Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library Shopping Mall of Zion AHAVA Hero Products 250x250

בס"ד

עגל מסכה
The Unfaithfulness of Israel.

A Sermon Delivered In the Synagogue Shearith Yisrael, Montreal,
By the Rev. Abraham De Sola.

וידבר ה׳ אל משה לך רד כי שחת עמך אשר העלית מארץ מצרים׃ סרו מהר מן הדרך אשר צויתים עשו להם עגל מסכה וישתחוו לו ויזבחו לו ויאתרו אלא אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך מארץ מצרים׃ שמות ל״ב ז׳ה׳׃

“The Eternal said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”—Exodus 32:7, 8.

Brethren!

The words which I have just read to you from the chapter of our sacred records called פרשת העגל, must needs create in every pious and reflecting mind amongst us, sentiments of the deepest sorrow and shame. The unfaithfulness of Israel in turning aside quickly out of the way which the Eternal had commanded them, making unto themselves a molten calf, worshipping and sacrificing thereunto, and blasphemously proclaiming of it, “Lo, the gods of Israel!” furnishes one of those problems sometimes presented by the history of our ancestors, which all our reasoning and wisdom must fail to solve. For here was a nation of newly-emancipated bondsmen, ay, those freed but a few short months only from the flesh-pots of a galling servitude; having every inducement, every reason, to regard with love, gratitude, and reverence their Almighty Deliverer,—with all the mighty acts, the miracles, signs, and wonders which he had wrought for them before their eyes, fresh as things of yesterday, with the admis<<12>>sion of Mitsrayim’s wise men still sounding in their ears, declaring that it was the finger of God which had wrought for them, reiterated by the assurance of the great Eternal himself, that it was He who had led them forth from the estate of slaves,—with the scarcely yet hushed roar of the mighty waters returning to their strength, and miraculously engulphing their pursuers, re-echoed by “the Great Voice” which commanded them “Thou shalt have no other gods save me; neither shalt thou make unto thyself any graven image,” yet could this people ask for a god of gold, and as Holy Writ informs us, “They offered burnt-offerings and brought peace-offerings unto it;”—yet would they do this notwithstanding it was forbidden unto them by Him who is a jealous God, in a manner as positive as it was terrible,—yet could they do this, notwithstanding that the bread which was daily rained down unto them from heaven, proved that the same Benevolent Eternal lived, and that he had not abandoned His chosen. Oh! brethren, how humiliating are these reflections—how mortifying, but how faithful a type does such conduct afford us of the subsequent career of one of the most perverse and stubborn of nations. Nevertheless, let us proceed to bestow upon this gloomy page in the history of our ancestors a full and earnest attention, so that it may not be without its teachings, its profit, and its comfort. Let us then ask ourselves:—

First. In what is the unfaithfulness of Israel shown?

Secondly. What do we learn therefrom?

But first to Thee, Great Source of Wisdom and Benevolence, do we pray. Grant, O Lord! that the words, which however unworthily, we may utter now or hereafter, when meditating upon thy holy word, may enter the hearts of thy people for good; and mayest Thou be pleased to accept our prayer and intention with favour. Amen.

I.

l. The unfaithfulness of Israel is shown in their past distrust and idolatry. The history of every nation has its instructiveness and its philosophy; but the history of Israel, the מצולה מכל העמים is one which no thinking man can view, without the greatest admiration and wonder. Casting a retrospective glance along their annals, we behold instances upon instances, and details <<13>>upon detail, of their rebelliousness, impiety, ingratitude, and idolatry; and the wonder which such an extreme of stiffneckedness must create within us, can only be equalled by that admiration with which we must be filled at the benevolence, the mercy, and long-suffering of Him who “bare them on His wing, and kept them as the apple of His eye.” Looking back to the rocks, brethren, whence we were hewed, we find that, with very few exceptions, every act of the Patriarchs proved their faith and trust in God, who accounted it unto them for righteousness. Not so with their unworthy descendants, who seldom spoke of God without irreverent distrust, and seldom performed his word without rebellious murmurings. We need not remark, now, upon their faithless cries at Marah, or at Sin, where they reproach Moses with having led them from a place, where they had nevertheless “groaned in agony of spirit by reason of the bondage.” Nor need we dwell upon their disobedience to the divine will, which commanded them to leave none of the manna till morning; nor their going forth to gather it on the seventh day; nor their complaints at Rephidim; but let us rather speak of their flagrant transgression in making and worshipping the golden calf, which senseless act, as being detailed in the Parassah of today, should now claim our especial attention.

