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בס"ד

The Essence of Our Religion.

A Sermon by J. K. G.

Father of all beings! Eternal Source of grace and mercy! listen unto us, while we invoke Thee in spirit and in truth. “Open Thou my lips, that my mouth may proclaim thy praise.” Amen.

My hearers! So many, so important are the benefits we derive from religion, so all absorbing are its interests, so all powerful is its influence through man’s whole life, that an hour’s reflection on its nature and essence will, I doubt not, be as welcome to you as it is pleasing to me. Who would not draw from the fountain of life, and provide for his happiness here and his salvation hereafter? And such a fountain of life is “religion.” It is a balm, the healing qualities of which are applicable to all wounds. For thy agitated heart, my brother, my sister! agitated by the storms of life, canst thou choose a better remedy than to direct thy view on high, to the Father of light and truth? And does not such a confiding inspire thee with strength, courage, and hope? If the world does not acknowledge thy deserts, should not thy disappointed mind feel content in the thought: “Lo, I also have contributed my mite towards the welfare of mankind! and though not appreciated by my fellow-beings, yet the Omniscient Power that fills the universe will leave nothing unrewarded?” When death snatches away from thee a member of thy family, a beloved father, a dear mother, a brother, a sister, a friend, or a benefactor, shouldst thou not find comfort and consolation in the reflection: “In the heavenly regions beyond the grave, I shall again meet with those dear to my heart, and there live with them for ever and inseparably united?” Hast thou an opportunity of gladdening the poor man’s soul with a charitable gift, of imparting from thy food to the hungry, from thy drink to the thirsty, of supplying the needy with garments, of cheering the disconsolate with words that glow with the warmth of a sympathizing soul, a feeling heart, of defending the weak against his oppressor, of being the orphan’s father, the widow’s prop; and should not thy heart rejoice at the godly deed thou hast consummated? should not thy inward judge be glad when thou endeavourest to imitate Him from whom myriads and myriads of beings receive daily their nourishment, and tokens of his solicitude? If, after having successfully withstood the temptations which unhallowed desires and vehement passions have held out to thee, thou again takest the golden precepts of morality and virtue for thy guide, showing thy adherence to the divine precepts by a pure, exemplary conduct before God and man: should not thy conscience rejoice at the victory thou hast won, which is greater than the conquest of a city? For this conquest over earthly things only requires purity and strength of the soul.

Such, my friends, are the benign results of that heavenly daughter called religion! Should we, therefore, not endeavour to pay her due homage, in order that the Almighty Father may look down upon us with pleasure? Yes, let us devote our whole life to her service, since for such a purpose it has been given us; but first let us reflect and examine:

“Whether the Mosaic Religion, which we profess, does answer all those ends?”

I will take for the text of my present discourse the following from the conclusion of the prophecy of Malachi:

זכרו תורת משה עבדי אשר צויתי אותו בחורב על כל ישראל חקים ומשפטים׃

“Remember ye the law of Moses, my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb, for all Israel (with the) statutes and judgments.”

If “religion” is to be firmly established in a pure and bright form, as the faith of a nation, if it is to fulfil its object of educating man as the image of the Supreme Father, representing him as the most excellent being of the whole creation: it must contain those doctrines that teach him in what relation he stands to God, to his equals and to himself. It must unequivocally show him how to form his line of conduct, and what ends he must have in view. It must teach and emphatically convince him that there is but “One God,” who has created and who preserves all; who sustains all in the miraculous manner which we discover every where; and that man, if he has faithfully fulfilled the ends of his creation, is destined to eternal happiness. It must, likewise, be his source of consolation, that he may be able to endure the hardships which may befall him on his path through life, in the name and for the sake of Heaven. Its votaries must exclaim, “unless thy law had been my delight, I should have perished in mine affliction.” (Ps. 119:92.) Let us see, my hearers, whether the law of Moses does provide for these emergencies; whether the rays of that sun, which rose thousands of years ago on Mount Sinai, also called Horeb, does yet warm, revive, comfort, solace and cheer us.

