|Vol. VII, No. 9
Kislev 5610, December 1849
The Light of the Lord.
An Initiation Sermon, Delivered at the Lloyd Street Synagogue, Baltimore, By the Rev. H. Hochheimer, Minister Elect of the Congregation
With timidity and fearful hesitation do I approach this holy consecrated place; for I feel deeply the difficulty of the task which I have assumed. But yesterday I arrived, and shall I speak already to-day? Shall I, the stranger, the unknown, pro<<445>>claim before a congregation, strangers and unknown to me, the holy word in the name of God the Most High? How can I do otherwise than feel timidity and hesitation, since I moreover can truly say with the prophet Jeremiah (i. 6): “Behold I know not how to speak, for I am but a boy?”
And of what shall I speak in the midst of a strange congregation? Shall my theme be morals? Shall it be about private conduct? No; for then you would justly exclaim against me: “This one has merely come as a sojourner; and he will already be judge!” (Gen. xix. 9.) Besides all, this problem how to reprove was difficult at all times, but it is most difficult in our own day. It is no longer as formerly sufficient for the community to know whether the talents of the preacher are extensive enough, whether his intentions are good; people want also to know beforehand his views, the bent of his mind, so that they may be enabled to judge before he commences whether they can coincide with his views, whether they will be inclined to follow him; and they will not allow themselves to be persuaded by his earnest appeals, though he confutes successfully their own views; since every man believes himself to have discovered the right path; and thus the orator, in the place consecrated to God, becomes as it were an article of merchandize, which is subjected to each one’s taste, and is dependent on the changeful humour of the fashion of the day.
And how manifold and various are at the same time the demands made of the preacher, and with perfect truth can the words of the prophet (Hosea, vi. 11) be applied: “In the house of Israel I beheld confusion;” for never, brethren, were there parties in the bosom of Judaism more in direct opposition to each other, never were their differences more distinctly marked, than at this precise moment of time. Whithersoever we turn our view on the present day we shall witness religious disputes; at least is this the ease in my native land; and all experience teaches that such a poison is contagious, and easily carried even beyond the sea.
There is one party in Israel which will admit nothing as valid which it cannot comprehend with its reason; and the men belonging to this section reject one thing after the other, since they cannot comprehend the most sublime and the holy, which is from its nature so far removed from human ken, that to understand fully the divine things, man must needs be equal to God. These <<446>>men then desire to investigate the incomprehensible by the light of human reason; and still this light even is so often obscured by the clouds of earthly passions, is driven hither and thither by each puff of wind, that if one side be brightly illuminated, the other is already shrouded in darkness; and thus they will never be able to comprehend the entire of the holy structure in its strength and sublimity.
Another party strives with might and main against every improvement, if it be ever so useful or necessary, or if it be ever so much calculated to elevate our religion. Every abuse inherited from their fathers is sacred to men of this stamp, not because they deem it good, but only because they have inherited it; as though an error were the better for being centuries old, as though an abuse could gain the least from having grown gray by the lapse of time.
How then shall parties which stand so far asunder be able to approach? How shall peace be made between them? But between the combatants just described, there stands yet another party, which to influence is yet more difficult than either of the first; it is that of the careless or the indifferent. The two other parties of whom we have just been speaking, at least desire to be something; and in case the divine spark of pure truth should illuminate them, in case the holy fire be once kindled in them, they will have to a surety become united for one sacred end; but how can men attain the truth when they feel no desire to attain it?
The indifferent, careless about the battle which is fought on the field of religion, lives one day like the other, seeking that which is of the earth. What concern has he with the truth? it offers no enjoyment to his sensuality, and it opens no prospect of interest in hard money; and he looks with risible emotions on the contest before him, perhaps deriding in his heart the folly of the others in spending their time and strength in such a struggle. But O, brethren! this class is the most dangerous of all; it is this which gnaws at the root of Judaism, and prevents it from bearing fruit. These indifferents are like a slow, dangerous poison, and they have brought more evil over Israel, they have rendered the name of Jew more odious to the nations of the earth, than the other two parties ever could have accomplished; for the indifferents are the real enemies of Judaism, and more injurious to it <<447>>than its most inveterate foes; for through open foes there will arise a contest for truth, and only in contest can the truth sustain the fiery test of its genuineness; only in contest does it display its power; but indifference is dangerous to its peace, it is fatal to its existence.