And this crime, black as it is, assumes at first sight a yet deeper hue from the circumstance that it was apparently participated in and even promoted by Aaron, the man chosen by God to minister in his sanctuary; and who, as well as Moses, had received the direct communication of his will. But happily, brethren, it is at first sight only, that this appears so. For the critical investigation and deep research of our pious sages have supplied us with facts and reasons, in every way sufficient for the complete establishment of his innocence. Thus, when the tumultuous multitude gathered themselves unto him, and said, “Arise,* make us gods,” Aaron does not proceed immediately to do so, by making them of stone or of wood, as he might easily have done; but he adopts a course, which of all others, was best calculated to wean them from their evil purpose. He does not <<14>>attempt either to dissuade or to prevent them, for with that “froward and perverse generation” to dissuade would be to encourage, and to prevent would be to promote; but he requires them to break off the golden earrings which were in the ears of their wives, their sons, and their daughters, who, from their great attachment to these things, as remarked by one of our most learned commentators,† would no doubt most strongly oppose such a proceeding. He will make them gods, but it must be at the cost of all those precious things which they themselves prized so highly:—“Whosoever has gold,” commanded Aaron, “let him bring it unto me.” Here then had he enlisted two most powerful auxiliaries on his side: the vanity of their wives and children on the one hand, and their own cupidity on the other. But being deceived in his expectations, he is obliged to receive the gold, most freely offered, and “casting it info the fire, there came out this calf.” It is not Aaron, however, but the people, who impiously assert of it, “These be thy gods, O Israel,”—the priest of God appears to have been entirely powerless amidst an excited multitude bent upon evil. For וירא אהרן “when Aaron saw,” or as our commentators happily explain the phrase, “when Aaron found that it was useless to attempt opposition, ויבן מזבח לפניו “then he built an altar before it,” and proving himself a true servant of a true God, ויקרא אהרן ויאמר חג לה׳ מחר “Aaron made proclamation and said, To-morrow is a feast to the Eternal.” Observe, brethren, he does not proclaim it for the god of gold; but לה׳, for the Ineffable One, (blessed for ever be He!) whose splendour filled the tabernacle in which he was the faithful minister; nor does he, as might naturally be expected, appoint the festival for the day on which the idol was finished; but, מחר for the morrow. Hence, my hearers, are we supplied with still farther grounds for the very reasonable inference made by our teachers, that Aaron’s great object was delay. For this he strove both earnestly and prudently, evidently under the impression that Moses, who had now been absent forty days, would return in time to prevent the consummation of the contemplated <<15>>wickedness. But there is another consideration, and an all-cogent one too, proving that in this thing Aaron was “of clean hands and pure heart;” it is that God does not pronounce him guilty, and does not declare at Mount Hor that it was for this that he had incurred the divine displeasure, but because he rebelled, with Moses, against God’s word, at the waters of Meribah.

* From the Israelites using the expression קום “Arise,” when addressing Aaron, it would appear that they withdrew him, forcibly or not, from some other occupation, doubtless one connected with the service of the Sanctuary. 

