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בס"ד

The Work of Regeneration

A Sermon for Sabbath Teshuba, 5609.

O Father and King! have regard unto us, though we come laden with transgressions; listen to our prayer, though our iniquity lies heavy on us! and do according to thy unending mercy, but not according to the measure of our sins; and pardon, because Thou art good, and forgive, because Thou art infinite in love and kindness. Father! let thy ear be attentive to our call; and vouchsafe the light of thy countenance to the children of the dust, and bear them up in thy holy <<437>>embrace, as the nurse carries the infant, far above the dangers which the earth and its tribulations present to our feet. King Eternal! ride Thou in our soul; implant thyself in our spirit, that we may adore Thee in the singleness of faith, and feel that our sins are forgiven, and that our iniquity has been atoned for, when Thou breathest thy precious peace into our hearts, and causest us to feel joy in righteousness, and pleasure in obeying thy will. And then will we be distinguished as thy people, the flock of thy pasture, when we are Thine, servants devoted to Thee with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might, to love Thee, to fear Thee all the days which we live on the earth. Amen.

Brethren:

What is man in his fallen state? what is he when he is again reconciled to God? These are important questions, which it behooves us well to consider, on which we must ponder with deep anxiety if we wish to solve the problem of our existence. Well did the ancient Rabbi say: “I was only created to serve my Maker;” but when man forgets his God, and neglects the duties which his Father has prescribed, he evidently misses the aim and object of his being. When first we open our eyes to the beauty of God’s creation we are in a state of purity, free from sin, free from guilt, free from the consequence of transgression; we are at peace with Heaven, and in harmony with mankind. The balance of nature has not then been invaded by our wrongdoing, and our sleep is sound, our dreams are peaceful; because our soul feels not the discord between our acts and the beauty of what the Lord has called forth to fill the earth with beatitude and gladness. But as we advance in life, this primitive innocence naturally quits us; “not to ministering angels was the law given,” but to sinful mortals, those whose nature is a well-balanced mixture of good and evil, in whose heart there reigns a twofold spirit, the inclination for enjoyment, and the power to subdue the will in obedience to what God has taught. The very awakening to this consciousness tolls the death-knell of infantine purity; and with it commences the active warfare between spirit and matter, between the brute nature and the sublime man, the image of God which dwells within us. Whatever be the reason of our twofold formation, we know <<438>>enough to maintain that it does exist, and you all can testify to the fact being so from your own experience, since you never commenced to do what we call a good or bad act without feeling the struggle instantly rise within you, one feeling urging you on to the deed pictured forth in your mind, the other imploring you to desist. If you are suddenly impelled to give charity, your avarice begs you to restrain your hand, and to drop again into your well-filled purse the mite you first meant to devote to the relief of the indigent brother before you; it tells you of your own wants, of the demands of those in your house on your frugality and prudence, and it persuades you that all gifts not bestowed on you and yours will ultimately impoverish you. Again, let your anger be roused against your fellow-man, and you are ready to strike with the fist of wickedness the helpless offender, or to wound yet more him whom your strong-arm has overthrown: and a still soft voice will counsel you to restrain the uplifted hand, or to sheathe the half drawn dagger, inasmuch as it is not for man to avenge himself on his brother, or to redress his wrong by the strength of his own arm. It is this double heart which constitutes our nature, and in order to teach us how to govern it with reason and sound judgment, and to promote thereby our happiness, was the law of God given us, that we might know when to act and when to desist, to distinguish between the voice which is evil within us, and that which is called good in the counsel of Heaven.

