presence in the house of prayer ; whilst they are strangers
so to say in the mansion of their Father, and the food of life,
which He so abundantly, so bountifully supplies, they will not
receive, they will not taste. Religious wisdom is preached to
them, truth appeals to their understanding ; but they turn a deaf
ear, they will not listen. Is this the course of wisdom 1 do you
call that numbering your days ? The rather it seems to say,
that you think yourselves enduring, immovable to eternity,
forgetful that you are but of yesterday, and will speedily return
to your native dust.

Again in the. pursuit of carnal indulgence, in the use of for-
bidden food, in the revelling in benumbing drink, how do we
miss the goal of our being ! We will not restrain desires till
they have degenerated into sin; we will swallow whatever food
our palate may crave; we will drink our fill, because the wine
looks so tempting. And this you call rational worship ? Is the
service of the desires a thing so well becoming accountable



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. gj

humanity? You forget that you live only through God's bounty;
and consider that what his law declares good and innocent is
alone right and allowable; there is nothing right which this law
declares wrong, there is nothing allowed which its precepts
prohibit.

In our possessions too we often offend. We are commanded
to love our neighbour like ourselves ; and still we fail in obe-
dience to this primary injunction. We expect justice, honesty,
and fair-dealing from others ; we blame them if they injure us ;
we are wroth if our just demands are not attended to, if our
just dues are withheld. But we do not regard others' right in
the same point of view ; we are overreaching, cunning in our
commerce with our fellows, and apt to trample on their rights,
and to remain deaf to their remonstrance. Self is uppermost,
neighbourly love and fellowship disregarded. The demon of
gain, the unclean spirit of injustice reign triumphant in our
souls ; and we will not hearken to the poor when he suppliant
appeals to our bounty, we will not do justice to the orphan, the
widow, and the stranger, because there is no one to plead in
their behalf. And is this wisdom ? shall we number our days
with deeds of avarice, of cruelty, of oppression, of fraud, of
iniquity, of injustice? shall such be the works which are to open
to us the gates of paradise ?

In our spirit too. How often does devotion yield to a re-
bellious thought ! do we not many a time arraign the justice of
the Lord ? If any misfortune comes to our lot, we imagine
ourselves ill-used ; does not success attend all our plans, we
regard ourselves as overlooked by Providence. Then too are
the sins of pride, arrogance, overbearing conduct to equals and
inferiors, disobedience to our parents and teachers, avarice,
covetousness and the contempt of lawful authority; all these
prove that our soul is not untainted with the leaven of rebellion
against the divine rule; that we imagine ourselves raised above
the level of mankind, and that we claim a prerogative which is
not justly ours, and which has never been conceded to us by
the Lord, who alone can confer power on man. It is thus we
transgress in our spirit, because feelings like the above are
prohibited in the law, and are consequently sinful and will bar
for us the portals of salvation ; since sentiments of this nature



82 THE Ui\ 7 CERTAINTY OF LIFE.

are not only wrong in themselves, but they likewise prompt us
to actions which are in direct opposition to the precepts of
Scripture.

Dark indeed is the picture which the moralist must, in de-
ference to truth, draw of the world before him ; God has made
every thing beautiful ; every thing works for a wise end ; in all
reigns order ; in all we discover the effect of design. But it is
man alone who mars the harmony of nature; it is he alone who
rises in disobedience above the divine ordinances of the Bible,
who sets up his own conceits, his own false notions above the
truth that has endured for ages and will outlast this globe we
live on. Our puerile conception of what we understand, of
what we pretend to call right and just, we set above the divine
wisdom manifested in the Revelation on Sinai, and we harden
our heart, we avert our eye, that we may not perchance un-
knowingly imbibe true knowledge. But brethren, it is not well
that this is so ; each of us, every one here assembled, has the
means in his own power, has the weapon in his own hands, to
combat the enemy to his everlasting peace. Let us but lay
aside our presumption; let us but turn a willing ear to the
guidance of God ; let us but regard all men as equal, ourselves
as fallible and mortal; search for wisdom in the law made
known through Moses and the prophets; be humble in spirit,
just in our dealings, eager in the pursuit of truth, firm in faith,
and righteous in our religious actions : and we stand regene-
rated, disenthralled, we also will then form a beautiful link in
the divine creation, our body and our spirit will be holy to
God, our deeds and our thoughts witnesses of his goodness and
glory.

