|Vol. III, No. 10
Tebeth 5606, January 1846
God Our Benefactor.
A Sermon, delivered on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th, 1845, Heshvan, 5606, at the Synagogue Mikve Israel, in Philadelphia.
Father of Israel, Almighty God! vouchsafe in thy holiness to accept the humble offering of thanks which thy creatures bring unto thy name, in the place devoted to thy service. Humble, indeed, is the gift, poor are they who bring it; but what are unto Thee a thousand oxen slain near the altar, rivers of oil brought unto thy sanctuary, mingled with countless masses of meat-offerings? Yes, were all the earth an altar, every inhabitant thereof a priest, to officiate: still would not thy greatness be thereby exalted, and insufficient would be the worship of man. How much more unworthy of acceptance then is our worship: we come with empty hands, with loveless lips, with unconverted hearts; and yet we feel that we are thy debtors, for the breath which we breathe, for the light that rejoices our eyes, for the food which sustains us, for the fountain that quenches our thirst. Were it that thy mercy could be prompted only by our merits, how should we then be without the goodness which every where surrounds us; but Thou waitest not for our service, Thou heapest upon us benefits, in order that we may know thy mercy, and hasten to throw ourselves altogether upon thy unending bounty. Thou drawest thy children unto Thee with the bonds of love, whilst they in their ingratitude turn a deaf ear to thy admonition. O do Thou, Father! aid us against ourselves; teach us to feel that we are only here through Thee, that in Thee only we can live; that with thy protection we are shielded against all ills; but that without thy blessing we are lost amidst prosperity, perishing in the midst of the bloom of youth. And grant that the benefits which we have received, may be deeply impressed on our minds, that the abundant harvest may tell unto us a message of thy being our Benefactor, and the absence of any public calamity impress us with the conviction that thy goodness has watched over this land, and given it security and peace. Do also enlighten us and our rulers, not to rely upon our own strength, and become thereby forgetful of the Source whence all the greatness which we enjoy has flowed. Let us be made conscious of the vanity of human striving to render prosperity permanent, and to avert the coming of the evil which has ever assailed and overthrown all enterprises and states which were not guided by thy wisdom. Let us also entreat Thee to give permanence to the free institutions which we here enjoy; watch, O watch! over the destinies of this land, that never may the sceptre of a tyrant be swayed here, whilst the people remain fit for self-government; and let thy wisdom aid in the councils of the state, that never the equitable boon of civil and religious liberty be denied to any of the inhabitants; so that this favoured land at least, may be left as a refuge for the sons of thy chosen Abraham, whither they can flee when oppression threatens them in other lands of their sojourning. We ask this, O Father! because Thou hast sworn by thy holy name never to cast off thy people; and let us know in this that we have indeed found grace in thy eyes, and that Thou wilt preserve us entire, until the day when Thou wilt do again great things before our eyes, and redeem us a second time, as when Thou didst take us away from Egypt, to be unto thee a people, to proclaim thy glory. And grant that all the mourners for Zion may be comforted by thy return to thy temple, when they shall again behold the crown placed on the head of David's son thy anointed, the man in whose days Judah shall be saved and Israel dwell securely. Amen.
