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The Example of Israel

A Sermon

Father of Israel! we have felt thy providence, we have enjoyed thy bounty, and we are thy chosen servants to fulfil the ends of thy rule on earth, to prepare the world for thy kingdom, and to proclaim the message of salvation, until that happy hour when wickedness shall close its mouth, and thy faith and thy law shall become the watchword of all mankind. O glorious is such a lot! blissful is such a mission! But now Jacob is lowly and Israel degraded, and the nations imagine us stricken with darkness, and our mental vision obscured by the veil of blindness, because we cannot discern truth in their errors, and because we cannot forsake Thee our God, and the teaching of thy law which Thou didst bestow on us. Yet Thou art the One who will raise Jacob though he is now small and humble, and Thou wilt kindle anew the lamp of thy anointed the son of Jesse, that the glory may dwell again in Jerusalem, and much peace may be in her palaces. Yet whilst the ungodly prevail many hearts become faint, and the unwise despair of thy coming to save and to redeem thy <<480>>heritage. Be it therefore acceptable before Thee to cause us to feel thy worship in our hearts, and guide us by unerring tokens of thy mercy; that we may stand unmoved in the midst of the assault of the stranger, and await in patience thy coming, when the righteous shall rejoice and all the earth be glad in thy salvation. Yea, aid and forsake us not; because we are thy children, thy people whom Thou chose for the sake of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thy servants. Amen.


Were it that our nation had not received a permanent mission, it would long since have been abandoned by Providence to seek its fate as other people, become commercial or agricultural, enslaved or independent, warlike or peaceable, civilized or barbarous, as the progress of events might urge it forward, or it might have disappeared altogether from the earth as a distinct race, just as it happened to the Romans and Chaldeans, and many other nations of antiquity, or modern times. But we find that our fate was not such, that we were not left to chance to seek our position in the scale of humanity; but an observer of the course of events will discern without much labour a uniform thread running through our whole history, and this is the religious element, which more than any other people places us before the world as a separate and particular branch among the families of the earth.

It is true that we are a peculiar race through our descent from a common parentage; that our features and visage are bearing a marked contrast to those of other men, so that the Jewish physiognomy is readily distinguishable in by far the larger portion of our members; but this does not, for all that, constitute the characteristic of the Jewish people, and forms barely a mark of their descent from a stock deriving its origin from a distant and foreign land, and is very often shared by nations living under an analogous climate to that which our fathers inhabited. Whatever physical characteristics may be ours, however, could only have been preserved unchanged through a close union among ourselves, and the exclusion of all foreign admixture; for it would have been impossible to maintain, for instance, the peculiar conformation of features which generally denote the Jew, if he had derived his descent from all <<481>>sorts of nations, since in that case he would naturally be tinctured by the peculiar marks of other races.

But how could such a union be maintained? You may answer, By a prevention of foreign admixture. But it is very evident that however this might have been possible whilst we formed a state of our own in Palestine, with political power and an independent civil government, which might, if it had thought fit, denied the entrance of all foreigners into the state, as did the Chinese lately, and as do the people of Japan to this very day, it would have been entirely impossible as soon as we had lost our nationality, and became intimately mixed up with the people of nearly every state under the sun, which did not disdain to receive our wanderers in its boundaries.

Besides this consideration another one must present itself to our investigation; it is this, that strangers were not precluded from living in Palestine, and what is more, from being received as members of the state, and even of families of Israelites; there were restrictions and conditions under which citizenship in its full extent, and household membership, could be obtained; but they were by no means very difficult of attainment, and the way to a union with Jews was left open to all who chose to become candidates for the same.

Whoever then says that Jews have preserved themselves by their unsociable rejection of all foreign alliance, assigns the effect instead of the cause for the mighty and wonderful moral phenomenon which they present in the records of history; since the causes of their, what many call, unsocial habits have to be sought in the very principle to which they owe their being, and this is, as we have said already, the religion which is theirs. We may freely say that we are physically and mentally differently constituted from any other people; we may say that we repel any approach to foreign alliance; but we may safely deny that it is owing to a hatred of mankind, which induces us to forego voluntarily our identity, or that it is a wish to be singular which governs us in our seclusion; but it is only that we have received a religion as a heavenly deposit, and which in preserving it for us and our descendants, as our fathers guarded it for themselves and us their successors, necessarily compels us to exclude ourselves from a communion with strangers, which could in any way endanger in our hands the possession of our ancestral faith and practice.

