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The Path of Life

A Sermon

O Thou! whose providence watches over all, let us entreat Thee to guard us in thy goodness, and to hold over us thy protecting arm amidst the contests of the violent, and the assaults of hostile factions. Lo! rumours of strife have reached us, and the remnant of thy people is like a few sheep which have escaped the slaughter only to fall into the power of devouring beasts, with no one to take their part, to snatch them from destruction save Thee, the all-seeing Shepherd. Be it then thy will to have regard to our unprotected state, and be thy arm our protection, thy mercy our shield; and when destruction passes let it not reach us, and when violence wounds and slays, may it not be permitted to invade our domicile; and let us thus behold Thee in the storm of battle, the tumult of intestine warfare, as the One who leaves not unprotected those who confide in Him, and guards well those who have obtained his favour. So shall we live undiminished and unscathed, and so will we arise and bless thy holy Name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise, glorious and exalted for evermore. Amen.


We read in Leviticus 18:5, the following words, which are <<118>>given as the reason for demanding of us the observance of religious duties:

ושמרתם את חקתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני ה׳׃ ויקרא י״ח ה׳׃

“And ye shall observe my statutes and my judgments which a man is to do that he may live through them; I am the Lord.”

Rashi says to this text in his commentaries, “And live through them in the world to come; for if thou wouldst say, It means this world, the question would arise, Is he not at length compelled to die?” Let us look carefully into the requirements of religion and its consequences. Man in his unreligious state, with passions awakened and with physical developments to gratify them, will have, can have, no impediment thrown in his way, from rushing upon any animal enjoyment which may be in his power of tasting; he is free to act, and there is no internal check to withhold  him; he is the first and only thought to be regarded in his soul, and he feels nothing, and therefore cares nothing, for the injury he may inflict on others. Divine responsibility has no echo in his heart; he knows not God, and therefore does not fear Him, and all mankind are but to him so many beings present to administer to his pleasure or aggrandizement, and he will accordingly endeavour to mould them so as to fit them to become instruments in the gratification of his ambition or pursuit after pleasure. Hence arise murders, incests, thefts, and all the evils which which man inflicts on man in the prosecution of his selfish gratifications. For man without a God is the enemy to all creatures: he is without responsibility, and therefore the most noxious animal in existence, far more destructive than the unchained lion,  exceeding in ferocity the savage tiger, and more insatiable in his thirst for blood than a hungry wolf amidst the defenceless sheep of the pasture.

When therefore the Almighty beheld the weakness of untaught human nature, He vouchsafed to reveal himself from the beginning to the men whom He deemed most fitting to be his messengers, and endowed them with wisdom and knowledge, that they might go abroad and teach truth, and mercy, and justice, to their fellows, in order that thus instructed, society might be bound together by the ties of love and kindness, and all live abstaining from injuring others, and not receiving any injury in return.

In <<119>>short, religion, which is the other term for divine revelation, was to cure man of his savage impulsiveness, and teach him that there are higher enjoyments than the mere gratification of the base passions; that it is a greater pleasure to preserve than to destroy life; that it is a higher satisfaction to have shielded female innocence than to have sacrificed it to the base impulse of unbridled lust; that it confers more lasting delight to the soul not to have taken our neighbour’s property, even in our moment of need, than to have enriched ourselves by appropriating by a violent hand or by stealth, that for which we had not laboured, and which had not come into our hands by voluntary gift or inheritance. It is for the correcting therefore of the twofold tendency of humanity, that religion was bestowed; which means that, since we are endowed with an inclination to gratify our impulses and desires, whilst we have at the same time a counter-check within us which  cannot satisfy itself about the justness of every intended act, which we at first resolve upon, we have received an especial guide to instruct us when it is safe to proceed to satisfy what our inclination for enjoyment demands for its use, and when we are bound to listen to the admonishing voice which whispers into our ear “Beware.”