The Mosaic Religion makes humanity the duty of man. Through its wise precepts, commandments, and rules on toleration, abstemiousness, temperance, honesty, and truth, through its sublime doctrines on the excellence of man, his lofty calling and dignity, above all other created beings, as the holy Psalmist sings: “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour; thou madst him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.” (Ps. 8:5,6); through its beautiful precepts to hasten to the aid of our suffering brother and to forgive those who have injured us; through all these precepts our religion is calculated to transform the rude uncivilized man into a refined, and enlightened being, who may feel contented here, and who has the means of preparing himself for eternal happiness. Therefore, says the word of God: “In the image of God he has made man.” (Gen. 9:6.) Not as regards thy bodily construction, but in thy spiritual organization art thou the image of the Most High. He has imparted unto thee a ray of his spirit, a spark which it shall be thy endeavour to watch till it become a bright flame, an essence which thou art to perfect by mature reflection, persevering meditation, and study on the great and wondrous works which present themselves to thy view from sunrise to sunset, and through the hours of the night, on the change of the seasons, and above all, on the wise and inscrutable government of the world which thy Creator makes manifest every where and at all times. The Mosaic Religion contains those doctrines which make man the most fortunate being on earth. Its precepts are true and everlasting. “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making the simple wise. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever” (Ps. 19.) And should not the strict observance of the following sentence convince him, that he may be content and happy: “And unto man he said, Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job. 28:28).

“Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God” (Deut. 18:13). Do not deviate from his way either to the right or to the left. Have Him always before thy eyes and in thy heart, and look upon Him as the most holy Being thy imagination is able to conceive. Thou must, in order to strictly adhere to Him, “love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

“Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him, and he shall bring it to pass” (Ps. 37:5).

Thus you see, my friends! that the Mosaic Religion is calculated to make man happy, if he conforms to the commandments of the Lord, if he considers “virtue” as his guide, the “fear of the Lord” his protecting shield. Therefore does the prophet exclaim—“Remember ye the law of Moses, my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb, for all Israel, with the statutes and commandments.” The Mosaic Religion teaches us distinctly the duties we owe to our God, to our neighbours, and to ourselves. Indeed, what should we have known of duties, if it had not taught them to us. Whilst all other nations of antiquity were groping their way in the darkness which ignorance had drawn around them; whilst they offered their worship to Moloch, and indulged in every other kind of heathenish and barbarian practices, which were abominations in the eyes of the Lord: our fathers, as soon as they were constituted a people, were blessed with a code of laws, bearing the divine stamp of truth on its face, a law which has stood the test of time and ages, and the provisions of which will last for ever. As far as civilization extends, its authority is acknowledged, and wherever mankind have entered into social relations, their compact is based on the principles it inculcates. It was therefore with a just pride that the messenger and prophet of the Lord, standing on the threshold of eternity, addressed his people: “Behold I have taught you statutes, and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:6,7,8.) True wisdom and sterling philosophy, not a philosophy which through its corrosive nature saps the very foundation of our existence, and argues away the sublime hopes of our destiny—but that true philosophy of life which elevates man over the paltry dealings of his earthly career, and leads him to contemplate on things indispensable to his well-being hereafter—will be acquired by a diligent application to those sacred pages which contain the word of God. For there we will find our various duties distinctly described. Thus, also, we read in Deut. 10:12, 13; “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God, require of thee but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart and all thy soul; to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good.”

These verses contain the duties we owe to our Maker; and if we search for the duties we owe to our fellow-man, can we find a more beautiful and more sublime commandment than: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself?” (Lev. 19:18.) And does not this commandment comprise all our duties? But should we understand the words “thy neighbour” as referring only to our brother in faith, as many members of other religions have endeavoured to explain it? No, my friends! under the term “thy neighbour,” are meant all who belong to the human family. We have only to refer to Scripture to verify the truth of this proposition.

