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The Wars of the Lord

By Rabbi Bernard Illowy (1814-1875).

Fast Day Sermon

at Baltimore, Jan. 4, 1861

This sermon, given at "National Fast Day" services at the Lloyd Street synagogue in Baltimore, proved so popular among the Jewish secessionists that Rabbi Illowy was invited to become the spiritual leader of  Congregation Shaarei Hassed in New Orleans.

AND he said, Wherefore wilt thou go to him, the man of G-d, today, it is neither new moon nor Sabbath? and she said, Shalom, peace; Peace I want, and peace I am seeking." 2 Kings iv.26.

The same question I direct to you my friends. Wherefore are you come today to the house of the merciful Father? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath?

What is it that brought you hither at a time generally devoted to business and labor? What is it that caused you to check the great wheel of activity in its rapid course? What made you close today so early the temples of mammon and hasten to a place where there is no earthly gain to be acquired? What impelled you to leave the temples of joy and pleasure to repair to the lonely house of devotion and prayer, where no earthly enjoyments can cheer up your mind depressed by earthly cares? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath. No, my friends, it is neither new moon nor Sabbath, but it is a day designated by the Chief Magistrate of the United States, for the purpose of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. In compliance with his proclamation, we are assembled here to join our fellow citizens of the various denominations in keeping this day as a solemn fast; as a day devoted to religious exercise only. And in order to show you how wisely and properly the government acted in calling together all the citizens in a religious assembly, although its act has been attacked by many an infidel, let me unroll before you a picture, although old, since time has not blighted its freshness, neither have years dimmed its hues.

It presents an event that happened in the days of yore, when a ship was going to Tarshish, and a dreadful storm arose, while heavy, dusky clouds were brooding in thick darkness over the sea, and the raging tempest flung the staggering vessel now up and then down again on the storm-tossed billows. The mariners, aware of the great danger which threatened the ship with wreck, and their lives with being devoured by the wild, voracious waves, were afraid; their hearts were filled with terror, and they called every one unto his god. In this tempestuous and dreadful night, when every heart was terror-struck, a man was lying in the hold of the ship carelessly indulging himself in a sound sleep, until the ship master rushed down unto him, waking him with the thundering clamor of despondency, "Sinful sleeper, why dost thou sleep? Arise from thy slumber, danger is nigh! Arise and call upon thy G-d--Perhaps it be that G-d will mercifully think of us, that we may not be lost."

Do you not recognize, my friends, in this event, a mirror in which all our untoward circumstances of the present day are strikingly reflected? -- Heavy, storm-foreboding clouds are spreading, and lowering darkly over our country. The splendid vessel of our glorious Union, exposed to the pernicious discharge of their destructive contents, is in danger of being wrecked; and whilst the people in the vessel are vainly disputing about where the first cloud arose, in the North or in the South, those who sit at the helm, being aware of the approaching danger, are terror-struck, and with anguish and fear, they expect every moment the dreaded crash of the staggering ship; but with paternal care the faithful shipmaster rushes down to us, waking us up with the loud clamor of despondency, --"Arise, thoughtless sleepers, from your careless torpor, danger is nigh; arise, and call unto G-d, perhaps it be that He will mercifully think of us, that we may not be lost."

Let us, my brethren, hear the paternal warning of the faithful ship-master, and fervently pray to the G-d of our fathers that He may send us relief in the hour of calamity and peril, that He may remove from us the danger which has thrown all our citizens, rich and poor, in a state of general dismay and confusion. Let us pray unto Him that peace and harmony may return again unto our gates, and keep us far from polluting out hands with the blood of our brothers and fellow-citizens. Listen, my brethren, to a prayer which the pious King David, with the sacred zeal of his heart, offered unto the Lord for the prosperity of his country:

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee; peace be within thy walls, and peace within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sake I will now say, Peace be within thee; because of the house of the Lord our G-d I will seek thy peace."