וכן פירש רש״י על באזני נשיכם. אמר אהרון בלבו הנשים והילדים חכים בתכשיטיהן שמא יתעכב הדבר ובתוך כך יבא משה והם לא המתינו ופרקו מעל עצמן׃

This we deem conclusive, and therefore the only possible objection that could now be advanced against Aaron’s conduct, is, that he does not display that noble devotion and high-mindedness which should have impelled him, like Daniel and his companions, to prefer death to unfaithfulness. But even this objection will disappear, when we recollect that if he had permitted himself to fall a sacrifice to a disappointed and exasperated multitude, he would not have advanced the cause of the Eternal one whit the more, whereas by living he not only did not sin himself, but projected such prudential and likely measures, as would prevent the Israelites from doing so.* As we have seen, however, he was disappointed in his pious endeavours, by the unholy efforts of those who desired to promote the idolatry of the calf, the corrupt ערב רב or mixed multitude, who went up with Israel from Egypt, and who have been regarded by our sages, not only as the primary instigators to the crime, but as the almost sole participators therein. When Aaron in his reply to Moses, says, “Thou knowest the people,—כי ברע הוא it is in evil,” we may consider him as informing us of this fact, and from the construction of the phrase, we should certainly be warranted in understanding him to say, “that they are amongst an evil multitude.”† To this interpretation, however, it has been objected, that as Scripture affirms it to have been the people whom God had commanded, which had corrupted themselves, and so indeed speaks our test, it must necessarily be the whole of the people who are <<16>>implied.

* It has been ingeniously advanced by our early commentators, that Aaron desired to live “not for his own, but for the people’s sakes, because he feared that if by taking his life they would be guilty of the murder of God’s appointed priest, an angry Deity would consume them all.” See Aben Ezra’s Comment on this passage.

אמר הראב״ע בפירושו על פרשת העגל׃ ישראל היו מעורבים עם ערב רב וזדו כי ברע הוא׃ ולא אמר רע הוא׃

But this will appear with the less force, when we recollect that although Scripture speaks of the whole congregation, it may just as well be understood as alluding here to a portion of the people only,* as on a later occasion, when relating the transgression of an individual, it refers it to the whole of the congregation, thus saying, “The children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing, for Achan the son of Carmi, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing, and the anger of the Eternal was kindled against the children of Israel.”† Here then we have another reason for concluding with our sages, that the idolatry of the calf, although spoken of all the people, was nevertheless not universal. But what, if even in all this the people feared the Lord, and acted not wickedly? Do they not show their distrust and rebellion at Taberah, and at Kibroth Hataavah? where they again follow to evil this same mixed multitude, who, as Scripture informs us, “fell a lusting” there, and at Paran, where they would have “stoned Moses and Aaron with stones, and made unto themselves a captain to return into Egypt,” and where they follow Korah and his guilty associates, and when they gather themselves a third time against Moses and Aaron, at Kadesh? Do they not show their idolatry and corruption at Shittim, when they joined themselves to Baal Peor, again, when they served Baal and Ashtaroth, and “God strengthened against them Eglon, King of Moab;” again, when “He sold them into the hand of Jaban, King of Canaan again, when “He delivered them into the hand of Midian;” again, when “He sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the children of Ammon;” and yet again, when, as the Haftorah of to-day informs us, “Elijah only re<<17>>mained a prophet of the Eternal, but Baal’s prophets were four hundred and fifty men?” But let us not cite farther instances of their stiff-neckedness, for the task is a long and painful one. Let rather each son of Jacob view for himself, the blind and fatal course his ancestors have pursued. Let him see how they have disregarded alike God’s teachings, cautions, persuasions, reproofs, signs, wonders, prophets, and guides. Let him see how they have been alike unaffected by his rewards or corrections, by comforts or afflictions, and then let him with the poet exclaim:—‡

אלהים נפלו פני
בזכרי כל אשר הכעסתיך
כי על כל טובות שגמלתני
רעה גמלתיך׃

“Oh! my God, when I remember how greatly I have provoked thee, my countenance is cast down. For all the good which Thou hast bestowed upon me.—I have requited with evil.”

* Rashi calls our attention to the fact, that it was not proclaimed of the idol, “These be our gods,” as if uttered by the Israelites themselves, but that Scripture twice informs us, that the expression used was “These be thy gods, O Israel,” evidently uttered by some second party addressing them. It is true that on other occasions we find that the Israelites make use of this manner of expression among themselves, ex. gr., when the ten tribes revolted from the house of David, they say one to another, “To thy tents, O Israel!” But this strengthens rather than weakens the remark of our learned commentator, since the expression is never used but by those who dissented from the national polity and laws, divine or not, and who were the promoters of, and ringleaders in, every rebellion, religious or  political.

