|Vol. V, No. 6
Elul 5607, September 1847
Lecture on Haphtorah Lech Lecha.*
Delivered at the West London Synagogue of British Jews, by the Rev. D. W. Marks, Sabbath October 30, 5607 (1846).
The הפטרה appointed to be read this afternoon extends, according to the division in the English Bibles, from the 17th verse of the 40th chapter of Isaiah, to the 16th verse (inclusive) of the 41st chapter. But the Haphtorah connecting the five last verses of the 40th chapter, with what follows in the 41st, entirely preserves the sense of the prophecy, which is certainly not the case in the division of chapters adopted in the translations. The passage selected for our text, and which must have impressed our ancestors as bearing some analogy to the portion of the Pentateuch which we have just heard read, is found in the 41st chapter of Isaiah, from the 2d to the 5th verse.
מי העיר ממזרח צדק יקראהו לרגלו יתן לפניו גוים ומלכים ירד יתן כעפר חרבו כקש נדף קשתו: ירדפם יעבור שלום ארח ברגליו לא יבוא: מי פעל ועשה קרא הדרות מראש אני יי ראשון ואת אחרנים אני הוא:
“Who did raise up the righteous man from the East, who appointed him the path he should tread? who subdued nations at his presence, and gave Him dominion over kings, made them like dust before his sword, and like the driven stubble before his bow? He pursues them, he passes peacefully, no one hath before trodden his path. Who hath performed and accomplished these things, calling the generations from the beginning? It was I, Adonai, the first, and with the last I will be the same.”
The prophecy from which I have quoted, is (as will be seen in the sequel) of a similar tendency to that brought under our consideration on the last Sabbath; and has for its object, the consolation of Israel in their misfortunes. It exhorts them to continue steadfast to the intelligent principle propounded by the patriarch Abraham, of the absolute unity of the Godhead; and it promises future prosperity and the choicest spiritual blessings to the descendants of Abraham, if they remain firm to the doctrine which he unfolded; since what God made known through their progenitor to the first generations, He will require to see practised by the last generations.
The Haphtorah opens with a commission to the prophet to raise the courage of the broken-hearted Israelites, who, by reason of their prolonged captivity are sunk into despair, believing themselves entirely forsaken by their God.למה תאמר יעקב ותדבר ישראל נסתרה דרכי מיי ומאלהי משפטי יעבור “Wherefore sayest thou, O Jacob, and why speakest thou thus, O Israel, My condition is hidden from the Lord, and my cause is not regarded by my God?” Are you then ignorant of what the Almighty has already performed for Israel, and what He has sworn to accomplish for you in future? Are you not aware that God is eternal, constant, and that His great purposes are unchangeable? הלא ידעת אם לא שמעת אלהי עולם יי “What dost thou not know, hast thou not heard, how that Adonai is the everlasting God?” Think you that He who saved your fathers cannot deliver you, that He who burst asunder your chains in Egypt, cannot in the same miraculous manner unrivet the fetters which now hold you in captivity? Is all the potency of God at an end, is His supreme influence quite spent? No; לא ייעץ ולא ייגע “Neither is He faint or weary,” and whatever sorrows may be now thy portion, whatever trials thou mayest be required to endure, and however thou mayest consider thyself unable to bear up against thy sufferings and thy persecutions: God best knows thy condition and the fitting time to relieve it; for though thy knowledge be confined within a given circle, bearing reference to the present time only, God is eternal, omniscient and omnipresent; yea אין חקר לתבונתו “His supreme understanding is unsearchable.” The prophet intimates that the strongest evidences may be found of God’s watchful providence to the Israelites, in the fact that they have not sunk under their severe persecutions. Never was there a people so tempest-beaten as the Israelites, of whom a vestige of nationality or of identity could be preserved; but in this remarkable instance נתן ליעף כח “God has continually reinvigorated the faint, ולאין אונים עצמה ירבה and to those who were infirm He has multiplied force, יעפו נערים ויגיו ובחורים כשל יכשלו Though the most robust may sink beneath affliction and become faint, and though chosen youths may stumble and fall: וקוי יי יחליפו כח those that place their confidence in the Almighty Lord shall gather new strength יעלו אבר כנשרים they shall put forth fresh feathers like the moulting eagle.” And such has indeed been the condition of the Israelites; for when they have appeared to be stricken down so that they never should rise again, when they have seemed to be extirpated as a people, “they have put forth fresh feathers like the moulting eagle,” and they have verified the divine prophecy, “when thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and the floods shall not overwhelm thee, and when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be scorched, and the flame shall not take hold of thee.”*
All nations and peoples איים ולאמים are then summoned to beat witness to God’s miraculous dealings with the Jewish people, from the day that He called Abraham their ancestor to himself, and sent him forth as the herald of divine truth. יגשו אז ידברו יחדו למשפט נקרבה “Let all nations draw near,” and examine closely into my ways with Israel; “then let them pronounce, and let us enter into a solemn debate together.” The Lord is now represented as addressing the several nations, and appealing to them whether they are not satisfied to conviction of the peculiar providence which He has ever manifested towards the Abrahamic race. מי העיר ממדרח צדק “Who was it that called the righteous Abraham from the East,” and sent him abroad to raise altars where the doctrine of the One God was taught? יקראהו לרגלו “Who appointed him the path that he should tread; יתן לפניו גוים ומלכים ירד Who subdued nations at his presence, and gave him influence over kings,” so that wherever he directed his steps he overthrew the obscene idol-worship of nations, and influenced kings and priests to acknowledge יי עליון קנה שמים וארץ “The Eternal Lord, the Most High God, the possessor of Heaven and Earth?” Who was it that so controlled events that Abraham might chase away the errors of a false worship, ירדפם יעבור שלום “that he might pass on to perform his mission in peace,” ארח ברגליו לא יבא ”in which path no one before had ever trod?”