Were it indeed, that in the course of events, a system had been evolved in all respects equal or superior to our own, it would have been the height of folly to have continued in a state of separation from the rest of mankind, at a time when we had neither national existence nor a country to call our own; when our glory was all in the past, and our wished-for home barely a deep-seated hope, burning at times brightly, at times faintly, in our bosoms.

What however is it that causes the Israelite, even him who is reckless in religion, and almost unthinking on his God, to start back with horror when contemplating the thought of being lost in his descendants to the household of Jacob? It is the deeply impressed feeling that there is no law true but that proclaimed at Sinai; that there is no god, beside Him who redeemed us from Egypt; and no saviour save the One who has promised to show us mercy and goodness whenever we shall return to Him and seek his favour in sincerity, in contrition, and with humble prayer.

Yes, far may the Israelite go astray; but it will embitter more than anything his dying hour, to reflect on the awful position he is in towards his God and his people when he knows that his children are cut off from the inheritance of the Lord, that they are the uncircumcised of flesh and heart, and worship strange gods, and kneel down at the stranger’s shrine. Whence is this horror? whence this deep-seated dread at a loss of an inheritance which has no worldly advantages to offer? which only holds out to its possessor days of watching, and not rarely nights of anguish? It is that every son of Jacob feels that he is of right and in truth an inheritor of Divine favour in possessing a knowledge of the Unity of the Godhead, which was announced in a multitude of visions and in the majesty of the thunders of Horeb, to generations after generations; through which  means also we obtained an intimate acquaintance with a pure system of morals and rules of worship; than which nothing holier, nothing purer, nothing truer, can be imagined by man, like which  nothing equalling it in holiness, purity and truth, was promulgated elsewhere to the children of the dust. Therefore it is that the Israelite fears losing his right in the universal God, that he dreads being cut off from the inheritance in the blessings which are promised to our race, should his children and their descendants, in whom the ultimate hope of the world ought to be of right <<483>>accomplished, not be numbered among the seed of Abraham, but be mingled up with those who invoke gods that cannot save, or believe in prophets whom the Lord has not sent. And how can such a one expect to rejoice in the salvation of the God of Israel, should his descendants have been among the persecutors of the faithful, and have been among those who make heavy our burden during our captivity? if by his own voluntary act, in joining himself or permitting his immediate children to join themselves to the sons and daughters of the strangers, he has deliberately removed himself from the household of Jacob? No, he cannot rejoice, neither in anticipation nor in the accomplishment of the return of the Lord to Zion in mercy and glory; and he has no right, no inheritance in the goodness and the abundance of spiritual greatness which shall be ours in the end of days, when truth shall triumph, and when falsehood will vanish before the dazzling light of the divine reason which will then illuminate the human mind.

Our race, I need not tell you, you know it, has passed through trials the severest which any other ever encountered; it has been tried in the sunshine of prosperity, and in the crucible of poverty; it has been tempted in the days of national splendour, and its constancy tested in the degradation of abject slavery and oppressions without number; it has suffered all the vicissitudes of tyrannical rulers, the wrath of man, the hatred of the whole human family; again, however, it has been courted by words of flattery, which sound fair to the ear, but break the faith to the deceived heart; it has been attracted by bribes and promises of all sorts: and nevertheless it has not ceased to be a distinct branch of the human family, though there is no doubt that many strangers to our ancestry have by degrees been joined to us, and learned to swear by the name of Him who dwells on high.

And in all these trials many have fallen off from the parent branch; they were either allured by the freedom of gentile manners, the absence of the burden of the law which they saw in others, or they were terrified by the sorrows which they had to endure, and sought for enlargement by denying their God and Saviour, and forswearing their allegiance to his laws. I called your attention on a previous occasion to the remarkable diminution to which we were subject, first by the slaughter of millions <<484>>at the destruction of the temple, and afterwards by the constant persecutions and legal murders by which it was endeavoured to exterminate us. I do not remind you of this to enkindle in your hearts a hatred of those  not believing as we do; but to impress on you, in all sincerity, that the world and its allurements offer no safety to Israel.

You may be told that you are loved for the fathers’ sake; that you are admired because you had always the law in your custody; but never believe that for these benefits to mankind conferred by your religion, this religion is loved by those who have not embraced it. The world and its followers look on you with a jealous eye, and they would think no labour nor effort in vain, which would induce you to surrender it, and if you would but be persuaded to become like other men, and be no longer distinctive sons of Israel. The very fires of persecution were kindled and blazed, not, as they said, to punish our bodies, but to fit our souls for heaven; and though the stake is not now invoked to effect this end, other means are not left untried to produce the same result. Ours is a constant state of warfare with all around; and we must therefore be constantly watchful that the holy citadel which we are appointed to guard, suffer no injury from any inimical surprise, let the danger come from whatever quarter it may.

