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בס"ד

The Past and Present

A Thanksgiving sermon Delivered, Nov. 23, 1848, at Cincinnati, Ohio

By the Rev. James K. Gutheim

Brethren—The occasion for which we are assembled here this day, to offer our humble thanks to the Dispenser of all Good, for the manifold blessings we enjoy at His hand, is not peculiar to us as Israelites. The celebration of this day is enjoined by no specific religious precept, distinguished by no special rites and observances, commemorative of no Jewish national event. It is in obedience to the proclamation of the chief magistrate of this state, calling on all religious denominations to assemble at their respective places of worship and render thanks and praise to our Eternal Benefactor, that we have met here this day. The “Thanksgiving Day” is an, old, time-honoured institution of the Puritan fathers, observed as a sacred custom by their descendants throughout the Union;—it is a “day of thanks” for the American people.

And do we not form, my brethren, an integral part of this body-politic? Do we not enjoy the precious fruit of the tree of liberty, that has been planted in this soil by the fathers of this country—whose parentage by adoption we also claim,—that affords shelter to millions of happy human beings, irrespective of creed and nationality? Are we not affected in common with our fellow-citizens entertaining religious convictions different from ours, by every event promotive of, or detrimental to the prosperity of this country? If our borders are threatened by foreign foes, our lives and homes too are put in jeopardy; if the authority of the law is disregarded, our peace and security too are at stake; if the crops fail and gaunt famine stalks abroad; if disease and pestilence rage, we too are visited by the affection, we too are the sufferers. Hence it is our duty cheerfully to mingle our voices with the general chorus of praise that is this day ascending from all parts of the Union, to the Supreme Ruler of nations and events, who has bestowed on us his blessings in such a signal manner; hence it becomes us “to enter His gates with thanks, His courts with praise.”

<<541>>There was a time, my friends, when we were treated as aliens in the various countries that gave us birth; when every privilege and right inseparably connected with the dignity of man, were denied us; when we were excluded from every participation in public celebrations by the people in whose midst we lived. That time, for us at least, is happily past. The law of this country recognises no distinction in favour or to the detriment of any religious denomination. Free as the air of heaven is the mind of man, sacred as the word of the living God is his religious opinion, and no persecution or oppression must check the free exercise of the one, no imposed disqualifications hinder the free expression of the other. And thus “civil disabilities on religious pious grounds” is a term long since unknown in the statute book of any commonwealth of this country. We are Israelites, but we are at the same time American citizens, in the purest and fullest sense of the word; our fate is bound up with that of our common country; and whenever danger is impending, we are, and must be in the foremost ranks to ward it off; we pray for its prosperity, rejoice in its happy progress, and render thanks to the Almighty for the blessing He has vouchsafed to bestow on it. To pursue this course we are admonished by the Prophet Jeremiah, who thus exhorted the exiles of his days:

דרשו את שלום העיר אשר הגליתיאתכם שמה והתפללו בעדה אל ה׳ כי בשלומהיהיה לכם שלום

“Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried captives, and pray for it unto the Lord; for in the peace thereof will ye have peace.” (Jerem. 29:7.)

Let us, therefore, my friends, endeavour to become conscious, how deeply we are indebted to our Almighty Father, for permitting us to celebrate this day.

First, By taking a retrospect of the state of probation through which we have passed.

Secondly, by reviewing our present condition; and thirdly, by inquiring into the feeling of gratitude that ought to inspire us in our character as Israelites, and as American citizens.

For this purpose I have chosen as text the three closing verses of the prayer of Moses, the ninetieth Psalm.

שמחנו כימות עניתנו שנות ראינו רעה׃ יראה אל עבדיך פעלך והדרך על בניהם׃ ויהי נעם ה׳ אלהינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננהו׃

“Make us glad according to the days, wherein thou hast afflicted us, the <<542>>years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea the work of our hands establish thou it.”

I.

The history of the world is the tribunal of judgment of the world!” says a celebrated German poet. Whatever the deeds of man, whatever the events that occurred in the bosom of the human family, history submits them in its records to posterity to render an impartial verdict. And thus we read, how tribes grew into nations, how they flourished, acted their part for a time, and then disappeared from the stage of the world. Nation was conquered and absorbed by nation, and by a continued process of amalgamation the distinctive boundaries were removed, a more intimate connexion established between the different tribes of the. human family, and a wider range afforded to the human mind. There is no doubt that Providence had assigned a distinct mission, a special branch in the education of the human species, to each particular nation, which they were compelled to accomplish.