Prior to the time of Abraham, brute force was the only recognised means by which man could be induced to acquiesce in any purpose desired; but it was reserved for the immortal ancestor of the Hebrews to make known the powerful influence of mind, of reason, of persuasion, of charity and forbearance, in refining the thoughts and softening the hearts of the human race. To Abraham we are indebted for the teaching and the practice of that great Truth, which Israel was at a future period to make manifest to the world: לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי “It is not bodily strength nor physical force that shall prevail, but the influence of mind.” “O ye nations,” continued the prophet, speaking in the name of God: מי פעל ועשה “Who hath devised and accomplished things קרא הדרות מראש by calling the generations from the beginning.” Was it merely the result of accident? No אני יי ראשון “It was I, Adonai of the first ages ואת אחרנים אני הוא and with the last ages I will be the same.” The prophet then refers to the manner in which the several nations have leagued themselves together to defeat God’s eternal purposes by persecuting the children of Abraham, how איש את רעהו יעזור “every one assisted his fellowולאחיו יאמר חזק and bade his comrade to be of good courage, ויחזק חרש את צורף how the carver encouraged the smith מחליק פטיש את הולם פעם how he that smoothed with the hammer encouraged him that smote on the anvil אמר לדבק טוב הוא saying of the solder it is good.”
But vain have been, and vain shall be, the efforts of thy persecutors, O my people, saith the Lord ואתה ישראל עבדי יעקב אשר בחרתיך זרע אברהם אהבי “For thou art Israel, my servant; Jacob, whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, my beloved אשר החזקתיך מקצות הארץ I have led thee by the hand from the extremities of the earth;” I have been watchful of thee at all times ואמר לך עבדי אתה “Saying unto thee, Thou art my servant;” and I the Lord, faithful to my word and constant to my purpose, will never withdraw my protection from thee. Let nations publish whatever opinions they may, let them say that the Lord who once chose the seed of Abraham has cast them off for people of another creed, let them say that the followers of the doctrines of Moses have been made to give way before the followers of teachings which aim at extinguishing the spark kindled by Abraham, and which blazed forth so vividly at Sinai in the first and second commandments:—thou, O Israel, hast the assurance of thy God בחרתיך ולא מאסתיך Once have I “chosen thee, and I will not reject thee.” “Banish then thy fears, O Israel,” continues our text; כי עמך אני “for I am with thee אל תשתע Be not dismayed כי אני אלהיך for I am thy God.” The time shall come when יבשו ויכלמו כל הנחרים בך “they that were enraged against thee,” on account of thy faith, “shall be ashamed and confounded; יהיו כאין ויאבדו אנשי ריבך they that contend against thee shall become as nothing. Thou shalt seek them and not find them, even the men that strove with thee; כי אני יי אלהיך מחדיק ימינך for I am Adonai thy God, who doth hold thee fast by thy right hand, האמר לך אל תירא אני עזרתיך I am He, who saith unto thee, Fear not, for I will help thee.” Isaiah concludes this prophecy, and with it the Haphtorah by once more promising the Israelites that though their persecutors shall cease, they themselves whall remain glorious, happy and delighting in the Lord. The passage is so exquisitely poetical, the imagery so choice, and at the same time forcible, and so peculiarly adapted to the ideas of an agricultural nation, to whom it is addressed, that I cannot refrain from giving the two concluding verses in full.