But in so guarding, so watching your treasure, there is no need that you should hate those on whom the fight has not yet dawned; you are within the safe enclosure; you can walk with security, surrounded as you are by the walls erected around you by divine wisdom; you can therefore well forgive the wrong done you in the ignorance of the proud and the prosperous; and if vengeance is to be meted out for the innocent blood which has been shed, await in silence the coming events, and your God will act for you, and his thunders will not sleep when it is requisite for the benefit of all that they should be awakened, and when his holy arm is to be bared for warfare against the ungodly, before the eyes of nations.

Of one thing be assured, and hold fast to it as a priceless truth, that the Lord of all spirits does not look with indifference upon you and your fate; He watches, on the contrary, over your destinies, and directs everything so that it may best contribute to your preservation, the happiness of the world, and the furtherance of his glory among mankind. You are his instruments; <<485>>you are but as the clay in the hands of the potter; He moulds you to answer to his wise purposes; wherefore you should never presume to rise up in rebellion against Him, and ask Him, “Wherefore dost Thou afflict us?” Were it that uniform prosperity, a uniform security, a uniform state of peace were the best for your spiritual development, it would all be accorded to you, even as your soul desires. The very reverse of it, however, clearly proves, that as yet you have not reached that state of perfection, or that at least the world has not yet progressed far enough, to establish the peace of Israel; that as yet the struggle for truth has to be waged by you, either actively or in a suffering state; and that hence you must acquire such thoughts yourselves, and inculcate the like in your children and scholars, that you and they may be enabled to come out of the contest with your faith untouched, and your confidence in the God of your fathers undiminished.

Reflect that you are, by descent or adoption, children of that glorious triumvirate which was commenced in Abraham, which was continued in Isaac, and ended in Jacob, three names glorious and bright amidst the greatest and brightest which the history of the world presents to the admiration of men, and which demand of us to follow them in the same path which has become their glory and their praise. The world boasts of its heroes, its martyrs, its counsellors, its kings, its leaders, its sages; it holds them up to be loved, admired, and followed. And it is right that so mankind should be incited to noble deeds, which scatter a variety over the dull acts of every-day life, which present us something to live for, very different from the ordinary every-day transactions which centre in self, and which often work injury to all beyond the actor himself, and not rarely on him likewise.

But have we not also cause to point to our ancient progenitors as the illustrious examples which we should follow, unflinchingly, bravely, fully, without regarding the consequences which may thereby ensue to us? If Abraham believed firmly in the Lord, should we not also believe, yea unto death, though our eyes do not behold the fulfillment of the good predicted? If Isaac could be willing to be bound on the altar, after he had himself with a full knowledge of his father’s intention, carried the fire and the wood for the burnt-offering, without murmuring against the <<486>>apparently arbitrary and cruel mandate of the Supreme, though he had been designated as the one after whom Abraham’s seed should be called: should we not also be ready to obey in much less onerous commandments, the guidance of that holy Voice which speaks to us through the pages of the blessed Scriptures?

If Jacob could go forth from his father’s house, as an exile for the wrong done to his brother, though justified for thus doing by this brother’s unworthy contempt of his birthright, which he wickedly sold for a mess of pottage, merely to gratify the cravings of a base appetite; if he could go forth among idolaters and live twenty years away from all the endearing ties which bound him to his beloved mother and revered father, and could he remain himself true and faithful where all around was given to falsehood and error, and rear up his children to love the God of Abraham, and to reverence Him who was the Fear of Isaac; could he remain the favourite of God though the forsaken of man, when he was by day exposed to the scorching rays of the sun on the plains of Mesopotamia, and at night bedewed by the chill, damp, cold mists which often scatter disease and death on the fields which spread along the Tigris and Phrat, and yet always worship Him who appeared to him at Luz, when he slept on the bare ground, with a rock for his pillow, whereas  he had been reared in ease and luxury, in the peaceful tent of the patriarch of Beersheba; could Jacob remain true, though for a wise purpose an angel sought to overcome him at the crossing of the Jabbok, in a contest such as no mortal ever before waged, and he yet not falter in his confidence in the Supreme’s protection: and should we become faint-hearted at the first blush of trials, at difficulties which a little well-directed energy and perseverance can so readily overcome? should we doubt that a great and glorious destiny is before us, when so much has already been fulfilled, when so much that was barely prophecy in the days of the fathers, has actually been accomplished to the letter?