If now in stepping out of his innocent state of infancy, if when acquiring a knowledge of good and evil, a man is fortified by the wisdom which is of God, he will heed the voice which bids him to love his Maker, and to be kind to his fellow-men. But if at that period of diverging ways he foolishly steps into the smooth and level path which he imagines to discover on the road which sinners pursue; if he sees only himself and his in all relations of life, and finds nothing to obstruct his selfishness and those acts which administer solely to self-aggrandizement: he will naturally become estranged from God, a wanderer in the wide domain of his Father, without gratitude, without a sense of obligation, without consulting Him before he ventures to act, before he consummates his foregone thoughts;—he will not recognise the  brother in the sons of man; he will not sympathize with them in <<439>>their sorrow, nor have his heart glad if they are at peace, and prosperity smiles in their dwelling; for he will not believe that the eye of Providence watches over him; he cannot imagine that he is but one of the children of God, and that all others have received the same mission, the same desire for happiness, and are entitled to the same protection and indulgence which he claims for himself. Peace must be far from such a one; he fain would take up his permanent abode on earth, to dwell here unto everlasting; to taste unceasingly of the dainties which the forests, the fields, the brooks, and the seas offer to his palate; to be rejoiced unremittingly by sweet sounds of music, by the splendid conceptions of the poet’s mind, and the artist’s pencil; to revel without limit in the juice of the vine and the smiles of the fair; to be absolute in his will, undecayed in youth, undiminished in strength and the power of enjoying, despite of the vicissitudes which reach others, of the diseases which render the days of mortals full of sufferings and pain. And yet he feels pain in the hours of his highest enjoyment, and when the cup of life seems full of delights to overflowing, he then experiences the gnawing of the canker-worm at his heart, bidding him to experience his mortality. Still he is not subdued; he only plunges the deeper into the enslaving embrace of the passions; he will drink deeper, because his hand shakes whilst he grasps the cup; he will eat yet more largely whilst his organs are dizzy with the whirl of disease; he will clasp more closely to his bosom the fatal seduction that leads him astray farther and farther from the path of godliness; and he will in this way spend his days as though there were no God, as though there were no accountability. Rest on earth, he has none; and where is he to seek for rest in heaven? The earthly pleasure he has tasted to oversatiety; but has he prepared himself to enjoy those which are for hereafter? He himself was, to his imagination, supreme on earth; and has he learned that there is a Creator, an ever lasting God, an unforgetting Judge?

O how the heart of the righteous must bleed whilst viewing one to whom the earth is all—eternity nothing; who toils, who thinks only for what he can see, but has no feeling for the universe, the visible to the eye, and the yet greater world, the invisible which the Lord has formed? And yet speak to him of the folly of his ways; appeal <<440>>to him that he is immortal, that his end must come before he has enjoyed himself one half as much as he desires: he will, nevertheless, not heed you, vainly deeming himself just in his own eyes, and as pursuing the proper road to happiness; because his spirit is sick, his sensations are blunted, and he has not acquired as yet the power over the brute heart which is within him, and he will therefore continue as he has done, walking the earth without joy, pursuing his selfish ends without satisfaction.

Still that which is not within the power of philosophical appeals to accomplish, is within that of the word of God—that guide to salvation, that voice which constantly warns and teaches the children of man. Though a mortal be plunged far into the mire of iniquity, he is not lost eternally, if he will but awaken and rise in the strength of renewed virtue. Just as philosophy is unable to teach its what is right in the beginning, so are its appeals insufficient to reclaim us when we have erred. The knowledge of our mortality, its greatest realization, may, and perhaps will, stimulate us to “pluck the roses ‘ere they wither;” the uncertainty of our hold on life will naturally admonish us to drink whilst the wine is still flowing, to eat whilst the table is decked with dainty viands. It is no need to hunt up the lives of the voluptuary and the tyrant to prove our position; for your own good sense will demonstrate its reasonableness, since, if we view the earth as our only, home, we must also regard it as the sole source of our enjoyment; hence the very approach of death ought not to deprive us of a single pleasure which presents itself, if we believe that there is no hereafter.