† Judges, 7:2.

‡ R. Solomon ben Gabirol, in “Kether Malchut.”

2. The unfaithfulness of Israel is shown in their present scepticism and infidelity. Recollecting, brethren, what God has done for us,—the concern He has ever shown for our welfare,—and his particular attachment to us,—recollecting moreover, that notwithstanding the enormity of our transgressions, “He has suffered no man to do us wrong, but reproved even kings for our sakes,”—that although He has turned the light of His countenance from us, it is not for ever, but that even now it shines visibly upon us in our preservation as a distinct people;—recollecting all this, one would suppose that we had now become more virtuous, wise, and religious. Would to God, brethren, would to God, this were indeed so; but alas! all our miseries, and all our visitations, seem to have had but little effect upon us, and to have profited us still less. For the spirit now prevailing amongst us, is a spirit of scepticism, a spirit of infidelity, a spirit of captiousness, and a spirit of opposition to all restraint and authority. The Eternal hath said by the mouth of his prophet Jeremiah, “Stand ye in the way and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.”* But <<18>>to this recommendation of our God, we have opposed that presumptuous trust in our own judgment, which is another characteristic of the age we live in, and we have said “We will not walk therein.” With the cry of the spirit of the age on our lips, we have waged a senseless war against the venerable fabric of our religion, and have endeavoured to demolish everything that agreed not with modern fastidiousness, and our so-called enlightenment. Dazzled by the surface of tinsel, we have abandoned the rich mine, and deceived by the shadow, we have lost the substance. Infatuated by a sound, a phantom, we have condemned all established institutions, merely because they are established, and have forsaken the old paths, merely because they are old paths. Far be it from any one who respects the teachings of God’s holy words, to say aught against the reasonableness, or even the necessity, of diligent and serious inquiry into matters of religion.

* Jer. 6:16.

The Bible teaches, שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך “Ask of thy father, and he will declare unto thee, of thine elders, and they will say unto thee,” and our wise men inculcate that אפילו ריחים בצוארו יעסוק בתורה “in spite of all difficulties, let a man occupy himself with the study of the sacred page;”* it is the neglect of such valuable teachings that we would now deprecate. Would men be content with following this most salutary advice, all would be well; but every one will even now make unto himself his own idol, and invite others to worship with him;—and what are old paths, counsel of parents or of elders, when compared with the alluring sounds of novelty and change? God forbid that we should desire to oppose, were it even possible to do so, the exercise of that heavenly privilege, which distinguishes man from the brute, or to say one word against a proper expression of opinion; for doubtless where we employ our reason and acquirements for the advancement of the interests and respectability of religion,—for the honour and glory of the Eternal’s name, it is a sight most pleasing, and most acceptable to Him; but it is their abuse that we now lament.

* Kiddushin, fol. 29, p. 2.

