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Israel in Covenant With God.

A Sermon.

Delivered at Baltimore on Friday Afternoon, the 24th of Elul, 5605, September 26th, 1845, at the Consecration of the New Synagogue.

Brethren And Friends!

A good work has this day been accomplished, a new house of prayer rears its fair proportions towards heaven, and it has been set aside, for days to come, unto the service of our God and King, the Holy One of Israel. It has ever, on similar occasions, been the good custom amongst us to have words of earnestness addressed to the assembled brethren, in order that the power of audible sounds may not be wanting to impress upon the mind something to be remembered above and in addition to the imposing service and the psalmody uttered in praise of the Most High, the Guardian of Jacob’s sons. The present occasion would therefore be incomplete, if one of the essential elements of our solemn assemblies, were the word of instruction, to be absent from us this day; let me therefore entreat you to give me your kind attention whilst I accomplish the task imposed upon me by your partiality, by laying before you some reflections which well befit the labour which has been completed this day.

Let us take as the text for our contemplation the following from the Parashah of this week, being a portion of the concluding address of our blessed teacher Moses to the people of Israel before his departure from this life. He was speaking to the assembled multitudes that had so long listened to his words of power, and he summed them all up as belonging to the divine covenant, and then added:

ולא אתכם לבדכם אנכי כרת את הברית הזאת ואת האלה הזאת׃ כי את אשר ישנו פה עמנו עמד היום לפני ה' אלהינו ואת אשר איננו פה עמנו היום׃ דבר' כ"ט י"ג י"ד

“And not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him who standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and with him who is not here with us this day.” Deut. 29:13, 14.

Forty years had Israel been in training to become a people unto the Lord, and during all this time they had deeply sinned and frequently rebelled against the Power who had redeemed them from slavery. Stiff-necked in their conduct towards God, they had followed their evil inclinations, and thus transgressed the law whenever a favourable opportunity had presented itself. With all this the prophet knew that the law had taken deep root in the hearts of his followers. He, indeed, was himself doomed to die in the wilderness, in full sight of the lovely land whither he was not to go, because he had not sanctified the will of God at the waters of contention in the wilderness of Zin; he was to leave the people in the yet untried hands of his trusty Joshua; the deeds which had struck terror, wonder and dismay in both sons and enemies of Jacob’s house would soon be forgotten, when those who had witnessed them should have passed away from the busy scenes of life; the Israelites were to enter into the midst of refined and powerful idolaters, whose daughters were fair and whose country was lovely; and they were, what is more than, all, to be left to the self-will of their own hearts, when the conquest should be over, free to form alliances with nations that knew not the worship of the Most High, who bowed down to the host of heaven or the works of their own hands. Nay he foresaw that all these circumstances would work their effects upon his hearers and their descendants; that, in short, the curses which he had pronounced against them would have to be accomplished to the very letter. Yet his hope of better things faltered not; he flung from his soul the gloomy picture of an unhappy future, and he felt conscious that his structure, which in Heaven’s name he had reared for so long a time, would never be totally lost to mankind, to Israel; for that, when one generation should have passed away, another and another yet would start up, as from the earth, to proclaim aloud that they are men in covenant with the Lord ONE, the God and Father of Israel. “Not with you alone,” that is the people then living and known as the Israelites, “do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him who standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and with him who is not here with us this day.” If we consider that Moses spoke to all the Israelites of his day, we shall have no difficulty in ascertaining who the absent ones were who are here referred to. They were the whole seed of Jacob, all who might follow those who came forth from Egypt to the latest generation. The prophet limits not his words to one century, nor to one country; but he ranges over an indefinite period, over an indefinite space, including those who were not then, could not be then, standing in person at the door of the tabernacle, to give in their adhesion by word of mouth to the terms of the covenant proposed to them by the blessed son of Amram, and those who were actually present, and had been cognizant of the great miracles of the Lord, which He had wrought before them in the land of Mitzrayim and the desert, where his mercy had so long protected them and provided for all their wants.