But it is different with him who has such a knowledge of God and his ways as the Bible gives us; he has a field of operation not confined to himself, nor is his life bounded by the brief limit of hours, days, months, and years, which are allotted to him here below. He is then but one of a vast multitude all equally alike in being the objects of the tenderest care of the Creator; he with them is accountable to the same almighty Judge; and he is told that though he suffers the various His His of existence, it will not prevent his obtaining the due reward of all his exertions; and should he die without any worldly enjoyment ever having been his, he will still be in the presence of his God, who will recompense him with a delight which no eye has seen, save that of the <<441>>Lord alone. But this is not all; reason would teach that if we had so glorious a destiny, and we had thrown it away by vain indulgence, and idle dissipation, we must have forfeited all claim to it by our unwise conduct. Religion, however, steps in with an assurance of life even here, and tells that heaven can be regained, though it was lost by transgression; that an offended Father can be reconciled by the contrition of the erring child. There is presented to us in the words of our faith, no reservation about an inexorable justice which must needs be gratified by the death of him who is guilty of death; but we are told that God is “merciful towards all his creatures.” (Ps. 145:9.) ,Multiform may be man’s transgressions; greatly may his sins call for retribution; but the goodness of God is far exceeding all his misdeeds, and the long-suffering Father will forgive, because He delights in pardoning.

The question, however, arises: “How is this to be effected? is a man to sin, and yet not be punished? is he to defy the law, and yet escape unscathed?” Far from it; because our religion teaches us “The soul that sinneth, even she shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4.) But it is only the unregenerate soul, the obdurate will, that calls down for visitation; since only for the malefactor untouched by the fear of the Supreme are the terrors of spiritual death prepared; to him, however, whose heart is touched, no matter how late in life, by the word of God, there will be healing, there will be a remedy, a reconciliation with the Lord, a renewed promise of life. Whilst man indulges in the base pursuit of earthly gain, aggrandizement and pleasure, his spirit is, as was said already, in a state of warfare with God, in a constant opposition to the interests of mankind. When he now awakens from this terrible trance, and finds the unsatisfactory result of all that he deemed good; to experience the cloying effects of mere animal indulgence; the tormenting consciousness of ungratified ambition; the ingratitude of the very instruments he relied on to forward his schemes: and then calls back the early lessons of infancy, or the instruction which wise men have addressed to him in his thoughtless moments, and which he then passed by as of no value or importance; or if he is of his own reflection driven to inquire whether life presents nothing but the earth and the earthly; if, in short, by any of the many roads to in<<442>>struction, he is moved to ask, “What has God taught us concerning himself and our destiny in the world?” he will, thus aroused, cast away the thoughts to which he before this clung; he will leave off from the pursuits which he hitherto loved, and attach himself to the Guide who never misleads, to the Lord of life, whose promises never deceive or fail of their fulfillment.

Therefore, says the prophet (Isaiah 57:19), “There is peace, there is peace to him that is far, and to him that is near, saith the Lord, and I have healed him.” Yet let a man have strayed far from the way of righteousness, or let him be only on the verge of departure, he is admonished that there is hope for him, that the Lord will heal his wounds, and that he shall have peace, peace within himself, a repose of conscience, a satisfaction with his own deeds, whereas before, all enjoyments only tired, whereas hitherto, all pursuits left a dreary void in his heart; he shall have also peace without; mankind, formerly his enemies, or envious of his success, revengefully disposed to him, because of his arrogance and pride, will now become reconciled to him, seeing that he sympathizes with them in joy and sorrow, that his bread is given to the hungry, his garment to the naked; he shall at last have peace with God, the breach which his deeds had made in the wall of righteousness will be repaired, the distance which his sins had placed between him and his Maker will be lessened, add he will be received again as one in whom the Father of all finds delight, the beloved child who is again received with joy, after a long absence, in the peaceful halls of his paternal mansion. In this scheme of repentance there is justice gratified, though no punishment is meted out, God punishes only to amend, to admonish the erring child that the path trodden is one of danger and death; if, therefore, the sinner returns to Him in sincerity and truth, the demands of justice are of themselves satisfied, since the effect of retribution is attained without their aid.