Such was the short, but fervent prayer of the pious King, whose soul was burning and whose heart was glowing for the welfare of his Jerusalem; and such should be our earnest prayer for the peace and prosperity of our Jerusalem, I say our Jerusalem, for until the time that it will be pleasing in the sight of the Lord to protract the fulfillment of his promises, this country will be our Jerusalem. O may it also forever continue to be the holy land, the land of liberty, the house of peace, and the asylum of oppressed and persecuted humanity.

It was customary among the ancient Israelites, whenever danger was nigh, whenever a hard time of trouble was approaching, to go to the tombs of their ancestors, praying there, that the spirits of the departed might plead for their cause before the mercy seat of the Almighty. Let us, my brethren, do the same today. Let us, then, with hearts warm with pious devotion, walk among the tombs of the illustrious fathers of this country, who bought with their precious heart's blood the many blessings which they faithfully transmitted to unborn generations. Let us today commune with the spirits of the glorious dead, who will forever live in the hearts of their countrymen. Let us enter the sepulcher of the past, and with awe and deference, put forth our hands to wipe off the dust and mould of forgetfulness from the coffin-lids of the wise and brave; with hot tears to let us moisten the sod where their ashes repose, and exclaim, "Illustrious fathers, arise from your peaceful slumbers; your children are in danger of being slaughtered, the brother by the hand of his brother; the hallowed fire of universal love and harmony which you once kindled is in danger of being extinguished by the destructive flames of civil war; the paradise which you have bequeathed to us is in danger of being devastated by the seductive serpent that has already impregnated many hearts with its deadly poison of ambition, selfishness, and cupidity. O arise, illustrious fathers, and pray unto the Lord for the peace of our Jerusalem!" Yes, my brethren, once every city and every village of this vast republic was a Jerusalem, the residence of peace and brotherly love; but now we must join in the lamentations of the Prophet, the faithful town that was once full of justice, and wherein righteousness lodged, has become the gathering place of discord and enmity. Let us, therefore, pray, my brethren, to Him who maketh peace in His high heavens, that He may unite again all our states and all the contending parties in peace and harmony, and guard our glorious republic against all the dangers which threaten to trouble or overthrow it.

Now, my brethren, let me direct your attention to another topic, not less important than the last.

It is an incontestable truth that our republic stands among the governments of the earth like an ancient oak in the forest, which, after having overcome many a blast, overtops the other trees and commands respect and veneration; and as we may hope G-d will be with us, answer our prayers, heal the breach between our sister states, and the dissension will soon be peaceably settled, our Republic will again, as heretofore, be admired by Emperors and Kings, and the nations will again look at it with envy as the happiest system that was ever devised for uniting dignity in the magistrate and liberty in the nation, with protection and security to all. Yes, we may boast there has never yet existed a happier and mightier government than ours. There was already political liberty in the days of old. Sparta, Athens, Rome, Carthage, and Judea, were once republics; but there liberty was only an imaginary coin, a name usurped by tyranny, and they could not keep themselves safe against the attacks from without and discontent from within. Our sister Republic in Europe depends only upon the merciful protection of the despotic great powers; but our glorious Republic has achieved, up to the present critical moment, in not more than three quarters of a century, a government over thirty-three flourishing, sovereign, and independent States, without the support or protection of any foreign power. We have a commerce that leaves no sea unexplored, navies which take no law from any superior force, and a peace with all nations founded on equal rights and mutual respect.

All this is true, incontestably true, and we feel that we are exalted to the very gates of heaven in respect to our advantages and national excellencies; but let us take heed that we incur not the reproach with which our divine teacher Moses once rebuked our people, -- "Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked," -- let us take heed that we grow not dizzy with the height of prosperity to which we have attained, that we reel not and stagger not on the summits of freedom, that the very loftiness of our happy state be not the means of giving impulse to our downfall, by which we might lose forever our honor and our privileges.