Had Moses been an ordinary man, one who spoke merely from analogy, human probability, he could scarcely have ventured to make so bold a declaration; or if he had, it would to a surety not have come to pass. There were at that time too many reasons to apprehend that the polity which he had been the means of revealing to the world would soon fall into oblivion, when the inquirer views the very turbulent disposition of the people, their but recent state of ignorance, and the constant inducements held out to them to break away from a law which grants so few pleasures, but on the contrary imposes many restrictions upon us in almost every stage of life. But he was not a man of every day; he did not reason from probability or analogy; he was instructed from the highest Source of wisdom, and he could therefore not fail of saying the truth even when speaking of that which was to happen; in fact the opposite idea must be inconceivable from the very nature of the case; since He who is the Father of all men, and knows their frame, also penetrates the recesses of futurity with unerring certainty, with a view from which nothing escapes, from which nothing is hidden; and it was his word, his will, which Moses proclaimed, and from Him he received knowledge of the things which were to be. Let us not commit the error then of looking upon our teacher as a mere historian, who relates events which happened under his eye, nor as a successful leader, who glorifies himself for the accomplishment of some mighty achievement; for if he had been only thus, though he had combined in himself the learned writer and the brave general, though his wisdom had become the fundamental law of all civilized states, which in fact it is this day: still he would not demand our implicit faith, our entire surrendering of our judgment to his instruction, since there might be room to doubt whether or not some of the things announced by him might not remain unfulfilled, as, even assuming for him the highest power of penetration incident to human reason, there would still be a certainty that the major part of his speculations would necessarily be mere assumptions, which might or might not come to pass. We are not then Mosaists, or followers of Moses, nor is ours the Mosaic religion, or Mosaism, which is the new term now used abroad, in the sense which is usually given to systems called after their founders. We indeed call our law the Mosaic law or law of Moses, because the divine inspiration gives it that name, inasmuch as he was the means of making the divine legislation known to his compatriots; still it is not for this reason a system of Moses, a Mosaism, of which Moses was the founder or inventor; no, we are Hebrews, Israelites, followers of the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, descendants of those who themselves heard from Sinai, “I am the Lord thy God,” “Thou shalt have no other gods before me;” we are the legitimate successors of those who themselves entered into a voluntary covenant “to obey all the words of the Lord,” and who partook of all the blessings and hardships which accompanied their journey through the desert.

If then we go to examine our religion we must not proceed as though we were entering upon a mere scientific inquiry, at liberty to refuse belief to one, and to correct another part; but we should sit down to this study with fear and trembling, with a mistrust in our own power of comprehension, with a well-founded conviction that the word is true although our understanding of it be imperfect and unsatisfactory to ourselves. We should reflect that it is not Moses who speaks, but the holy spirit of our Creator, who has written the book of the law for our guidance and instruction. For all this we are not prohibited from reasoning on, or investigating the evidences of religion; they are open to our scrutiny, and challenge the strictest investigation; provided, as I said, that we do not enter upon this labour with a reckless defiance of our early training, and bring to the task that humility which becomes and is required for an inquirer after truth. Let us now apply what has premised to the text we have chosen. It is one of a long discourse pronounced at the most solemn moment of existence, that, just preceding the awful hour of death, when the connexion between earthly life and eternity is mysteriously interwoven in the existence of the spirit by its departure from the earth. It is then that man looks back upon all that he has done with an eye different from what it was when expectation and hope stood in our way, calling us hither and thither to pursue some new phantom, some unexpected vista where success smiled in the dim distance. O! it is then that we turn with loathing from the idols to which we clung during our pilgrimage; we them see the nakedness of our unholy desires which would fain rob us of our peace hereafter; we cannot then hide from ourselves the wickedness and falsehood to which we attached ourselves year by year and hour by hour; we feel the ground so to say as sliding from under our feet, and we stretch forth our hands to the God our Saviour, to snatch us up into his embrace, to shield us from the consequences of our misdeeds. It may be, nay it is often the case, that wicked men will die with a falsehood on their lips; they cannot imagine that this life must indeed terminate, they cannot bear, whilst the breath is yet in their nostrils, to forego one iota of their assumed self-importance. But not so is the case with the pure and righteous; they have no part to play, no assumed character to sustain; they therefore attach no importance to fortuitous circumstances in which they may have been placed, but view their past life in all its deformity and error, conceal nothing from themselves for which atonement should be made, and attach not any undue value to their good deeds, any farther than that they calm the conscience; and they trust in the mercy of the Creator that He will perfect what they have left undone in the weakness of fallen human nature.