Of all nations, however, that ever performed a part on the stage of the world, and whose annals testify to their rise, progress, decline, and downfall, the children of Israel take the most prominent stand. Is it for the world-renowned conquests they have achieved; for the great discoveries they have made in science and art; for the extensive commercial intercourse they have established between remote countries and climes, while yet they had an independent political existence?—By no means. Their mission was of a higher standard, involving no less an object than the temporal and spiritual welfare of the human race, based on the truth of religion. For this Divine end they were singled out from the midst of nations by their heavenly Father; for this holy purpose they were protected against utter ruin, and preserved from amalgamation, amidst the crumbling of thrones and the crush of empires, a band of living witnesses of the living God, scattered among all the nations of the earth.

Yet with all this, history is comparatively silent concerning our people, for a space of near eighteen hundred years. And why is this? Can it be said (to employ a known maxim,) that <<543>>that period of our existence, which furnished least matter for the pen of the historian, comprised our happiest days? The world knows better; that but a life of tribulation and misery was granted us. The cause of this silence must be sought in the contempt which was entertained towards a poor, down-trodden class of men; in the prevailing ignorance of the spirit, essence, and power of Judaism; in the humiliating shame that would mantle the cheek of the historical writer, and paralyse his hand, whenever he attempted to record the inhuman treatment, to which we were subjected.

Picture to yourselves a people, carried away captives from their native soil by a proud conqueror, dispersed all over the habitable globe, nowhere finding a permanent asylum, chased about from country to country, from the east to the west and back again, from the south to the north and back again, like a deer that is fleeing before its ruthless pursuers; picture to yourselves this people persecuted with the deadliest animosity, with all the torturing appliances human ingenuity could devise; the shafts of prejudice, hatred, and oppression constantly aimed at their devoted heads, excluded from every right man can lay claim to: and you will have some conception of the state of suffering our fathers were made to undergo throughout the medieval age. And all this they had to endure, because they would not renounce the inestimable prize conferred on them from on high; because they would not abjure the heavenly truth, the precious boon inherited from their ancestors, destined as it is to become the property of all mankind. Speak of the courage of the fierce warrior who in the heat of strife, heedless of danger, with boiling blood rushes on to mortal combat:—the only true courage is exhibited by him whose spirit does not quail under the direst affliction, who sustains with fortitude and resignation the perils and sorrows he is unable to avert. Whatever then was the lot of our people in those days “when every head was sick, and every heart ached,” however much the storm raged from without, they retired within themselves, and found peace and consolation in the exercise of those religious duties they were capable of performing, and in the reflections on the Divine promises given in their behalf. They recognised in their heavy trials the chastising hand of a loving Father, and through the thick pervading darkness, the <<544>>light of hope shone brightly from the distance, promising a happier future. Well may we apply to them,. the words of the English bard:

“Affliction is the good man’s shining scene;
Prosperity conceals his brightest ray:
As night to stars, so lustre gives to man.”

How often and how fervently then must the words of our text have been uttered by our sires: “Make us glad, oh God, according to the days wherein thou past afflicted us; the years we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory upon their children.”

II.

Having in the foregoing attempted to draw a general outline of the state of probation through which we have passed, let us now view our present position.

Towards the close of the last century a change had been effectually wrought in the mind of man. The intolerant spirit of the middle ages was unable to maintain its supremacy against the repeated attacks that had for a long time been directed against it; a political as well as mental revolution changed the civil and social aspect of the world. Separation of church and state, equal rights and equal duties to all men without reference religious creed, were propositions generally acknowledged in theory and partly acted upon in practice. A new era was thus ushered in on the horizon of mankind.