How grieved would you all be, brethren and friends ! were you
to be certain that you would be cut off in the midst of your sins,
unprepared, unatoned ! How horrible would the weight be
which a conviction of the enduring displeasure of the Creator
would cast on your souls ! And still are not many acting as
though they cared not about the load of sin which they are heap-
ing up ? are there not many who brave the Creator's displeasure
by their neglect of his precepts, by the estrangement from his
service ? But say they : " We de not rebel, we know God is
merciful, He will not take us away in the midst of our trans-



THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. 3

gressions ; we have yet ample time to repent and to make our
peace before we die !" If any one here present thinks so, he
greatly errs. God is merciful, but this is no warrant for our
transgressing ; He may not strike man with instant death when
he knowingly and wilfully sins ; but let no one imagine that it is
wise to defer repentance from day to day ; we have no guaran-
tee, no surety in life; every moment may be our last; a thou-
sand agents are at every period ready to cut short our days, and
the opportunity for amendment once neglected may never again
be offered. Be warned therefore whilst it is yet time ; at once
resolve to act as Israelites, as servants of the Most High ; pause,
reflect, and sin no more. The hand of Mercy is ever out-
stretched to receive the returning child ; grasp it now, hold it
for ever, it is your only stay in sorrow', your only support at the
hour of death. Heed you the voice which calls to you ? discover
you not the goodness that wishes to teach you ? It is your God
whose voice you hear, He speaks through your conscience,
through the Scriptures which He gave you as an inheritance,
through the instruction which is conveyed to you by his ser-
vants. It is the Creator whose goodness surrounds you whilst
waking, whilst sleeping ; mid joy, mid sorrow ; in health, in sick-
ness ; through life, through the hour of death. Come, arouse
ye! become his servants; remember the Sabbath to keep it holy;
observe the festivals, the sign of the Eternal's power, of your
debt of gratitude as sons of Israel ; be holy in your persons ;
touch not the food which the law forbids ; be humble before your
Maker, be confident only in his wisdom ; and above all love
your neighbour like yourselves, and devote to God every hour
of your life, and serve Him with all your heart and all your
soul. Then will you be accepted, and in accordance with
the words of the prophet you will, in the blessed existence which
awaits the righteous, " renew your strength, you will mount up
with wings, as eagles, you will run and not be weary, and you
will walk and not become faint." In this manner your youth
will ever last, your strength will never fail; and this will be your
sure reward, if you have learnt well to number your days, and
applied your hearts to wisdom.

Lord of all ! guide us, teach us, to know thy ways : bless us
with thy goodness, satisfy with thy bounty. Let thy words be



34 THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE.

sweet to our ears, that we may drink of their refreshing stream
which leads unto happiness. Let us live to see the wonders of
thy law, and close not our days, until that we have been spared
and admonished to return unto Thee with a perfect heart and a
sincere repentance.. Subdue our heart that it may devote itself
entirely to Thee, and take not from us thy liberal spirit of grace
and holiness, and remove from our path the obstacles which
strive to lead us astray ; in order that all Israel may learn to
walk in thy ordinances all the days of their perishable life. And
rnay the merits of our forefathers plead for us their descendants,
and let the redeemer come to Zion, even thy servant David
under whose shadow we shall live securely among nations.
Amen.

Nissan 12th > ^rnn

A -i i K.U / OOuU.