So then it was on one of the last few days of Moses’s life, that he called around him the people of Israel, together with the strangers and the foreign labourers who were among them. He rehearsed briefly, but eloquently, the principal events of the forty years during which he was connected with the administration of public affairs, and recalled to their mind how frequently they had presumptuously sinned against the Lord. He also repeated certain of the commandments; but more than all, he insisted anew upon the distinctive doctrines of the religion which he had taught so long; and emphatically instructed the people to believe in no association in the godhead, in no thought of a division; for that the Lord, the Eternal, is one and alone, and that He woundeth and healeth, slayeth and bringeth to life again, and that from his power there is none to save us, if He willeth to condemn. And when all this had been accomplished by the teacher, when the conduct of the Hebrews had during his whole connexion with them been the reverse of obedience: he still lays before them again a solemn compact, to answer for the last time, whether they would remain true and faithful to the law, to the Lord, to themselves! The Israelites did assent, and the book of the law was written and completed by the hand of the prophet, and he delivered it to the priests and Levites to place it by the side of the ark of the covenant, that it might be a witness against them in all future generations. There was no wild enthusiasm in Moses’s manner; he was calm and collected; he knew his end to be rapidly approaching, whilst neither his sight was dimmed nor his bodily vigour in aught diminished; he stood like the giant of the forest, in the branches of which thousands of the feathered tribe have built their nests, towering upward, unbending, erect, unterrified, whilst around it play the lightnings of heaven, and its branches are tossed by the fury of the tempest, and its leaves are dashed to the earth by the drenching rain. And as his body was strong so was his soul; he felt that death was coming at the command of God to release him from his earthly labours; and hence he spoke at that very time with the same dignity and candour which he had exhibited throughout his long career, and which characterized him chiefly as the great messenger, like whom none has arisen in Israel since his day. In this temper of mind he did not, he could not think of deceiving himself and others by a pretended belief in things of which he was not himself convinced; there is nothing recorded of an agony of soul, of an unwillingness to die, of a forced submission, which wrung from him contradictory declarations; indeed there is no deathscene described in history so full of the vigour of life as that of Moses; he passed from the changeful scene of the earth to a uniformity of happiness in an altered state; and with the most solemn conviction, forced upon himself and his hearers, that he had been a messenger of truth in what he had done and what he had foretold, he announced the permanence of the law and the permanence of Israel.