It were folly to assert that all enjoyment is sinful, that the flesh is always evil, that nothing but mortification of the outward man is proper for one who  love his God; for this would at once arraign the goodness of our Creator for endowing us with propensities which could only be satisfied at the expense of what is really and universally just and right. But whatever the Almighty instituted is right; there is nothing in the world, not a propensity in our soul which can be viewed otherwise than beneficent in tendency if only properly applied. It is in all things the measure, and not the quality which constitutes right or wrong, and this measure is religion, or the revealed expression of God’s will. We use then the terms “good inclination,” יצר הטוב, and “evil propensity,” יצר הרע, merely in a relative sense, good and evil so far, as they are limited by the  law of God, and evil, entirely so, if they lead us beyond the prescribed bounds which Supreme Wisdom has set to them. When therefore a certain commentator expounds “and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” to mean with both the evil and good propensities, inasmuch as the word “the heart” might <<120>>have been given in Hebrew with one ב, thus לבך instead of two לבבך, he justly appreciates our relation to the all-wise Creator, and he fully comprehends how there is nothing truly evil in the simple creation which God called into being, till the freedom of will given to man introduced sin into the world, and brought in its train the sorrows and sufferings incident on the altered state, from primitive innocence to a struggle with the vicissitudes thus evoked, and resulting from the misconduct of man. But again, who is there bold enough to assert that even this is altogether unmitigated evil? Who warrants us to maintain that herein too there is not an overruling Providence which guides all to a happy end, and tells the waves of the passions of the human heart, “Thus far and no farther shall you overwhelm the world”?

The earth was assigned as the sphere for man to labour, to exert his faculties, and to progress from infancy to a age, collectively no less than individually, till he reach that destination—the end—of which he himself, either as one or as society, has no conception himself. He enters on the stage of life, and so springs a nation, as we did at the foot of Sinai, into being, and he travels on day by day in a state of advancement, unconscious himself of the steps he is taking in the pursuit of his destiny. Ask the most renowned for that which is great and good, whether he contemplated his elevated position at the outset of his career whether his infancy was marked by any extraordinary development or precocity not equally observable in others much interior to him in after years: and you will be told that he was a child like other children, and sported when they sported, and laughed when they laughed, and that his tears were as ready to start forth at the first pain or disappointment, as in others of his age. And still because he was taught what is right, because he was guided well, because the way was opened to him by providential circumstances, and because he himself subdued the savage heart within him, he has ascended on the path which leads upwards, unconscious to himself, heedless perhaps of the consequences of his own acts and words, till you find him as he is, a blessing to himself, a happiness to others. And yet whilst he lives, he knows not what his end may be, whether he will persevere to the last, and descend to the tomb with the righteousness which he has acquired; and when at length the grave has closed over him, <<121>>then, and only then, can you speak from experience, that that man has been faithful, and earned, so far as mortals can tell, the approbation of his God.

And yet all the trials, all the difficulties, all the evil passions which others encounter, fell to his lot also; no one escapes them; they, like death, are the common lot of humanity. And has the righteous overcome them with triumph; has he been exalted above them even in the eyes of man; have they left his virtue untouched, and placed him in a brighter and holier light before other mortals like himself; nay, have they called forth in him high and noble traits, which otherwise might have lain dormant: who can say that his lot has not been ultimately a happier one, his exaltation more enviable, for the very evils which beset his path, just as the sunlight appears lovelier after a storm, when the envious clouds are chased away by the wind of heaven, after having hidden it from the face of the earth.—And nations are but aggregations of individuals; their fate cannot be surveyed in the lifetime of a single person, and ages may and must succeed each other, ere they arrive at maturity, before they are properly placed on the page of history. We may trace them, their phases, their rise, their progress, and if you will, their fall; but whilst they exist, we cannot say with certainty that they have attained to their end. They may flourish or be subdued; they may rule or be tributary; they may be numerous or reduced they may a few individuals; but still whilst their existence is marked on the stage of life, whilst they are perceived by their characteristics, their features, and their laws, they are present to rise again from their fall, their degradation, their low estate, to stand once more, and, if God will, for ever unshaken, as the light of the world, as the means of happiness for all the rest of mankind; and the very evils through which they had to pass, the extermination almost which threatened them, may render them more fitted to fulfill the destiny for which they were created.

Life is brief; but eternity—who can measure its duration? our place is narrow; but who determine the extent of space, the dwelling of our God—the Holy One who abideth eternally? And still we are a portion of everlasting life, an emanation of the Unlimited in extent and power. He framed us from the dust of the earth, so says the book which He has written; but He also breathed into our nostrils the soul of life, understand “life,” <<122>>the undying essence which perishes not as the brute that passes away, and the body of which is mingled with the clod of the valley.

But with life and the intellect therewith combined, without restraint or check, what would man have been, but the most destructive of all animals; and if one doubts this, let him examine the records of history, and he will read of atrocities which make the blood run cold, and crimes which make the flesh creep, all perpetrated under the unbridled influence of lawless passions. It is possible, that since man was created in the image of God,—since he has an appreciation of virtue inly implanted in his heart, he might, after long and laborious struggles; at length have arrived at defining some rules by which a government might have been carried on, securing to each man the possession of life and its acquisitions; but even with this concession in favour of the human mind, unaided by God, what effect could this have had on eternity? where would have been the certainty that acts of the nature described had secured us the approbation of God?