The vastness of our government, which is extended over an immense, large territory, and over numerous inhabitants, coming from many different regions of the world, forms a fruitful field of danger to the quiet and permanence of our institutions. It has ever proved unachievable in a commonwealth to make laws which could meet with the general approval of all its citizens, especially in a Republic like ours, composed of many different nationalities, coming from different countries, differing from each other more or less in customs, manners, habits, languages, creeds, and political views. In addition to all this, there must be brought into consideration the large extension of our territory; the law that provides for the benefit of the North, may operate with blighting effect upon the interests of the South, whilst that which promotes the immediate welfare of the South, may be injurious to that of the North. The contrariety of interests, the principal source from which all dissatisfaction flows, gives rise to party spirit, to a perpetual contest between the different states and the government, and between the different popular leaders who aspire to the chief influence, and the violence of a turbulent multitude.

The ends for which men unite in society and submit to government, are to enjoy security for their property and freedom for their persons from all injustice or violence. the more completely these ends are attained, with the least diminution of personal liberty, the nearer such government approaches to perfection. -- But who, for example, can blame our brethren of the South for their being inclined to secede from a society, under whose government those ends cannot be attained, and whose union is kept together, not by the good sense and good feelings of the great masses of the people, but by an ill-regulated balance of power and heavy iron ties of violence and arbitrary force? Who can blame our brethren of the South for seceding from a society whose government can not, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union against the encroachments of a majority misguided by some influential, ambitious aspirants and selfish politicians who, under the color of religion and the disguise of philanthropy, have thrown the country into a general state of confusion, and millions into want and poverty? If these magnanimous philanthropists do not pretend to be more philanthropic than Moses was, let me ask them, "Why did not Moses, who, as it is to be seen from his code, was not in favor of slavery, command the judges in Israel to interfere with the institutions of those nations who lived under their jurisdiction, and make their slaves free, or to take forcibly away a slave from a master as soon as he treads the free soil of their country? Why did he not, when he made a law that no Israelite can become a slave, also prohibit the buying and selling of slaves from and to other nations? Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?"

Why did Ezra not command the Babylonian exiles who, when returning to their old country, had in their suit seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven slaves, to set their slaves free and send them away, as well as he commanded them to send away the strange wives which they had brought along? It is an historical fact, that even the Therepentae and Essenes, two Jewish sects, who with a kind of religious frenzy, placed their whole felicity in the contemplation of the divine nature, detaching themselves from all secular affairs, entrusted to their slaves the management of their property.

All these are irrefutable proofs that we have no right to exercise violence against the institutions of other states or countries, even if religious feelings and philanthropic sentiments bit us disapprove of them. It proves furthermore, that the authors of the many dangers, which threaten our country with ruin and devastation, are not what they pretend to be, the agents of Religion and Philanthropy.

Therefore, my friends, there is only one rampart which can save our country from degradation and ruin, and shield it against all the danger arising within and threatening from without. This is, the good will, the good sense and feelings of the great mass of the people. They must have no other guide than the book of G-d and the virtues which it teaches, and make their hearts inaccessible to the pernicious influence of some individuals who exert all their efforts to mislead them, under the disguise of Religion and Philanthropy, from the TRUE PATH OF TRUE RELIGION.

The foundation of all the happiness of a country must be laid in the good conduct of the mass of the people, in their love of industry, sobriety, justice, virtue, and principally in their unfeigned religious feelings. Such virtues are the sinews and strength of a country: they are the supports of its prosperity at home and of its reputation abroad. Righteousness and justice will ever exalt a nation.

שמרו משפט ןיעשו צדקה כי קרבה ישעותי לבא וצדקתי להגלות

Thus saith the Lord, "Keep ye justice and do equity, for near is my help to come, and my righteousness to be revealed." Keep justice and truth in your gates, and the merciful Father will graciously answer our prayers and save us forever and ever--Amen.