April 15th $

NOTE. In explanation of the account of the distressing catastrophe in-
troduced into the above Discourse, I will briefly state that the steam-packet
Home, Captain White, departed from New York for Charleston on, I believe,
her second voyage, on Sabbath afternoon the 7th of October 1837, and after
encountering the furious gale I have attempted to describe, went ashore near
one of the capes in North Carolina some time in the evening of Monday the
9th, being as I stated about the close of the Day of Atonement. Out of ninety
passengers twenty only reached the shore ; among those lost were at least
three Jewish females and one man belonging to our people, and among those
saved was but one Jewish gentleman, who saw his brother swept off from
the wreck without being able to render him the least assistance; he yet sur-
vives, and I obtained from him several of the particulars as I have related
them. The crew consisted of forty-Jive persons, of whom but twenty were
saved, including the captain. As this heart-rending occurrence was one of
those great exhibitions of human weakness when contending against the
agents of the Creator which we sometimes witness: I thought myself justi-
fied in offering it to the consideration of the brethren as an incentive to re-
flection upon the uncertainty of human life and the instability of our fancied
security ; altho' I fear that it may recall painful recollections in the minds
of several who have cause to remember the friends that perished in the
wreck of the Home.



85



DISCOURSE VIII.

THE REVELATION ON SINAI.

(PENTECOST, 5600.)

THINE, O Lord, is the power and the glory, and all on earth
obeys thy sway; and there too, whither our eyes cannot reach,
nor our understanding penetrate, Thou reignest in majesty su-
preme. Spirits bright around thy throne are standing, cheru-
bim great to Thee bend the knee ; yet unto them also, and to
them that up-bear thy mercy-seat art Thou concealed, a mys-
tery too great to be by them solved. How then can the son of
earth dare to ask, "What art Thou ?" how dare a mortal inquire,
" What doest Thou ?" Yet despite our lowliness and thy awful
exaltation, it did please Thee in former days to descend in thy
glory upon the mountain in the desert whither Thou hadst led
our forefathers, and there to give unto them the commandments
and statutes which Thou hadst ordained for our salvation. It
was then that thy goodness was made manifest ; it was then
that mankind were informed how to live in obedience to thy
behests ; and we, thy people Israel were chosen to be a beacon
unto all other men, teaching by our existence, proclaiming by
our permanence, that Thou, O our Father ! art God alone, and
that Thou art indeed the Creator, Ruler, and Saviour of all the
works of thy hands. Do Thou again this day and all the days
of our being renew in our souls the fear and love to Thee! again
proclaim to our spirits thy pure and holy word ! cleanse us,
that we may be made obedient, and stretch forth thy guiding
./hand, that, like innocent children under the guidance of the
father, we may be received back in thy dwelling in purity and
innocence, when our souls are demanded back unto Thee, and
our bodies be laid in the silent grave there to rest till thy crea-
tive word calls us forth anew unto life everlasting. May this
' be thy will. Amen.
VOL. in. 8



gg THE REVELATION ON SINAI.

BRETHREN !

On a day like this, when we are assembled to thank the Lord
at the time of our festivity for his mercy in giving us his laws
and statutes, it is well becoming in every son of Israel to dwell
for a space upon the benefits resulting from the event which we
celebrate. Were it, that the Pentecost had been instituted to
commemorate the slaughter of myriads of enemies, the con-
quest of a thousand cities, the subduing of numerous nations to
our rule : then indeed might there be many who would feel that
they could not rejoice at our rejoicing, who could experience
grief only at our success. But the Pentecost, and in truth all
our festivals, stand aione in that from all other festivals; we cel-
ebrate not the disjunction of political communities; the origin
of a sect; the birth of an individual; the conquests of our party
and the downfall of our antagonists; no! we celebrate the good-
ness of God, we rejoice because of his salvation; we return
thanks for a people redeemed, for a world regenerated ! Yes,
our fathers had been taken from the midst of another people,
their tyrants and oppressors ; they were tainted with many vices,
corrupted by the leaven of idolatry, subdued by the superstition
of priestcraft. Their bodies, it is true, had been withdrawn from
the bondage of Egyptian task-masters, but their spirits were
not yet disenthralled; the flesh was free, but the soul yet lingered
under the most cruel slavery. In what were we then distin-
guished from other nations ? only in the merit of our patriarchal
ancestors and the submission with which we had followed our
God into the desert and through the waves of the Arabian Sea.
We had proved that 'we could confide in the Lord; we had
shown that we were ready to receive the heavenly yoke, the
law, which should henceforward render us the servants only of
Heaven, controlled by and enslaved to no human power. And
this alone had been the object of Providence in ^his sending
Moses to ask of Pharaoh the liberation of the Israelites, and this
had been the reason why so many astounding miracles were per-
formed to effect the demand made by the prophet, in order to
demonstrate to the satisfaction of all the overruling power and
wisdom of the Lord.