But it may be safely denied that human reason alone was ever able to frame equitable laws for a general government, or that there ever was a time when some direct communication of the will of God was unknown to mankind; for the sustaining of the first position, we may cite the barbarities of heathen nations, and for the second the biblical evidence that with the cessation of the flood, the Lord revealed to Noah the principles of justice, evidenced in the inviolability of human life so strongly enjoined. But these few laws, were, as can easily be seen, not enough to govern the world when population became denser, and the interests thereby existing more complicated and diversified. We, therefore, may assume that, although not written down, other precepts were ordained; since we find Abraham commended for observing God’s charges, commandments, statutes, and laws, which doubtlessly included rules for justice, charity, and obedience to parental authority, or the main pillars which support society. Probably these laws were traditional, handed down by oral precept, as we read of Abraham, “And he built there an altar and proclaimed in the name of the Lord,” evidently the duties pertaining to a profession of faith, and it was this especial mark which distinguished Abraham and his household at first, and afterwards his own descendants and their adherents from the rest of <<123>>the community where they lived; and called down on them the promise of divine protection.

But this was not yet the end of Abraham’s destiny; he was to receive a still higher life—a brighter existence; and this was accomplished at the revelation of the divine glory at Horeb, when the laws of God were not left any farther to the perishableness of mere tradition, but were given over in the form of a code, civil and religious, to the charge of an entire people, who were appointed to watch over its preservation, because their ancestors had obeyed the will of God in whatever had been demanded of them, and thus obtained the promise of an everlasting covenant from their Maker. Moses was, therefore, justly empowered to tell the people that they should not go after the ordinances of the land of Egypt where they had dwelt, nor follow the practices of the land of Canaan whither they were going; simply because neither were in accordance with the dictates of the Lord, who had not approved of the inventions of fallible men in instituting such absurdities and crimes, and enforcing them as religious duties. But he was told to say: “My laws of justice shall ye observe, and my statutes shall you keep to walk in them: I am the Lord your God,” meaning, that the laws we had received were not emanating from a fallible mortal, but from the supreme Source of wisdom and power, whose words are true, and in whose judgment there is no possible room for error or deception. But not alone this; for it is not an arbitrary system which we are to follow; not one which is solely intended to magnify Him, and to render us the subjects of his kingdom; for continues the message, “And ye shall observe my statutes and my judgments, which a man is to do that he may live in them.”

Meaning, There are many practices of the gentiles which are hurtful to life, which are subversive of piety, injurious to the welfare of the state; but if you observe the ordinances of the Bible, you will not only escape these dangers, but you will obtain by them life and happiness; and says the commentator, “But how is life to be preserved? has not every man, no matter how good he is, however observant of all the laws, ultimately to pay the forfeit of all mankind? must he not yield his spirit and return to the earth from which his body has sprung?” He then answers: “The life promised is the future state, where the exist<<124>>ence is permanent, where the interruptions which disturb our earthly life are not any more to be dreaded; but if one has once entered therein he will be for ever in the presence of God, and bask in the great light which springs from the mercy of the Creator.”

The verse, therefore, properly concludes, not with the usual “I am the Lord your God,” or the One who has done you so many benefits, and therefore asks this service as a return of grateful feelings, but simply “I am the Lord,” or as the Hebrew term is the symbol of the permanence of the Deity, “I am the Everlasting;” thus saying that the reward promised for obedience will be commensurate with the divine existence, and as this is everlasting, so will also be the recompense which obedience will obtain at his hands: not like the riches of the earth, which are acquired in toil and sorrow, and are often taken in the twinkling of an eye; or human glory, which is not rarely purchased with the tears of the orphan and the sobs of the widow, and which at length barely endures for a night; or human power, which leaves a man in the midst of his exaltation a by-word and a reproach to his enemies; but those treasures which require no miser’s care to hoard them, which the worm cannot devour nor the moth destroy; that glory which springs from devotion to God and light shed from his own essence, over which others shed no tears, and which excites no sorrow in the breast of aught that lives; that exaltation which is the offspring of acceptability with the Lord, over which no enemies can prevail, and of which not all the powers of the world can deprive the possessor. In short, the state of the righteous who live through the faith and works prescribed to us, will be analogous to the divine existence, which is not marred by bodily suffering and by mental darkness, and which is not interrupted by death, which has not any power or dominion over those who dwell under the shadow of the Lord’s protection.