We are assembled here this day, not in obedience to a usual duty of our religion, to recite the ordinary set form of prayers in the house of God amidst the congregation of the faithful; but in obedience to the recommendation of the chief magistrate of this commonwealth, who has requested all the religious denominations under his jurisdiction to meet this day in their several places of worship, to return thanks unto the Giver of all good, for the many blessings which this land enjoys, blessings derived only from His bounty. In responding to a call so ample, in a union, of gratitude to the Creator, the children of Israel cannot be wanting; they too feel that they are recipients of goodness, they too feel impelled to come and worship Him who alone is powerful to bless, and to withhold the blessing. Indeed all around us tokens of prosperity greet the eye. The fields have teemed with plenty, and health has been given to the land, and the ravages of the pestilence in its various forms have not been experienced in the past season in any portion of this extensive country. There have, it is true, been partial evils; and death as is usual, has been busy in the haunts of man, to carry away those doomed to fall before his sword; but beyond this, the common lot of all men, there has no tear been shed over the many slain in one day by the ravages of fell disease, of unusual and therefore more fearful forms. And in addition to this, peace has been preserved unto us; and the sound of the deadly artillery has not wakened us out of our slumbers, and foreign foemen have not assailed the towns of the sea border, nor overrun the fields of the west. It is well, therefore, that we pause every now and then, to survey all that we have received, and trace it to the Source whence it has sprung. For how apt is vain-glorious man to imagine, that it is his foresight which has guarded him against evil; that it is his skill in tilling the soil, which has produced plenty; that it is his prudence in diplomacy which has preserved to him the blessings of peace. But little does he thus understand his own position; little is he acquainted with his own want of knowledge and power, if he thus argues. Let him survey the world around him; he will find men as intelligent as himself fail in their enterprises; he will find himself foiled in many a darling wish, for want of the means to carry it into effect; he will discover how constantly he incurs the enmity of others, when he never thought of giving offence; he will see how he often plants, and tends carefully the gradual development of the tender shoot, and has to experience a sudden pang of disappointment, at seeing it sicken, wither, and die. And such a one as he will dare to presume that success is the necessary result of his prudence, skill and exertion? that failure was not to be expected, because his plans had been well laid? But if this applies to single individuals, where a man has all the elements in his own hands, where all the instruments are at once accessible to him: how mach more is this the case in large communities, such as this, diversified by soil and climate, by political institutions, and the character and pursuit of the inhabitants, having different national origins, and professing the most contradictory dogmas of belief and religion? How is it possible for any one to say that success can be looked for as a necessary consequence from any system of industry, or plan of management? It is readily admitted that a correct system of government, and proper combinations of the industrial resources of a country, go very far to render success probable; but beyond probability nothing can be assumed. Look at the state of the northern portion of this vast republic, where the population is yet sparse, and the climate cold and humid; and then at the centre, where immense cities stand as if raised by magic, in a comparatively brief period, teeming with a busy crowd, in the enjoyment of a mild climate and the refinements of high civilization; and again at the extreme south, where cold is scarcely known, where products are plentifully brought forth, which are required by other sections to carry on their industrial schemes, or to supply their domestic wants; and then contrast the difference in the character of the people, of the labourers which produce the wealth in the cold north, and those who labour, but not for themselves, in the smiling south:—and then say, that it is mere human skill, a well-organized uniform plan which has produced the success which calls forth so much felicitation and boast among the people, over the happiness and prosperity of their republic. There are men elsewhere equally industrious, equally well informed as those who live here. But how fares it with them? Tidings after tidings are brought to us, that their harvest has failed, that the staff of bread has been broken to them, that all the arts of modern cultivation have failed to cause the earth to yield her products, and the tree of the field to give its fruit. Whilst here the sun shone brightly, ripening by his beneficent rays the waving grain, and the blushing fruit of the tree, there was elsewhere a cold and unpropitious season, and deluges of unseasonable rain destroyed the well-founded hopes of the husbandman, and brought confusion into the minds of the counsellors, and terror of famine into the heart of the most indifferent. Ay, it was God's blessing which has been given to us; it was his will to shower his beneficence over this land, in order to give it plenty; to shield it from the calamity which threatens other lands.
It is also his wisdom which inspired the wise founders of the government under which we live, to confer equal rights upon all the inhabitants; which taught them to look for the model of their institutions, not to the feudal ages, where a few were lords, and the many serfs, bondmen tied to the soil, when the judgment of life and death over his menials was surrendered into the hands of the wealthy landed proprietor; but to that holy Book which serves us as the guide of our life. It must not be forgotten that, however it may be disguised by those inimical to Revelation, the early settlers in this country, on fleeing hither from persecution, came strongly imbued with the spirit of the Bible. Perhaps they misunderstood some of its injunctions; for they applied to themselves erroneously the name and destiny of Israel, taught as they had been by persons unacquainted with our interpretation of the word of God; but one thing is certain, they brought with them the stern morality which is enjoined on us, and they carried in their hearts an invincible hatred to tyrannical rulers and their concomitant, an aristocracy of favoured counsellors. They found that the word of God spoke of all men as equals; and this principle became unto them the corner stone of their political superstructure. And after the follies of experimentalists in self-government had exhausted themselves in the intolerance which most enthusiasts feel for those differing from them in politics and religion; and when the light of science taught them the unreasonableness of certain fancies they had at first adopted: there was left as the fruit of their early habits and religious training, a strong love of justice, and an unconquerable opposition to any arbitrary assumption of power. And though all the early inhabitants of the country had not the same education, since even many had been taught from infancy to despise the strict notions of those they called Puritans: still did the unbending character of these and others akin to them in their views so strongly impress itself upon the habits of the whole people, that they easily amalgamated into one homogeneous nation; and what the one portion lacked perhaps in tolerance, was supplied by the amiable and kindly disposition of the other towards all God's creatures; and those who might perhaps have desired to form the new government, upon ideas borrowed from abroad, were overawed by the fierce and just rebuke of those who could imagine no liberty where all freemen had not an equal right. If even then some might doubt the biblical theory that Providence rules the affairs of men through the spirit of the rulers: no one can gainsay that the principles of liberty here enjoyed, are directly traceable to the revelation of Moses, a revelation which has broken the chains of many nations, and will go on in its mission, prospering in its efforts, until the fear of tyrants and the cause for war shall be removed for ever from the face of the earth.