There is yet a fourth class, comprised within the limits of the first two; it is that of the doubters. These men are very strikingly depicted in the parable of Rabbi Bar Bar Chanah, in which we are told how a frog was swallowed up by a serpent, and this again by a raven. For just like the frog, who at times hides himself in swamps, and mire, and then emerges into the light of the sun, is the case of the doubter. At one time he sinks into the slough of sin, and then come apace bright moments, in which he feels a desire to turn again to divine things; but then comes the serpent of seduction and leads him off upon the path of evil, till sin, dark in its colour as the black raven, completely overpowers him.
In this manner, beloved brethren, is Israel divided into different parties, and this difference in religious sentiments is the greatest evil which afflicts our people, is yet more injurious than the separation which took place when Israel and Judah divided themselves into two kingdoms. The greatest praise of our fathers was that they had ה׳ אחד וכהן גדול אחד ותורה אחת “One God, one high priest, and one law.” This, however, is no longer applicable to us, for “according to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah,” (Jer. ii. 28,) is a complaint that may be uttered even now, for so many as our cities are our reforms, our peculiar ideas of religion. And, nevertheless, there exists but one truth, and this truth must quit the contest triumphant, and all falsehood, all doubt, must succumb; and the more truth is sought by our united exertions, the sooner will it become apparent; the sooner will it be found by us.
Therefore do I deem it to be the duty of every man to seek for this holy end, with all the intelligence which God has given him, and therein I am sure are you all agreed, no matter how each may act for himself. Let us then devote this hour to solve the following questions:
Our sages say truly חותמו של הקב״ה אמת “The seal of God is the Truth.” The Truth is the most precious, the most brilliant jewel which clearly illuminates all space, and suffers neither doubt, nor deceit, neither hatred nor contention, to grow up near it. Truth is the most costly treasure which man can possess; it is that gift which ennobles the inhabitant of earth, and brings him near to the Most High. But at the same time, it is difficult to be found, is but a rare guest, is almost become a stranger on earth; and not unfounded was the apprehension of Truth, at the creation of the world, as the legend in the Midrash tells us. when saving, “O Lord, do not create the world, for it will be full of deceit. Peace also joined her and said, O create it not, for there will spring up within it hatred and enmity. Then it was that the Creator cast the Truth down upon the earth.”
There is much wisdom in these words of the Midrash; God cast down the Truth, but not Peace; for if Truth flourishes on earth, Peace will never be wanting, and with the reign of Truth, the most beautiful bond of concord will entwine itself around all the inhabitants of the earth. Neither contest nor hatred can rage where Truth prevails; for it is only falsehood, it is only deceit which divides brother from brother, and it is this prolific source of evil which always rises up to oppose Truth and Peace. Let us, then, before anything else, brethren, seek the Truth; let no labour fatigue us, however difficult the search may prove.
In the pursuit of gain, we neither mind weather, nor storm, nor rain at times even in this pursuit, we have regard neither for virtue nor religion, neither for our reputation nor our honest name; nay, when gain is before us, we deem it a trifling thing to overcome the greatest difficulties; then are we ready to undermine mountains, and to ransack the depths of the earth to reach the hidden treasures, then man descends to the bottom of the sea to seek precious things there buried; and shall we do less for this noble daughter of Heaven, for this gift of God which <<449>>enables us to dispense with everything else beside? Surely not.
But, you will ask, “Where shall we find her? man can attain to the bottom of the sea, and enter the depths of the earth; but where can he lay hold of truth?” But truly he can find this also, for sure means are put into his hands to seek her out, namely: the holy commands of God will and ought to serve us as the light to guide us to the spot where this treasure is placed; they are a lamp, which if rightly observed will surely cause us to find the pure light of Truth; a lamp which will guard against the total extinguishment of the taper of our human wisdom, after it has been urged from side to side by the breath of the passing wind.