Let us look around us and see the fatal results of that self-sufficiency which tells every man he must be a judge in Israel. Let us see them in the unskillful manner misguided men have used the pruning-<<19>>knife, by the too great use of which they have completely marred the consistent beauty of the plant they would themselves foster. Yet if these have acted in the innocence of error, let us hope that they will soon discover the desirableness of retreading the old paths; and, brethren, be they excused in our eyes. But not so those who sacrifice principle to expediency; who care not for the lasting favour of God, so long as they obtain the fleeting consideration of man; who care not for things eternal, when they interfere with the temporalities of this life; and who, to gain the favour, or to avoid the sneers of the gentile, “do after their works, and walk after their ways;” so that it is but a light thing in their eyes, to eat with them of the things positively forbidden to us by God; to desecrate the day which the Eternal hath hallowed, and observe that which convenience has instituted.—to take the stranger unto them to wife, to prostrate themselves in temples which they cannot honour, or to address a godhead which they cannot understand. The religious state of these cannot surely far, if at all transcend that of our ancestors when God plagued them for making the calf. These may as truly and as consistently say of gold, “Behold our gods,” as did the idolaters in the desert. Before this they build their altar, and sacrifice thereon, not only their own immortal hopes, but the everlasting bliss of their wives and their little ones. For so incessant are their adorations to it, so ardently do they slave for it, that they have not a moment to spare for the moral and religious culture of those whose happiness and salvation, thereon dependent, should be their first and chief consideration. Inculcating within themselves a convenient scepticism, they try to persuade themselves that there is no other god but riches and fame, and no other heaven but sensuality and power. Thus proving at once their unfaithfulness and folly, they abandon all thoughts of their Creator, and occupied with an all-absorbing pursuit after gain, Sabbaths, new moons, fasts, and seasons of rejoicing, alike find them at the place of traffic, the only temple which their avarice will permit them to enter. And with such examples, what shall their children become? Shall we ask the calendar of crime? Oh! my friends, let us turn from so painful and awful a contemplation, and with the sweet Psalmist of Israel let us pray:

שובנו אלהי ישענו. והפר כעסך עמנו׃
הלא אתה תשוב תחיינו ועמך ישמחו בך׃

<<20>>God of our saving health and peace!
Turn us, and us restore;
Thine indignation cause to cease
Toward us, and chide no more.

Wilt Thou not turn and hear our voice,
And us again revive;
That so thy people may rejoice,
By Thee preserved alive?*

Brethren! with our hearts filled with this supplication, we will proceed to what we have reserved for the second head of to-day’s discourse; and we will now ask ourselves what we are to learn from the unfaithfulness of Israel.

* Psalm 85:5-7. Milton’s version.

II.

1. From the unfaithfulness of Israel we learn that God is infinitely gracious and merciful. “The Eternal repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people,” saith the sacred page, and let us not slightly pass over such an important and blessed assurance. The people in whom He had placed his chief delight, had caused Him to anger; they had sorely vexed Him, although He had bestowed on them nought but benefits and blessings; they had rejected Him, and in their blindness had fallen down to the work of their own hands; and yet we are told, “The Eternal repented of the evil which He thought to do unto his people.” He had fought for them, led them, and cherished them; they, in return, abandoned Him for what could neither guard nor save; but yet—“The Eternal repented of the evil which He thought to do unto his people.” It were indeed impossible, my hearers, to speak in adequate terms, of graciousness and mercy such as this. Has the parent who receives from his child ingratitude and irreverence for care and affection, wounds for caresses, curses for blessings, has even he received such provocation as the Eternal hath received at our hands? Ah! no; then how infinitely above the comprehension and imitation of such poor and revengeful mortals as are we, must be His mercy and long suffering! Like Moses our master, therefore, when the Eternal first proclaimed <<21>>these his attributes, let us “make haste, and bow our heads towards the earth and worship.”

2. From the unfaithfulness of Israel we learn that as we have been a most favoured, so have we been a most corrupt people. To discover this, brethren, we need not enter very deeply into the details of those transgressions, which our annals so fruitfully furnish. When endeavouring to display to you the unfaithfulness of Israel as proved by their past idolatry, I took occasion to present you with the attestation of Scripture, that in every stage of their journey, until their entrance into the promised land, the house of Israel experienced the most signal love and protection of the Almighty Being who deigned to select them as his heritage, and that in every stage of their journey they exhibited the most vile disobedience and unthankfulness. This alone is quite sufficient to demonstrate the aggravated and atrocious character of their conduct. But let us now add to this, that when they had entered their inheritance, the favour of God was again displayed to them in the extraordinary successes which attended them, so that we behold kings prostrated before them like trees before the tempest—armies dispersed like chaff before the wind, and even nature itself reversed to serve them; whilst they, thankless and perverse as ever, continued the same series of crimes and atrocities. Let us farther add to this, that although God has in his infinite justice permitted Jerusalem to become a desolation, and Israel a prey to all who should lift up their hands against them, yet not only does He not allow the nations to make an entire end of them, but he cheers for them the days of exile by his gracious assurance that “at that time will He bring them, and at that time will He gather them”—in short, brethren, that God’s favour is with them even now. Let us add this, let us revert to the gloomy, but faithful, picture just drawn of their present faithlessness and irreligion; let us recollect how they have remained uninstructed and unprofited by the most extraordinary testimonies of Divine favour; and then let us ask ourselves what can such a people be? Our heavenly Father himself answers us: חרבו מאד נאם ה׳ “They are very corrupt, saith the Eternal.”