The subject is one well worthy of a religious contemplation on a day set apart as one of general thanksgiving for benefits received from God. Contrast the present position of the Union and its struggle for independence, with the present condition and struggle for liberty in a people claiming a higher distinction for refinement and literature than has ever been enjoyed here. They too weened that it was theirs to strike for freedom; to overthrow the fabric of ages, the pillars of which had become rotten, and the superstructure of which had been rendered tottering and unsightly. But they were without the proper foundation for liberty. They had been trained in monkish superstition; and their nobles were tinctured with gross vices, and many of them despised all the forms which they outwardly practised, and made them not unfrequently the subject of jest and pleasantry. When therefore the oppressed masses claimed the rights and privileges of freemen, which they had so long been deprived of, and when concessions were wrung one by one from the weak hands of the rulers, the people knew not how to use their new-born freedom; they deemed it to be inherent in licentiousness only; the very worship of God was considered as homage unsuited to lovers of liberty, and every one who differed from the arbitrary standard set up by the mob leaders who had assumed the sway, like the scum which rises to the surface of the waters amidst the fury of the tempest, was deemed an enemy of the commonwealth, and suffered confiscation, banishment or death, just as his merciless judges might decree in the name of liberty. There was no element of freedom among the men of that land; they had long dealt in wild speculation on the rights of man; but they had no respect for the earliest record of rational liberty, of obedience to laws regularly enacted, of order in legislation, of a state based upon the acknowledged chieftancy of the great Creator. The consequences which therefore ensued, might easily have been foreseen; one crime brought on the other, one convulsion preceded the other; and when the men of blood had in their mad rage destroyed each other, the exhausted and wearied people sunk into the arms of a most relentless tyranny without a struggle, glorying in the glitter of conquest over foreign foes, till their own land was at length overrun by the very armies over which they had triumphed in a hundred battles. But I am not going to deliver a political lecture; our object can only be to exhibit the power of the word of God over the happiness of mankind, and to employ the reflections thus evoked to attune our hearts to ascribe due glory and praise to the great Being, through whose wisdom guided, the patriots of the revolutionary struggle succeeded in framing a plan of government, the chief excellence whereof is derived from the law of Israel, and which recognises the broad principle of universal equality in the eyes of the law of all its citizens, and maintains the right of each individual to think for himself, on matters of belief and religion, and lays no restriction upon the conduct of all residents, whether citizens or aliens, provided their acts do not interfere with the public welfare, and the protection which each individual can of right claim from the laws.