“Be not wise in thy own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.” (Prov. iii. 7.)
And now I call upon all of you, Up! and take in your hand the lamp; walk in the commandments of the Lord, and soon will dawn for you a clear and bright light.
Rouse yourselves, ye doubters, and you, also, indifferent ones! Up! rouse yourselves from your usual precious state of inactivity, and seize the lamp of God. You are not usually lazy when there is something to be gained; and here the highest treasure can be won. You are careful, and strive in worldly pursuits, to leave earthly goods as an inheritance to your children; but will you deprive them from mere indolence of the heritage of our fathers, which assisted them so gloriously in trouble and affliction, which fortified them against the assaults of danger and distress? Will you take this away from your children because it may disturb you in your carnal enjoyments? Whatever we have inherited from our fathers, be it ever so small in value, is usually held in high esteem; and the best ornament you will permit to escape you? O, do it not, for you can give your children nothing which can be put in comparison with it, a gift which will be their support to all eternity.
And ye too, who are ready for the combat, who cast aside all which does not suit you in your wisdom, which does not comport with your own notions, do seize the lamp of God, if it be but this once, and on your path also will light then be shed. For tell me, are you so completely satisfied? does not occasionally a doubt obtrude itself whether you really are already in possession of the true light? I confidently believe that my suspicion is correct; for error cannot so strongly have obtained the mastery <<450>>over you, that you have no place whatever in your heart for the approach of truth. Listen, then, to the inward voice which admonishes you, and lay hold of the lamp, and seek the true light, the pure truth.
And lastly, to you, also, who contend for the cause of God, who hold fast to his commandments, who hear me and fancy “Surely he has nothing to say to us; we have the lamp of God in our hand, have constantly made use of it, and never forsaken it,”—to you, also, I have to address a few serious words: Do you all truly observe the commandments of God, because they are the commandments of God? or do you, or at least many of you, observe them because you are used to them, because you have brought up from infancy to act so? Do the words of the prophet suit our case where he says (Isaiah xxix. 13), “And their fear of me was a precept taught by man?” Do but question yourselves; lay your hand upon your heart and ask: “Do we actually observe everything for God’s sake?” I truly fear greatly that you also cannot answer this inquiry with an open “Yes.” I, therefore, call upon you also, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
But I hear you say, “If it be true that even those who have had the lamp of God long in their hands, have nevertheless not found the pure truth, that these also walk in the path of falsehood, that they have not been illuminated by the pure light, notwithstanding all their observance of the divine precepts,— how can we hope for success? Surely truth cannot be clearly discerned, and all labour, all anxious search for it must be in vain.”
This now brings us to our second question, and the answer is likewise comprised in our text: “Let us walk in the light of the Lord.” When your course of life is enlightened with the divine light, then have you the surest token that you have found the truth, that it has become alive and active in you. When all your acts, all your workings are, like the fire graciously bestowed by God, everywhere scattering beneficence, everywhere diffusing happiness: then can you be tranquil, then is the course of error far distant from you, for “When mercy and truth <<451>>forsake thee not, then hast thou found grace and favour in the eyes of God and man.” (Prov. iii. 3, 4.)
So also say the words of the humane poet:* “The real ring possesses the wonderful power to make the possessor beloved and agreeable before God and man. By this must you decide, because the false rings will not be able to effect this.” Live, therefore,—act, therefore,—that you may be agreeable to God and man, and then is the problem solved, then is its solution discovered. “When love and truth meet within you, then will virtue and peace kiss each other.” (Psalm lxxxv. 11.)
But as yet this golden age has not arrived; peace and virtue do not as yet kiss each other; the brother as yet persecutes his brother, because he happens to think differently from him; he greets him not with terms of love, in order to teach him; but he endeavours to force his opinions on him by the hand of violence. There is no one whose path is refulgent as a guiding light; everything is still obscured through hatred and enmity, and causes that love and truth cannot meet; and herein can you judge in the surest manner that you do not possess the pure truth. Therefore do you take to heart the words of the Psalmist: “Thy words are a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path.” (Psalm cxix. 106.) As the light beams brightly around you, sow virtue and reap a harvest of love; make your own heart fruitful, that the noble seed of piety may flourish therein; but do this correctly, and in accordance with the word of the Lord, “Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before your God.”