History has told us then how Israel rose from a nation of slaves to become the conquerors of the beautiful country of Palestine. But history also tells us that the predictions of Moses have been literally fulfilled in all where they have yet been reached by the events which have occurred, especially with reference to the permanence of the law in the line of Jacob; for this is the principal topic of our to-day’s discussion. O! how fearful were the delinquencies of our fathers from the day that they entered into the promised land; how did they love their idols; how did they follow the ways of the gentiles; how did they forget the Lord! And what followed? Punishment after punishment came over them and their land, and they ever and anon were made to feel the awful consequences which follow in the wake of sin. But loudly howled the storm of evil within their breast; they forgot the Lord their Redeemer, and would not hearken to the admonition of their prophets; and they braved the denunciations of the law, and the vengeance it threatens against transgression. It is not necessary to dwell upon the end of this sinning; our dispersion at this day proves that the law has established its truth; but it likewise proves, that the blessing of the possession of our religion has also been accomplished. Israel sinned in Palestine, under the rule of the judges who lived after Joshua; they did each whatever seemed best in their eyes; horrid crimes were perpetrated with unblushing effrontery; still a Samuel arose out of the midst of this chaos, and by the establishment of the schools of the prophets, no doubt his work, re-established the blessed rule of law and good order among the people. Time rolled on, and wicked and foolish kings rebelled against the Lord, and set themselves up idols in Dan and Beersheba and the cities of Judah; the land grew tired of bearing on its surface the sinning generation, and they were cast forth bound with chains of slavery into the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon; yet again was the law restored, and we owe to the ready scribe, the zealous Ezra, the renewal of the covenant between God and his people, when they pledged themselves to walk in the ways which He had prescribed to their fathers. And with this the work did not fail for want of labourers to carry it forward with trusty heart and faithful hands; and when the calamities thickened, and persecution from without at length came to aid the evil inclination within: a new spirit awoke in the people, and they clung to the ark of the Lord with undying attachment in the hours of the greatest peril. Onward has been the march of ages; circumstances have changed with us; new dangers have constantly sprung up to add to the difficulties which necessarily encompass us in the state of our dispersion; over and over again have our enemies predicted our speedy destruction; they have tortured, or slain, or banished us in most countries, and embittered our days in all, by a constant war against our spirits, by exciting prejudice, by spreading calumny and falsehood of all kinds concerning us: still we are here on earth to praise the Lord, still here to bear a living testimony, that we are his witnesses, and that He is God; still we are on earth the legitimate and lineal descendants of the patriarchs of former days, of the early reformers who defied the worshippers of idols to exhibit their power; of the philosophers of primeval ages who kindled the torch of reason by the blazing fire of God’s revelation; and we are here, here on this spot, a small remnant, a fragment of the great house of Jacob, to bear with our lips our assent to the constantly accumulating weight of the constantly renewed confession, that Israel is ever true, will be ever true in its chosen sons, they who are the light of the world, who walk in the fear of the Most High, to uphold the ancient faith unbroken, to believe at all times in the promises of their God, to follow unflinchingly, even through the whelming waves of persecution, the guidance of their Father who is in heaven, though it lead them to the gates of death. And no matter how great and unpardonable were the backslidings of our people, some like these just described were always ready to sanctify the glorious and fearful Name of the God of Israel, and to exhibit in their lives a beautiful illustration of the effects of the saving faith implanted in our hearts upon the conduct of those who yield themselves to its promptings.

It was in this manner that Moses made a covenant with those who were not present with him on that day before the Lord, with those namely, who have ever since succeeded to the name, the lineaments, the obligations of Israel. And ye too, brethren, have by the work which is this day completed, by solemnly dedicating it to the service and name of the Most High God, the Creator and Ruler of heaven and earth,—ye too have by this means entered into that blessed covenant in your mature age, into which you were introduced at your birth by your pious progenitors. Do not imagine, however, that it is merely enough that you have erected a house, as a dwelling for the ark where the law is deposited; that you have finished your task by providing it with every thing needful for worship, whilst the spirit of worship itself is wanting among you. Reflect, that only through the righteousness of the whole people could the temple at Jerusalem become the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that through the same means only, on the part of each congregation, can their houses of prayer become acceptable in the eyes of the same unchanging Being, who called unto himself Abraham out of Ur in Chaldea. There has not been pointed out to us any new means of becoming acceptable to God; the same requisites are still demanded of us,—faith and obedience; and these are to be pursued through our entire life, on all occasions, in all circumstances. Indeed, what use would a place of worship be, if the worshippers therein assembled there merely from ostentation? from pride? from motives to bear rule over others? Only with contrition, with humility, should the sacred precincts be entered with sorrow for past misdeeds, with hopes in the mercy of our Father, that He would perfect by his spirit, what we have humbly commenced, and that He would heal the wounds which our iniquity may have struck against the peace of our soul. Such worshipping will make us daily better, more pleasing in the eyes of God and man; it will influence our speech, it will influence our actions, it will also purify our thoughts; and the more strongly we have impressed it on our mind, the stronger and holier will grow the plant of righteousness, which will be lustrous with everlasting verdure, and which will preserve an unfading freshness till the end of our days.—Pursue then righteousness in the manner which the law ordains; do not use your own imperfect understanding to reason away what God has commanded; ask rather of your elders, and let them instruct you; inquire of those who are the fathers in Israel, that they may speak unto you; and never, O never! listen to those who would gladly sow dissension in Israel, who would urge their own foolish counsels as the words which the Lord has taught; whereas, they invent deceitful things out of their own hearts, and teach the words which the prophets of God have not spoken. Pursue peace in all your acts and words; seek not to bear unjust rule over each other; endeavour not to become each one the chief in the earthly Synagogue; for it is but a short rule at best, to be soon dropped, though long you wield the staff of authority; but seek on the contrary to act rightly and truly towards each other, bear with each other’s weakness and failings, and have one mind, one aim to pursue; thus you will leave this life to be accepted on high, and live unto eternity in the sanctuary of the Lord.