הנה שמתיך למורג חרגץ חדש בעל פיפיות תדוש הרים ותדק וגבעות כמץ תשים: תדרם ורוח תשאם וסערה תפיץ אתם ואתה ביי בקדש ישראל תתהלל:
“Behold, I have destined thee, O Israel, to become, as it were, a thrashing wain; a new corn-drag armed with pointed teeth. Thou shalt thrash the mountains, and beat them small, and reduce the hills to chaff. Thou shalt winnow them, and the wind shall bear them away, and the tempest shall scatter them abroad. But as for thee, (seed of Abraham,) thou shalt rejoice in Adonai, yea, in the Holy One of Israel shalt thou triumph.”*
Having thus endeavoured to explain the portion of our Haphtorah for this Sabbath, let us consider how we may profit by the instruction it conveys, and which it avowedly seeks to illustrate in the life of Abraham. The prophet Isaiah declares that when the Almighty chose the patriarch for his servant, He had in view not only the happiness of Abraham himself, but also that of his posterity, of us, brethren, of our children and children’s children, and of the whole human race. With Abraham appeared the first light in the annals of the world, and since the day that his name was pronounced, history has never ceased to speak of the destinies of his race. Moreover the prophet adds, that Abraham was selected to publish to the world the tidings of truth; and since truth can admit of no variation, of no change, but must ever be the same, so the God of Abraham requires that we, the descendants of the immortal patriarch, should live in the confession of the same principle of truth, and proclaim it by our lives, by our acts, by our worship, and by our instruction, to all the earth. This prophetic teaching places the Faith of the sons of Abraham on a firm and infallible basis, and renders it infinitely more stable than the physical world, so that it cannot be moved. It teaches us that the Supreme Lord is constant to His purposes, true to His word, and that what He once declares to be divine doctrine, He will never modify or change, or, to employ the words of our text before quoted אני יי ראשון ואת אחרנים אני הוא “What God required of the first generations,” when He called Abraham, “the same will He require of the generations at the end of time.” True it is, brethren, that the creed of the Hebrews has been more fully developed since the time of Moses, than it could possibly be in the days of Abraham—for the practical illustration of the sublime ethics propounded at Sinai required a nation of men, living under a theocratical form of government, and constantly and visibly superintended by the especial providence of God. Hence it was only needful to prepare Abraham and his immediate descendants for the fulness of Divine Revelation, by keeping alive within them the grand principle of truth, upon which the whole Sinaic scheme was to be based, viz.: The principle of the Essential Unity of the Godhead. God is One and One only, not a compound, but a simple essence; not made up of parts and divisible into persons, but One in such a sense as the plain reason of man can comprehend, a unit, absolutely independent of every created thing—this, this is the Truth which Abraham was chosen to teach, this is the Truth which Isaac and Jacob published at the altar, this is the Truth which they taught in their families, this is the Truth which, the Lord proclaimed at Sinai, and upon which the Theology and the polity of Israel were based, and this is the Truth, which the prophet Isaiah assures us in the Haphtorah of this day, Adonai will require us to feel, to acknowledge and openly teach till the end of time, since “what He demanded of Abraham’s generation, He will demand of the last generations of the earth.”
You will have remarked, my hearers, that as soon as the prophet has declared the Divine will that we should hold firm to the teachings of Abraham. He proceeds to comfort us in our sufferings, and promises us future glory in happiness. These two facts, so inseparably connected, clearly instruct us that all the hopes of Israel, which the Bible declares will be accomplished, can only be fulfilled by our rigid adherence to the doctrine of the patriarch יי אחד “The Lord is One.” The whole Mosaic system gathers itself into this single point, and the converging lines of all prophetical teaching meet near this one object. For the יהודי (Jew) it is to be the chief thought, the leading idea. According to the words of Moses, the Jew is to hold this doctrine so essentially certain, so fully proven to his convictions, and so far is he to be from permitting anything to disturb his belief on this head, that if he should ever be called upon to admit that God is not One, but two persons or three persons, by reason of any miracle of which he may hear, or which he may himself see, Moses tells the Jew to refuse the evidence of what another has seen, and in fact to doubt the evidence of what appears miraculous to his own eyes, rather than to deny or qualify in any way the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead, the corner stone of Divine Revelation.
If after these prophetic exhortations, the Bible be not of itself sufficient to establish for ever in Israel the doctrine of God’s unity, it would be presumptuous of the preacher to suppose himself capable to place this truth in a clearer light. God’s unity is perhaps the only dogmatical feature in the Jewish system; because the love that we bear to God is consequent upon the sentiments we form of His essence. Moses first writes יי אחד “The Bible plainly teaches us that in God’s own wise time, all people shall do homage to the doctrine of Abraham, or as it is called by us, the Master Truth of Revelation. The prophet Jeremiah speaks thus to Israel אליך גוים יבאו מאפסי ארץ “The Gentiles from the extremities of the earth shall come to your belief, and shall acknowledge that their fathers inherited error.” Zechariah, one of the latest prophets, 8:23, speaks the divine message:
כה אצר יי צבאות בימים ההמה אשר יחזיו עשרה אנשים מכל לשנות הגוים והחזיקו בכנף איש יהודי לאמר נלכה עמכם כי שמענו אלהים עמכם:
“Thus saith Adonai Zebaoth, in these days ten men out of all nations shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, we will follow you, for now we know that God is with you.” The prophet Zephaniah declares that the Jews shall ever remain as a nation of witnesses to God’s unity; but that in the latter days they shall not stand alone, for God will incline all men לקרא כלם בשם יי לעבדו שכם אחד “to call upon the name of the Lord and to worship Him with one mind,” so thatביום ההוא יהיה יי אחד ושמו אחד “at that time God shall be acknowledged as One, and His name be worshipped as One.” And finally, the Prophet Joel speaks the message of the Lord:
יידעתם כי בקרב ישראל אני ואני יי אלהיכם ואין עוד ולא יבשו עמו לעולם:
“Then shall ye know, ye nations, how I have dwelt in the midst of Israel, how I am your eternal God, and that there is no other. And never shall my people Israel be put to shame” for the Faith in which they have lived.