Yet to walk humbly before God is the main thing, for thereby can the truly enlightened man be known. And again can you judge by this whether you are yet far from the truth, for how few are there who walk in humility! The one who presumes himself enlightened, prides himself that he has succeeded in disregarding the holiest duties, and derides others, who still remain faithful to them, and fancies that they are far beneath him, and that day has dawned on his soul only. The other, however, who is on the opposite extreme, acts not much better; in his heart, too, has pride found a dwelling, and because he dispenses with so many things for the sake of religion, he imagines that he is better, higher than all others. To a surety, dispensing is more difficult <<452>>than enjoying; to a surety, by dispensing he already proves that he is earnest with religion; but to boast therewith, to be proud of it, diminishes the merit thence arising, and man takes to himself the reward; through the pleasure which he experiences in this pride of feeling.
Does not Holy Writ teach us, “Observe and do the commandments, for it is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations?” But if you be proud, where then is your wisdom? “The proud is never wise,” כל גאה שוטה teaches the Talmud. And you, also, ye indifferent ones. and you doubters, too, you to a certainty are not proud of your conduct, the first because the whole is unimportant to them, and the others because they have not strength enough to search for the right. Oh, try it but once, let me admonish you; do it, if not for the sake of heaven, for your own sakes, for the sake of the expected reward. It is true, we should not be religious because of the reward which is thence to result; but as is said by the sages, “By doing good from an improper motive, man is led to practise it from a proper one,” and the promises of God are really great, since we are told that “to observe the divine precepts confers long life and peace,” and these are surely rich returns.
How beautiful, how sublime a spectacle would it present, were Israel no more divided, but united in God,—if it knew but one divine law, but one divine light, and walked in the path of truth. Then would the words of the prophet be verified: “Israel’s light shall become a fire, and his sanctuary a flame, and consumed and burnt shall be the thorns and thistles on one day.” (Isa. x. 17.) Yes, the thorns and thistles, these weeds of an ignoble heart, would vanish in a single day; and how happy will be that time, when this takes place!—and O, that it may come speedily, yea, speedily in our day!
The third question, “How are we to employ the pure truth, when we have once obtained possession thereof?” demands now but a few words. I might indeed pass it altogether by, after what has been said, were it not agreeable to the heart to dwell a little longer on this thought, that it may beat higher at the reflection, <<453>>at the conviction that the time of universal light will come one day. For who would again forsake the pure light, of which the Midrash says, that the Lord has garnered it up for the righteous in the future, because it was too noble to rule in company with darkness, when once he has walked in the same? If man but once breathes the air of heaven, would he not preserve it for ever, for all eternity? In such a state, each one hastens to meet his God with reverential joy, and feels that he has ecstatic bliss.
Hasten, then, brothers and sisters, lay your hand on the work; be not fatigued nor wearied, so that you may hasten the advent of this time. You can do nothing more beautiful, nothing greater, nothing more worthy of yourselves, which could lay the foundation of greater bliss and more extended felicity. But think not that it is too late for you; for in the striving after wisdom alone, in the striving to promote the good, is already experienced heavenly joy. And were it even not for yourselves, then will you leave it as a holy legacy for your children, who will bless and praise you for it more than for gold and wealth.
Take, therefore, the lamp; walk in the light of God; and the Father, who embraces in love all his children, will also have graciously mercy on us, whether we belong to one party or the other, whether we profess these or the other views, so we but strive honestly after the truth, and seek faithfully to find it.
And may God grant that the day may not be far, on which the parties in Israel, which now are in hostile opposition, may offer each other the hand of friendship, and when the brother shall again embrace the brother, the sister the sister, in sincere love. God grant that the day may soon appear on which the house of Jacob may again be united as one great, entire people; yea, God grant this, and that soon may appear for Israel the dawn of that beautiful time, of which it is said: “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health (of spirit) shall spring forth speedily, and thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of God shall be thy reward.” Amen.