It was the good providence of a number of Jacob's descendants to be here at the time the struggle for emancipation took place. Several, attached by habit and that love for order for which Israelites are generally distinguished, adhered in feeling to the fortunes of the mother country; but by far the greater number obeyed the call to arms which their native land or the home of their adoption addressed to them; and many of the ensanguined plains were stained with the blood of Israelites, who, few though they were in number, at that early day, yet shared to the fullest proportion, the perils and privations of their countrymen. And when peace at length shed her benignant light again over the land, the claims of Israel were recognised by their fellow-citizens of different persuasions, and equally with others they were admitted to the rights for which they had struggled, and this with but few and limited exceptions. There was no distinction recognised in the charter of government which was adopted, after the public mind called for a united administration of the affairs relating to the whole republic, and it was stipulated that no test should be exacted from any man as the prerequisite to his admission to office, or other honourable employment. We are consequently part of the government of the land, we are not merely tolerated; we do not worship in this house by the sufferance of our more numerous neighbours; but because God has vouchsafed unto us enlargement through the wisdom with which his word had inspired the wise men, who were the fathers of the land. We need not therefore look about in dread, in fear of uttering our honest conviction from apprehension of danger from persecution; since there is no man here, since there are no combinations of classes who could legally without subverting the social compact arrogate to themselves the right to question us concerning our thoughts, words and actions, which do not conflict with the political interests and the good morals of the land. For many centuries had we been deemed enemies to the human race; occasionally tolerated, we were indeed; every now and then we were permitted to erect Synagogues to assemble in them for the worship of the Most High. But again was this privilege denied, and we were compelled to quit the country which had afforded us a temporary asylum, plundered of the fruits of industry which we had gathered amidst contumely and degradation. One country, I speak of Holland, having thrown off the iron yoke of Spanish oppression, opened itself to receive our fugitives, who fled from the legal tyranny of Spain, or the lawless violence of a chief of the half-barbarous Cossacks; but unless I err, it was merely the privilege of living unmolested, and of exercising religion freely, which was granted, not political equality. At all events no names of Jewish officers in the service of the United Provinces ever reached me; though there might nevertheless have been instances of the kind. But it is certain that here, in this country, the Jew was never persecuted; no assault was ever made on him for his religion; and here his belief was as much recognised by the organic law as the system of any other section of the community. In other words, no religion whatever was spoken of as the basis of government; and though the members of that virtuous assembly were for the greater part truly devout men, they thought it not incumbent on them to fortify their respective dogmas by constitutional safeguards. They wished to establish a civil government, based upon the soundest principles of morality, and for which speculative religious sanction was not needed, therefore not required.
We will not assert that no religious prejudices exist against us, and that many individuals, if they could, would not gladly restrict us in the rights of liberty of conscience which we enjoy; for alas! under the best government there are always to be found men who envy their neighbours what they possess in common, and though such as these claim the utmost liberty for themselves, they nevertheless see with a jealous eye others claiming the same right for themselves. All I meant to assert is, that the organic law of the country has guaranteed to us the freedom of conscience in its fullest extent; and whilst this constitution endures, which God grant may be for many generations to come, we are safe from molestation from the combined forces of the enemies of Israel and those of equal rights.
Under the protection therefore of the broad shield of political equality, have year after year new accessions been made to the ranks of the followers of Jacob's God. In places where the face of a Jew was a curiosity not many years ago, there are now silently assembling congregations who call themselves servants of the One God. On the margin of the western lakes, where but lately the savage pursued his prey, undisturbed by the presence of the white invader of his solitudes, the great Eternal is invoked in the language of the Land of Canaan, and there where the mighty Mississippi rolls on its unceasing flood into the lap of the ocean, there too they contemplate erecting a habitation for the glory of the Most High God. And they who sought these shores fleeing before unmerited persecution, in want of all things, acquire, by degrees, under the blessing of our Father, the means of placing themselves beyond want, and of extending the helping hand across the great water, to their suffering brethren in the eastern hemisphere. O this land might indeed be made the home of the Jew in his captivity; here indeed he might take deep root, and flourish like the cedars on Lebanon, until it should please the Lord to bring him back to the land which his fathers possessed. But what have we hitherto done? How have we requited the kindness which has been granted to us guilty sinners? In n a portion of the earth could Judaism so develope itself as in this; here we might erect schools, send out men to admonish the distant brethren of their duty; here we might pursue honourable employments, embark in agriculture, and devote ourselves to learning, whilst all the time all our acts should be within the permitted circles in which they are circumscribed by the word of God. But this, unfortunately, has not been our course. Many have became tired of the union with Israel, and have wedded themselves to strangers to our faith; and so glaring has this sinning become, that men who devote themselves to draw us into apostacy, have noticed it in their reports, and asserted, at the same time, that American Jews, with few honourable exceptions, are