If now they who follow the commandments of God are beset in their travels through life with dangers and difficulties; if they see themselves pursued by the malevolence of their enemies, and scorned by hollow-hearted friends; if they see their efforts followed by disappointment, and their labour exerted in vain; if ill health seems attached to them as an heir-loom from their birth to their grave: they must not repine at the hard lot which is <<125>>thus assigned them; they should feel that the more they endure here, the more will their virtues be purified, the more will they be cleansed from iniquity, the more will they be rendered fit to come unspotted, freed from the pollution of earthly life, in the presence of Him who is the Holiest and Purest; who is, moreover, the righteous Judge, who never sends any dispensation without a wise motive, and who, being unforgetting, will not let a single deed, a single suffering of theirs pass, without assigning reward for the one and giving them a due recompense for the other, if it was borne in meekness and resignation to his just decrees, He being the perfect God, with whom there is no unrighteousness or iniquity.

And as individuals are thus promised life in the law, we as a nation must likewise expect to have existence and permanence through the same means. stated that both nations and individuals have their end, the object for which they were created; that for the individual, we see, is that he is to be rendered truly and permanently happy, without sorrow or pain; that for our nation must be analogous, though not identical, since nationalities, with our means for arriving at a correct judgment, are but existences of the earth, of life in this world, inapplicable to the disembodied state. As human beings living on the earth, in the midst of mortals, then, must we look for our destiny, and as such we must become identified with the living God. But how? can we then see Him and live? when Moses, the prophet of prophets, could not?

But the question answers itself, when we look at the first institution of our race as a people. When Abram left Haran by the command of God, he was told that he should become a blessing to all the families of the earth. He was then but a wanderer, a childless man of the age of seventy-five years, alone, unknown, in the country assigned to him as the future residence of his descendants. Still he went forward on his mission in full confidence of the truth of the word of God, though he could not understand how it was to be accomplished; it spoke of descendants when he was childless; it spoke of blessings, and soon famine compelled him to leave his new home for the land of Egypt; and when at length after the son of promise had been born, and he hoped thus to see the fulfillment of his hopes, he was ordered to bring him for a burnt-offering on one of the mountains <<126>>which the Lord would show him. Nevertheless, amidst all these doubts and trials, he never wavered, he believed in the Lord, who reckoned it to him as righteousness. After him came Isaac, and then Israel, and after a period of more than two hundred years after the mission of Abraham, the whole number of worshippers of the One God, was less than a hundred persons, connected with the family of the patriarch. And still there was no defection, no complaining at the slow fulfillment of the promise, that in them all the earth should be blessed. It was enough that God had promised, and they lived forward to meet the accomplishment, come when it might, though delayed age after age, and century after century. Again peace fled from our race, and we were kept in bondage and held to labour for so long a time, that we were defiled with the idols of Egypt; but hope fled not from the breast of all, and many there were who clung with unshaken faith to God, till the time of the fulfillment, when we as a nation were publicly betrothed and espoused by the great Father of mankind, to be his own, his peculiar treasure, his kingdom of priests, his holy nation. But even then we stood alone, solitary amidst the families of the earth, in the invocation of the Holy Name, which is reverenced among the angels. Yet it was the commencement of the great accomplishment of the covenant with Abraham; seventy males had now increased to sixty myriads, and in the mouth of two millions of human beings was the Lord of heaven invoked as their God and Creator.

We next arrived in Palestine, and increased in power and intelligence, and the fame of our commonwealth spread far over the East and the countries to the South; but still we stood alone, and we had no associates to join us in our testimony against the vanities and idols of mankind. And though our state fell at last a prey to our transgressions, and our iniquities destroyed our sanctuary, the religion, which is ours, did not perish, and survives even now as the glory of the sons of Jacob. O! how did we suffer since the day that Nebuchadnezzar sent the captain of his guards to burn our temple! O how weary were our wanderings since a second time the holy of holies was entered with fire and sword, under the cruellest of all oppressors, the Roman general and his unpitying legions! But for all this, we adhered, few of us at least, to the statutes of the Lord, and thus we live in and through the <<127>>commandments which we received at Sinai. As yet we have not ceased, as yet our destiny is not accomplished, because our end has not come; nor are all the families of the earth blessed in Abraham and his descendants. But we are hastening to the accomplishment; event crowds on event; falsehood sinks after falsehood; and who can doubt that truth at length will triumph? Who can gainsay that at length the Lord alone will reign on earth? Yea, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, and Moses, faltered not; why then should we falter, when the prospect is so much brighter, the hope so much more likely to be accomplished? So then let us hold fast to the Law, adhere firmly to our God, and invoke in humility his blessing on us and all mankind, and that He may speedily send the Messiah to restore peace on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Nissan 26, April 28, 5608.