To say, that without an atonement actually offered, God cannot forgive, is not only contracting his supreme power, as we would discover it through means of our reason, but is in evident contradiction to his declared will, and the knowledge He proclaimed of himself. He taught us that He will forgive any and every offence if we but return to Him, and obey his voice (Deut. 4:29, 30), because He our God is merciful, <<443>>not because He has been appeased through sacrifice or punishment.

It is true He also declares in another passage (Exod. 34.), that He will suffer no guilt to pass unrequited; but in the first place, this may refer to the unatoned for man, to the unrepentant sinner, who passes through life without being converted back to God; and secondly even admitting that it refers to all sins, still it will not be asserted that no salvation can be purchased by man through repentance; requiting one for a wrong done, is an entirely different idea from rejecting him altogether, or asking of him something more than is in his power to accomplish. When the father punishes a disobedient child, he corrects him only that he may be improved thereby; and even so when God requites our sins, it is only to chastise and thereby to improve the heart. He could not mean in calling himself merciful and long-suffering, to contradict himself in the next verse, and assert that every sin should be followed by entire condemnation; reason might indeed demand it, as we have said already, since every departure from the strict rule of right is, when purposely done, a willful disregard of the divine authority; but we are not left to the guidance of naked reason; we are under the teachings of God’s holy Spirit itself, and therefore we speak of Him not as we would picture Him by unaided reason, but as He has taught us to regard Him, that is, as the One who is infinite in mercy and goodness, who will not be wroth for ever, nor contend to everlasting, so soon as the spirit is humbled before Him, and the souls that He has made are grieved. (Comp. with Isaiah 57:16.)

This exhibits to us the doctrine for which Jews have always contended, in accordance with the express words and spirit of the Scripture, that life and death were surrendered to our own choice at the time we were endowed with liberty of conscience, and empowered to choose between good and evil. We have the disposition to do what is wrong, also the power to control this sinful propensity, whilst we are in a comparative state of innocence; so also have we the remedy given us to amend sin, and to atone for it in our own persons, when we have thoughtlessly yielded ourselves to iniquity. Were it that another could assume our guilt, or that in no other manner could salvation be procured, there would have been a positive doctrinal revelation of the sort imparted to us. This, however, <<444>>is not the case: in one instance, it is said, “Even I, even I, blot out thy transgression for my sake, and thy sins will I not remember;” in another it is said, “The soul that sinneth shall die;” consequently there is no power to save the sinner from the indignation of God, except the remedy which He also indicated, that is, a thorough repentance and an amendment of conduct.

In this spirit does Ezekiel teach, in the same chapter, wherein he exhorts the sinner that he must perish for his wrongdoing, that the death demanded is not absolutely the consequence of iniquity, because it is in the power of man to cause a revocation of the evil decree. And thus speaks the prophet:

והרשע כי ישוב מכל חטאתו אשר עשה ושמר את כל חקותי ועשה משפט וצדקה חיח יחיה לא ימות:

“And the wicked, if he turneth from all the sins which he hath done, and observeth all my ordinances, and גoth justice and righteousness, shall live, he shall not die.” (Ezek. 18:21.)

The death, therefore, annexed to crime, is also removable at the option of the transgressor, since repentance is the antidote to what we may aptly call the poisonous effect of transgression; as the Rabbis express it, בראתי משחית בראתי לו תבלין “The Deity says, If I have created the destroyer, I have also created a remedy to overcome him.” Every man, therefore, belonging to Israel, as soon as he has heard the message of life—(and who is there that has not?)—should arise in his strength, and cast away the trammels of passions, which bind him a captive slave to the things of this earth. It is not in the language of human philosophy, in the despair of one who hates mankind and their enjoyments, because his appetite palls by over indulgence, that he is told to forego his own will whilst the powers and zest of existence remain undiminished; but it is the call of a merciful Providence which bids him to number his days, that he may apply his heart to wisdom. He is told that there is abundance of peace to those who love the law of God; why will he then have warfare with Heaven?—why seek contest with the sons of earth? He is told that those who fear the Lord shall have length of days in a world where they shall enjoy delights at the right hand of the Eternal Father for ever, whereas the sinning soul shall be cut off from the land of life.