3. From the unfaithfulness of Israel we learn that it is incumbent on us to return quickly unto the God we have so much offended. “How long, O Israel! will ye halt between two opinions, if the <<22>>Eternal be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.”* How long will ye delay to choose between the path of sin, and the path of righteousness, “which is the good way,”—when will ye cease to worship the idol for the Deity, to follow darkness for light; will ye wait until the hour of visitation and affliction cometh? Of what avail will a god of gold be unto you then? Ye may “cry unto him from morning even until noon;” but ye will find that “he meditateth, or hath a pursuit, that he hath a journey, or, peradventure, he sleepeth, and must be awakened;” ye may “leap on the altars ye have raised, ye may cry aloud, and cut yourselves with knives and lancets till the blood gush out; but there will be neither voice, answer, nor attention.”† Be not deceived, brethren; it is the Eternal only who can save. Remember the reply He gave to Moses, when he sought to intercede for the idolaters at Horeb. “Whosoever sinneth against me,” said the Eternal, “him will I blot out from my book,—and in the day of my visitation, I will surely visit their sins upon them;” therefore, brethren, we are not to look for salvation through any other mediator, than our own good works and repentance; for, as teacheth the Bible, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” How important, then, how powerful our inducements to turn quickly unto the God we have so much offended. Gratitude in return for his patience and love, should alone be sufficient to lead us back to him; but we have here our own welfare, interest, and happiness, alike calling on us to “walk faithfully with our God.” We surely cannot hesitate now. Therefore, when righteousness raiseith her cry, and saith, “Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come to me,” let not one of us fail in responding to her call, or in ranging himself under her banner; so shall we be invincible in the hour of danger or of misfortune; so shall we be invulnerable to the shafts of pain or ingratitude; so shall we be happy in ourselves, and blessed in those upon whom we place our fondest affections and expectations, and so shall we eternally profit by what we learn from the Transgression of Israel.

* The Haphtora of the day, 1 Kings, 18.

† Exodus, 32:26.

Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel! Let not thy wrath wax hot against thy people, because they have been a <<23>>corrupt and rebellious people; but let there know that Thou art the Eternal God, and hast turned their heart back again; consume them not, because of their transgressions; for wherefore should it be said among the nations, It was for mischief that Thou didst bring them out of Egypt? But we pray Thee, to turn from thy fierce wrath; and repent of the evil, which, peradventure, Thou mayest think to do unto thy people. Oh! this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold; yet for this, O Most Merciful, slay them not in the mountain, but remember that this nation is still thy people. Most High! remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, and do not forsake us, but let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel, and that I thy servant have spoken according to thy word. Do not forsake us, for wherein shall it be known, that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight, if it be not, in that Thou goest with us. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, and it shall come to pass, that if Thou wilt forgive our transgressions, wilt let thy glory pass before us, and wilt send thine angel to be among us, that we will put away the strange gods which are among us, and turning our eyes and hearts towards the tables which Thou didst graciously renew for us, we will walk in thy ways, with one heart and with one intent. Do Thou, therefore, O gracious Father, enable us to do so, that henceforth we may not put every man his sword by his side, and slay every man his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. Turn to Thee, O Lord, every knee which hath bowed unto Baal, and every mouth that hath kissed him; visit not upon us our past unfaithfulness, but let thine attribute of mercy continue to prevail over thine attribute of justice, and thus, O Eternal, bless us, pardon our sins, and take us for thine inheritance, so that each of us may acknowledge that the Lord he is God! The Lord he is God. Amen!