But in addition to this individual duty, you have also general obligations to perform. You are members of the house of Israel, surety and pledge that in you there shall always be a defender of the good cause. As such then, let all your deeds have a public bearing, and forego your own advantage, when the public good demands it. Let your exertions for success not blind you to the necessities of others; and never do any act, however it might be legal, which could cast odium upon the fair fame of the house of Israel. Towards the world at large too, you have duties to fulfil. All men are your brethren, though the Hebrew brother claims your first love. All men are children of one God, like you they are endowed with an intelligent spirit. Love them, therefore, cherish them in joy and in sorrow, and sanctify the name of the Lord, by practically proving, how beautiful his religion is which teaches you to be angels of mercy to all who may claim your sympathy, to all who may look up to you for aid and for counsel. The enemies of our faith have always endeavoured to make it appear as though we are by it taught to hate and persecute the non­Israelites; whereas, it will be your business to prove that the religious Jew asks not the sufferer of what belief he is, he demands not of the widow and orphan, whether they be of the house of Jacob; but he opens his heart, he empties the full hand, in order that the hungry may be fed, the naked be clothed, the needy protected; though their souls know not, their lips breathe not a prayer to God the Eternal.

“Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath,” were the words of Moses. That generation went down to the dust as all other men, and left us of the present day no other inheritance than the name of Israel and the law which they had received. All the other glory and wealth which they acquired perished before the eyes of the world, and whatever was earthly in their greatness has been destroyed by the tooth of time. The imperishable only alone remains; the immortal, which was immortal in the days of Moses, survives in all its strength, and because it was thus immortal, could he predict that it would never yield before the progress of destruction. Our assembly here to-day proves, that up to our time the prophecy has been upheld, it has become fulfilment, event in the pages of history. And though now the evil hour is come, as some faint hearts believe, which is to prove whether it shall stand longer or not: still let those who fear this evil, look into the hearts of our people, and then let them say whether or not the ancient spirit yet survives, whether or not the same love for religion in the abstract does not live there as ever. Should, however, any danger threaten us through disunion or apostasy, then remember that you are men of the covenant who cannot honestly leave the good cause to suffer for want of valiant defenders. The building in which we have met, is a witness that you have felt the importance of the Lord’s covenant, the weight of his law which is implanted in your souls. Take then good heed that those who are not with us this day before the Lord, may arise after you to propagate to yet many distant generations the knowledge which you have received, and let it be your endeavour that the worshippers in this house may all become true and faithful witnesses of the glorious message, the unity of God and the permanence of his religion, which has been proclaimed to you from Sinai, which is the legacy bequeathed by your fathers. In this manner will the spirit of God dwell in this house which you have built, and thus only can it be truly called sacred to the Creator and King. And may He bless you as He blessed Abraham, and be with us all as He was with our forefathers. Amen.

Friday, Sept. 26; Elul 24, 5605.