Why will he then choose the death of his true portion, the spirit which will remain imperishable? And let him <<445>>not flatter himself with the miserable hope of annihilation; that the grave will cover all that is left of him; that there is no account and judgment in the tomb, whither he is going. For, oh! there is an hereafter, a world enduring and bereft of earthly attributes, and where we shall be brought to judgment for all the deeds which we have done when sojourning our brief space on earth. The man who has only an existence in this world can soon cut short his sorrows, by severing the weak thread which binds us all to life. The stab of a knife, or the drinking of a small portion of a deadly fluid, or a plunge into the watery element, will remove him beyond the reach of the direst poverty or the pangs of the severest pain. It would be in this instance but to resolve and to be free. But, how does this tally with our actual experience? Let us suffer what we may, we  start back with horror at the thought of the fatal leap which hurries us into eternity. Whence this feeling?—whence this dread? Is it not the voice of God within us, which bids us to stay here until He summons us to himself? Is it not in effect the admonition which we constantly hear: “Remain true and faithful—this is not thy abiding-place—there are joys beyond the grave, which are thine only on condition of obedience, patient enduring, and resignation to thy Maker’s will?”

But oh! let him not delay to repent whilst  his strength remains; let him think of his God before the “evil days come, the years in which he says he has no pleasure.” Let him call on God so soon as he discovers that he has sinned; let him pour forth prayer and entreaty to impress on himself the enormity of his ingratitude,—how he had the path of life laid open before him; how he saw the hand of Mercy stretched forth to guide him aright, and he chose to follow the path which leads to destruction, and rejected the offer which Mercy had addressed to him. Let him weep when he stands self-convicted; let him cover his eyes with his hollow hands when he is confounded and rooted to the spot at the horror of the conviction that he lived days, and months, and years, without hope, without pleasure, without God! Yes, whilst we are in pursuit of worldly things alone, we remove Providence from before us: we enter into business of profit, of aggrandizement, and renown, without his aid being asked for. Our own intelligence is to guide us—our own perseverance is to overcome difficulties—our own industry is to <<446>>demand success. Happy, then, will it be for us, if we do not wait until all our hopes are dashed to the ground; before disappointment has soured our taste for life and its issues. Why should not the youth learn to love his God? Why should not the joyous bridegroom and the happy bride bow in humble adoration before the Giver of life? Why should not the wealthy merchant prostrate himself in thankfulness for the good which has been bestowed on him, the undeserving? Why should not the philosopher, in the midst of his discoveries, which will immortalize his name, lift up his heart to the One above, who giveth understanding to the wise, and revealeth secrets to the sons of men? Why should not the man of power fall down in the dust before the One by whose will princes rule, and whose are the dominion from generation to generation?

Yes, how beautiful would it be—what a delightful spectacle would it present, were all alike to be active in worshipping God, as all are alike from Him. How happy would it be, would all who have sinned acknowledge their fault, and seek again the God whom they have forsaken, and come again to worship with that renewed innocence as they did when first they lisped their prayers as they learned them pillowed on the bosom of their mother. O how bright would the earth be—what an Eden would the whole world present—and how peacefully would Israel pursue its mission to propagate the word of God, and plant his standard in view of all the nations! And yet it is the business of each to return to God,—to depart from the evil which he loves.

Let it then be yours, brothers in faith! to commence the new year with a firm resolve to follow God’s teaching, and to obey his voice with all your heart and all your soul. And may He, the Father of all creatures, listen to the voice of your prayer, forgive your iniquity, and bless you with his grace and mercy, renewing to you the coming year with joy and gladness, contentment and competency, and grant you his covenant of peace, even for the sake of his great and holy name. Amen.

Eve of Rosh Hashana, 5609. Elul 29, Sept. 27, 5608.