Whenever Scripture treats of Israelites exclusively, it invariable employs or adds the terms עברי Hebrew, or בני ישראל children of Israel. (Vide Lev. 21:46; Deut 15:12, and other places.) But if the subject is a general one, referring to Israelites and non-Israelites, the Scriptures employ the terms ריע אח עמית — neighbour — brother — fellow-man. Ought this not to be enough to teach us that it is our duty to love those nations, in whose midst we live, as our brothers? The same is taught by the celebrated Jewish philosopher Maimonides: “On the whole,” he says, “religion enjoins us to be active in our love towards our fellow-men, even towards idolaters. It is our duty also to support their sick and needy, and to bury their dead, equally with those of Israel. For the goodness and mercy of the Lord extends over all his creatures (Ps. 145), and his law should of right tend in every possible way to promote love and happiness.” (Law of Kings, 10, § 12.)

“Sanctify yourselves and be ye holy: for I am the Lord your God. And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Observe ye my commandments and do them, I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” (Lev. 20:7, and 11:44.) Be careful with regard to your soul, in order that she may not be defiled, and that she may reappear pure and stainless before Him, from whose hands she went forth unpolluted. Endeavour to purify her, that you may be holy. But do not, at the same time, forget the body; for our religion tells us that we should spare the temple which God has formed, in order that the spirit may live therein the time which He has allotted to it! Be content with your lot, for “a sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” (Prov. 14:30.) Be patient and forbearing; do not arouse your passions and love to walk in humility before the Lord; close the doors of your heart to intemperance; avoid bad company; flee indolence and idleness, and take virtue for your guide! Should we not listen to this friendly invitation of our divine religion? Should it not animate and rejoice us?

“Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb, for all Israel, with the statutes and commandments.”

Yes, my hearers! the Mosaic Religion makes man joyous and happy. It opens unto us delightful prospects beyond the grave. It teaches that the good will be rewarded, and the evil punished; it shows that this world is but the antechamber to the world to come. “O how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee,” (Ps. 31:19,) exclaims the holy poet. Let this be to us a stimulus to become true adorers of the Lord, in order to be worthy of that eternal good. And could we for a moment harbour the idea that God has doomed this soul, which He has so richly endowed with high faculties, to destruction? No, whatever there is which is from earth, will go back to the earth, and whatever came from heaven, will return to heaven. The departure from this life does not finish our existence; a higher, better, purer life, is in store for us: a life where we shall stand nearer to the Deity, where many things will be explained, that were shrouded here from our view in mist and in darkness, and where the thirst of the wise after wisdom will be more fully satisfied. There all congenial spirits will meet, and be united under the panoply of the eternal Father! There the righteous will no more be afflicted with trials and sufferings; there he will receive the crown due to his merit, and “his soul will be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord his God.”

The Mosaic Religion teaches, that piety does not consist in words, but in good deeds, in good actions. “The study of the law is not the principal, but the observance of it.” (Aboth, i.) Of what avail is wisdom to the wise, if it is not employed for the improvement and welfare of mankind? What is the use of power, if it is not employed in aid and defence of the weak, if, instead to build up, it is used to pull down and destroy? Of what benefit are riches to the rich, if they do not serve for the amelioration of suffering humanity? if they only tend to be a curse to their possessor? To provide for the fatherless and widows, to cheer the mourners, to attend the sick: that is our duty, that is what our religion requires of us. We ought not to speculate continually how to accumulate property, how to grow richer in treasures, which leave us poorer in contentment! No, we must at times employ our thoughts and energies to discover how to undertake and accomplish some lasting good, which may produce benefit even to future generations. “Charity is one of those things, of which we enjoy the fruit in this world, while the principal remains unimpaired for the next,” say our sages.

It is not in vain that God has given to every man peculiar talents, and assigned him a peculiar position; every one is thus called upon to aid in completing the noble structure of improvement of the human race: the one as architect, the other as journeyman, according to their respective abilities, in order that the name of the Lord may be glorified before the eyes of all the inhabitants of the earth. And it is by such means that all may perceive and acknowledge, that the law of Moses inculcates pure morality and virtue, that it comforts our heart, enlightens our understanding, and exalts our being. Amen.