While a change for the better was thus going on without, activity and new vigorous life began to be manifested in our midst. During the long period of oppression and exclusion, the pursuit of general literature, of arts and sciences, was closed to the Israelite, the Talmud and its commentaries constituting his chief study. In his isolated state this study proved a mighty instrument in preserving his elasticity of mind, and in making him capable of grasping with energy and success the various branches of literature and scientific culture, whenever he would be permitted to do so. The time had now come, when the Israelite too should make his voice heard, and Providence had singled out the than for the occasion. Moses the Third, as he is styled, in juxtaposition with Moses the son of Amram, and Moses the son of Maimon, <<545>>the immortal Mendelssohn, gave the first impulse towards arousing his brethren from the lethargy into which they had sunk, and making them conscious of the position they ought to occupy. Assisted by a band of noble friends. his efforts were not in vain. His example excited the emulation of the mass; the dust that had accumulated for ages was quickly shaken off, and the Israelite soon became aware of what was required of him under the changed aspect of things. He saw that the mission for which he was chosen would not permit him to be behind the age, but that, on the contrary, it was his duty to forget and forgive the wrongs and injuries heaped upon him, and to conciliate the prejudices that had yet a lingering hold on the minds of many, by taking the lead in every movement by which his fellow-man could be improved and benefited, and by showing that his religion, so far from being a bar to modern civilization, was on the contrary the fountain-head whence all civilization originally flowed.

And thus the barrier that had been created between the Israelite and the world, is here completely, there partly removed. In many of the civilized countries of Europe, he is fully emancipated and boldly stands forth in the vindication of his own rights, and those of his fellow-man.  Examine the history of the day, look at the fierce struggle that is now agitating a people determined upon severing the fetters, by which despotic rule held them bound, and you will find that the Israelite is no vile spectator, but the champion for the spread and consolidation of liberal principles. Nor is he overlooked. He is preferred to offices of trust and importance, and justifies the confidence reposed in him. Has it not recently happened that in two national assemblies of a country where we suffered the bitterest persecution, two Israelites were elected as vice-presidents by the national representatives?

In reviewing these facts, my friends, let us not fall into the error, to ascribe everything to our own exertions, unaided by divine assistance. יד ה׳ עשתה זאת “It is the hand of the Lord, that has accomplished all this.” To Him we are indebted for all the benefits we enjoy. He watched over us when we were beset by danger; He granted us enlargement, when in His inscrutable wisdom He found the time opportune. And so pray we in humility this day: “Make us glad, oh God, according to the days <<546>>wherein thou hast afflicted us, the years, wherein we have seen evil; may thy work appear to thy servants, and thy glory upon their children.”

III.

“Thank the Lord, for he is kind, his love endureth for ever.” The love of God is limited to no time, to no people. It is universal, embracing all his children. As the sun shines to all, so the love of God extends over all his creatures. It is this universal love that made known his will to teach man the way he should walk; it is even this universal love, that selected us as humble instruments in His hand, as repositories of those heavenly truths that are destined to become the religion of all mankind. And why then should we not feel grateful for this on this general day of thanks? Is not the “Thanksgiving Day” itself an imitation of one of our own institutions? It is no stranger in Israel. We therefore hail it as an old friend, and rejoice in its being instrumental of uniting the hearts of millions in praise of our universal Father.

But thanks are not to consist in words only. Words are good if they spring from the bottom of our hearts, and impel us to deeds. Sincere thankfulness we can only testify by our works. Do you, therefore, oh Israelites, feel grateful that the Lord has saved you from so many perils and has permitted you to carry out your religious principles without restraint and hindrance: then must you show by your conduct, that the heavenly lessons have not been taught you in vain; then must you endeavour to foster the knowledge of your religion to your utmost extent, and to create for it a firm basis, by erecting and supporting good religious institutions; then must you strive to gain for it the regard and esteem of all, by carrying out the grand moral principles it inculcates, by excelling in everything that is good and noble.

Be thankful to the Lord! At no period of existence was our country in a more prosperous condition than at the present. Peace is established without and within our borders, and nothing prevents the industrious citizen from devoting himself to his peaceable pursuits. The soil has yielded its fruit, and the granaries of the husbandman are filled with abundance and plenty. Commerce and mechanical trades are flourishing, and their fruits distributed among all classes of our community. While thus <<547>>blessed, should our hearts not elate with gratitude? Should we not acknowledge the source whence we derive all these bounties? Should it not be our aim to repay the manifold gifts showered upon us, by cheerfully responding to the calls of suffering humanity, be they near or distant, by sympathizing with the oppressed, by relieving the want of the needy, by performing deeds of love and charity? If these impressions are grafted on our minds by the celebration of this day, and serve as a guide through our daily walks; if thus our whole life becomes an expression of thanks: then indeed will our “thanksgiving” be acceptable before the throne of the Almighty. And the beauty of the Lord our God, will be upon us, and he will establish the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands he established it, now and for ever. Amen.