And yet we doubt, we fancy almost, as did the ancient transgressors, that the Lord has forsaken the land; we hesitate in obedience at the first allurement, as though to sin were the legitimate business of man on earth. But if the experience of past ages is worth the least consideration; if the Bible in any way is a proper guide for us to follow: we ought to be ashamed at the littleness of our <<487>>faith, at the proneness to sin which we display on every occasion. It is indeed unfortunate that we so little understand the teachings of the Scriptures, or that we heed them so little when we do. Not so can Israel be dignified; not so can we attain our proper rank as the favourites of Heaven, as the children of salvation. On the contrary we ought steadily to pursue the course which our fathers followed, and be neither swayed by success on the one side to forget our accountability, nor be urged by untoward events to let go of our innocence and seek for remedies in the intercourse with the world, where no safety can be found for us. When we are successful, let us look up with gratitude to Him who blesses the seasons; and when evil betides us let us resort to prayer to lay our case before God, and He will hear our cry and grant our request, if thereby our happiness can be promoted, and refuse it should our enlargement compromise the salvation of our souls.

The example of Jacob should herein teach us a lesson of wisdom and piety. He had by the intervention of Providence escaped the malevolence of his father-in-law, Laban the Aramite, when a new danger threatened him in the approach of his offended brother, with a mighty retinue, for those days, of four hundred warlike men, who followed him. Jacob did not deviate  from his course to his paternal home, seeking safety in flight because he had been told to return to the land of his birth, and that the Lord would be with him.  Nor did he rely on this promise as doing all for him, because he might justly fear that the errors and sins to which man is liable, might have exposed him or a portion of his household to punishment, through the instrumentality of Esau, since the time that the revelation concerning his homeward journey had been made known to him, in his late residence. He therefore resorted to prayer as the only refuge for him, and all other afflicted ones in the day of distress, and called on the Lord to protect him in that strait in which he was, not for any merit in himself; because he averred that he was unworthy of all the mercies and the truths which had been bestowed on him; since he passed the river Jordan in his flight from his father’s, with a simple staff for his possession, and how he had now returned with two troops of cattle, in which at that time consisted the wealth of the East, together with their necessary <<488>>attendants, and blessed with a hopeful progeny of twelve God-fearing children. And thus he concluded his prayer,

ואתה אמרת היטב איטיב עמך ושמתי את זרעך כחול הים אשר לא יספר מרב׃ ברא׳ ל״ב י״ג׃

“And Thou hast said, I will surely do good with thee, and render thy descendants like the sands of the sea which cannot be numbered for multitude.”—Gen. 32:13.

Meaning that it was the unbought favour of God, which had so far been fulfilled in the many blessings which he had received, on which alone he relied to protect him from the threatening danger, and he invoked it that any evil, which might be impending, should through this means be averted from reaching the mothers and the children, exposed as they were, without divine aid, to the expected wrath of the long-offended Esau; since Jacob had too much cause to suppose that, from his impulsive nature, he might inflict some grievous injury on those who had not injured him, only because they were connected with his brother by the ties of kindred. It is needless to recapitulate the story of the reconciliation of the brothers, as it is more simply and beautifully told than any one but the sacred historian could do in so few words; enough, the prayer of Jacob was answered, and he and his were spared to live and sanctify the Lord of hosts by their faith and their deeds.

And as was the life of Jacob, so has been our existence as a nation. Exiled from the home of our fathers, we have had to mingle with persons and nations of beliefs differing from ours; circumstances have constantly occurred to draw us away unto the path of sin, and to forsake the Lord who had chosen us. Like Jacob too we have been surrounded with perils, and many a time has the persecutor’s sword flashed brightly over our heads, and in its descent it was made drunken with the blood of the Lord’s saints, of those who lived not for themselves, but for the happiness of mankind.

And even when the storm blew loudest, when the waves rose to the most overwhelming height, was the voice of Israel heard invoking the Lord of hosts to remember the covenant and the oath which had secured to the ancients the protection of the Supreme arm, against which all human efforts were in vain. And though notwithstanding our prayers many perished, the religion which <<489>>they defended, perished not; and their blood in flowing watered the tree of life, so that it bloomed the more freely, and that its shadow became more enlarged, so that many more could refresh themselves by its fruits, and be sheltered under its wide-spreading branches. And it flourishes and lives; and though new insects have sprung up to injure its growth and beauty, they will perish also, but the tree itself will live, and become again renewed after the present danger.

For it is this over which the Lord watches; it is this for which He has appointed us its guardians and keepers. But let us not fail in being faithful, and we too shall each be blessed by the Lord of our labours, and He will give us a portion and a name in his sanctuary, a name of glory which shall not perish, and a reward of life which shall never cease. Amen.

Kislev 13, December 8th, 5609.