unbelievers in their own laws. It is time for us to awake from our long sleep; we have too long lain drunk from the intoxication of sudden liberty, to which, for centuries, we had been strangers. Difficulties and trials caused us to seek protection from our heavenly Father; but ease and liberty induced us to value ourselves upon our own wisdom, to trust implicitly to our own means for temporal happiness, forgetful that there is a future, a future full of bitterness if our deeds condemn us before the judgment seat of the everlasting Judge. Had all the Israelites living here exhibited a uniform religious life, been humble in their department towards new-comers, and drawn these to them by the bonds of brotherly affection, how powerful a body of believers would now be found all over this land. But the stranger, upon his arrival, saw the neglect of the Sabbath, the profanation of the holy days, the endearment bestowed upon gentile women who had been married, against our laws, to sons of Israel, the apathy with which Jewish females, who had espoused the stranger, were yet tolerated in our houses; and, if his faith was not firm, which state the defective education so many had received abroad, only too much promoted, he soon followed in the destructive path which others had trodden before, and he became lost to us; or, if left in our ranks, added no strength to our cause, and became, in turn, a stumbling-block to others. It is time that we should remove this reproach from us. Other sects employ all their energy to obtain converts from the others, and to extend what they think the benefits of their systems to all whom they can gain over. But we do not desire this. We only wish to confirm those who are Jews, and educate the younger branches, that they, too, may be faithful. Let me, then, appeal to you who are here to-day, to endeavour to correct the evil as far as this may be in your power. You are one of the oldest congregations in the country, and there are some yet among you who were present, more than sixty-four years ago, when the foundation of this house was laid. Let it be, then, your study to endeavour to lend a helping hand to establish firmly the structure which our predecessors have raised, that it never may want worshippers who will flock hither to offer up their prayers in sincerity to the God of their fathers. This God who has so bountifully blessed you, who has granted you freedom, who has prospered the work of your hands, has a claim on your gratitude; and how can you show this but in your conduct? how better, than by making this conducive to purity in yourselves, and to cleanse others from iniquity? Ay, every Israelite should be a missionary to his fellows, and each should take due care that, in him and his associates, the name of the God of Jacob be sanctified. Much remains to be done; there need be no fear of our speedily exhausting the field of labour; we require improvement in great and small things; and, if we go on unitedly, and act with deference to each other, and all for a holy end: this will, indeed, become a country where the Jew will have his home, where he may travel through its length and its breadth, and find brothers with whom he can worship, of whose food he may partake, and with whom he has the same hopes, with whom he has one God and Father. This is the only thanks which we can bring to the Lord, to exhibit to the world that we are not unworthy of the bounty which we have received, and that, in the days of freedom, we are as closely united to the One in heaven as when chains and sorrows, with enemies all around us on earth, compelled us to raise our eyes on high, and to ask thence for that aid which the enmity of man denied us on earth.
If we thus act, we have the fullest assurance that the Lord will farther bless us abundantly from his exhaustless stores; and let, then, calamity befall others, we shall be shielded by his mercy, in the words of the inspired writer:
בשש צרות יצילך ובשבע לא יגע בך רע: ברעב פדך ממות ובמלחמה מידי חרב: — וידעת כי שלום אהלך ופקדת נוך ולא תחטא: איוב ה' י"ט כ' כ"ד
"In six troubles he will deliver thee, and in the seventh no evil shall touch thee. In famine he will redeem thee from death; and in war from the power of the sword. And thou shalt know that there is peace in thy tent, and thou shalt number thy house, and shalt miss not one." Job 5:19, 20, 24.
O, it is a holy thing to have the peace of God in our hearts; we then will ascribe success to the Giver of all that we have; we will look to Him for a continuance of his protection; and, if evil befalls the land, we will seek his mercy to protect us amidst the pangs of famine, amidst the deadly arrows of the pestilence, and the fury of the sword. And if we act so, and deserve all this good, how sweetly will our voice of thanksgiving mingle itself with that of all servants of God, of whatever nation, of whatever faith, who, with us, feel that "it is good to thank the Lord, and to sing praises unto the Most High." And thus will it be proven to all, that Israel is a people deserving of the ancient name of God's children, when they remain faithful as Abraham was faithful, and uphold firmly the law which was given through Moses as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.
And may peace and good-will from all men be our portion; and may the countenance of the Lord shine unto us to enlighten our darkness, and to lead us safely on the path of life even unto his presence unto eternity. Amen.
Thursday, Heshvan 27, Nov. 27, 5606.
There are not to be found among the virtues which adorn human nature any which so pre-eminently characterize the soul of the righteous, as the devotion to these two principles. The one will accompany him through his every-day actions, no less than in his public deeds; it will stamp whatever he says or does with the seal of as lofty purity, with a singleness of purpose which looks not to the right or the left, to see whether gain or loss is to result from word or deed; whilst the love of peace will ever urge him to forego his own will and to yield becomingly to the wishes of others, if by so doing he can increase the happiness of his fellow-beings. He discovers truth and peace in the word and works of God; and as a follower of the Merciful he aims perpetually to be in a small measure on earth to those who look up to him, what the Creator is to all creation: "Love ye truth and peace," is the admonition of the prophet, and Israelites will be best distinguished as a righteous people, when they never forget the injunction which proceeded from the Source of all wisdom and goodness.