It is known to you, that, true to human nature, Pharaoh



THE REVELATION ON SINAI. 97

would not listen to forego what he thought his rights to the
services of the Israelites; he hurled contempt at Moses and
Aaron when they addressed him in the name of an unknown
God ; he refused to regard the threats of the Everlasting One,
of whom his false priests had never spoken, believing himself
secure in the recesses of his palaces, in the multitude of his
retinue, from the vengeance of a Deity of whose existence he
professed to know nothing. He had been taught to regard
his own will as supreme ; his priests spoke of a multitude of
gods, of antagonizing principles who shared the rule of the
world ; creature and Creator were mixed up in his philosophy,
and truth, if any there was in his system, was choked by the
rank weeds of fable and human invention. In all his land the
gigantic images of monstrous malformations and of animals, be
they man, quadruped, bird, amphibious or insect, were adored,
as emblems if you will, but still adored as images of deified
things. A caste of priests, selected and set apart from all the
rest of the people, had the custody of all the avenues of informa-
tion and knowledge ; devices, many and varied, had been in-
troduced, fraud and trick resorted to, to give stability to the
opinions which they professed, and even from the burdens of
the state had they been freed from time immemorial. Systems,
somewhat different, but nowise better, had taken root in all
other lands ; one nation worshipped stocks and stones ; another
incarnations of their deities ; another the starry firmament, the
works of the Author of all ; another a spirit of good and a spirit
of evil ; another yet the monstrous product of some mischievous
brain, on whose extended heated arms innocent children were
by their parents roasted alive as acceptable sacrifices. No-
where then was a nation who called on the God who had ap-
peared unto Abraham ; nowhere was there a people who
adored the Creator and Ruler of all things. Do you therefore
wonder that Pharaoh resisted the divine command ? It would
have been incredible, if the Scriptures had recorded that he had
obeyed ; we might then have alleged that it is impossible to be-
lieve that the king of Egypt could have paid any regard to the
injunctions of a Deity to whom neither he nor the surrounding
nations paid any allegiance. Yet, it was necessary that in
accordance with the promises made to Abraham the Israelites



8$ THE REVELATION ON SINAI.

should not only be let go free, but that all the other nations
likewise should through them be blessed. It therefore did
happen, that God the Lord, who had announced his being and
his command, did not long suffer Pharaoh to remain in igno-
rance of his power. He could, if so He had chosen, have taken
the Israelites out of Egypt without punishing the Egyptians and
without any delay ; for to suppose otherwise would be limiting
the power of Him, the Supreme. But if this procedure had been
adopted, there would necessarily have been but little instruction
afforded both to Israelites and Egyptians ; for the first would
only have seen in their liberation an act of extraordinary good-
ness of some unknown invisible Power, who though kind and
powerful might be indifferent about obedience and submission
to his will ; and the latter would have regarded it doubtlessly
as a display of a great superiority over the civil authority of
their land, but still might have been left in doubt whether the
new Deity had any absolute superiority in a long contest over
their acknowledged divinities. But the Lord wished to instruct,
to chastise, to correct, to enlighten ; He wanted not merely to
redeem the Israelites according to his promise, but to prove
also to them and their masters, that there exists One, of un-
ending goodness, of infinite power, to whom all must yield obe-
dience ; that He is not only good, but also watchful over the
affairs of man ; not alone beneficent, but likewise heeding of
justice, even-handed justice, and that retribution is a part of his
economy no less than it accords with his uprightness to reward
and to favour the good ; and lastly, that his might is not merely
the display of a momentary superiority over civil rulers, but
that it extends over all that exists, over all that can have being,
that there is no material thing, no spiritual being, but is subject



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 9 of 26)