|Vol. VI, No. 5
Ab 5608, August 1848
Its Possibility and necessity.—A Sermon Delivered in the Synagogue, Shearith Yisrael, Montreal, on Pentecost 5608, by the Rev. Abraham De Sola.
וידבר אלהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמר׃ שמות כ׳׃
God spake all these words.—(Exodus 20.)
The Pentecost again greets us with its happy return, and its joyous reminiscences, important teachings, and boundless anticipations, will now naturally engage our most serious and attentive consideration. For this festival is not vested with that interest only, which it derives from commemorating the happy period when our fathers occupied the land of promise;—when plenty covered their fields and filled their houses;—when a spirit of subordination, peace, and brotherly union, was deeply implanted in every breast;—when the ה׳ עמכם, the sincere blessing with which the master greeted his labourers, was returned with the יברכך ה׳ which constituted their equally fervent benediction;—when a Ruth gleaned and a Boaz “commanded his young men saying, let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her not, and also let fall some of the handfuls on purpose for her;”†— <<227>>when the sons of Jacob, from far and near, repaired in joyousness of heart, and lightsomeness of spirit to their holy Temple to utter forth their praises and gratitude to the God of the universe, and to place on his altar the first fruits of the bounteous harvest wherewith He (blessed be his name) had crowned their labours in the field.
A. D. S.
It is not from these associations only that the חג השבעות obtains that surpassing interest and importance which have ever been assigned to it by the house of Israel; no, brethren, this festival becomes more particularly hallowed, and more warmly cherished in our hearts’ best affections, from its connection with an event much more glorious in its nature, and much more momentous in its results than any of these. One of the most excellent of our late poets* has said of this season:
How inspiring, how blissful this assurance, dear brethren. It was at this time, then, that “God drew near to man, and man to God,”—האל קרב אל איש האיש לאלוה This then is זמן מתן תורתנו—the joyous season whereon the Deity, having removed the physical darkness which covered the world, came now to dispel by the bright and benignant ray of the law, the mental gloom which the ignorance and superstition of man had engendered, when for the second time “God said let there be light, and there was light,” for “the Eternal came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them, He shone forth from Mount Paran, accompanied with myriads of angels, and from his right hand went forth a fiery law,† that fiery law, Israelites, whose light hath burned with undiminished lustre during more than thirty centuries, whose light hath proved a source of comfort and salvation to you in the hour of pain and danger, as it has been one of instruction and advantage to you in the time of prosperity and joy,—זה היום עשה ה׳ מגילה ונשמחה בו.—This, then, is the day when the Eternal vouchsafed to manifest himself to the thousands encompassing Sinai, <<228>>and when “the voice of God, speaking from amidst the fire,” deigned, publicly to convey to trembling man, the expression of his will. This is the day whereon our ancestors amidst the lightning’s vivid flash, and the thunder’s dreadful roar, did make a solemn covenant with God, to observe ever faithfully all his behests, and this is the day whereon we, their children, have solemnly assembled in this holy place, to ratify the obligation they entered into for us.
Yes, my hearers, for us, and for those who shall come after us, was the Sinaic covenant designed. It was not to be confined to those only who encompassed the fiery mount, but it was to extend to those who were not there present. Nor was it intended to endure during the lifetime of those only, with whom it was sensibly and directly made, but for countless generations after them. And so speaks Moses our master. In the משנה תורה he tells us in the name of God “neither with you only, do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.”* Therefore, brethren, since we are as much concerned and as deeply interested, in this glorious compact as our ancestors, since its duties and obligations extend as fully to us, as to them, it were well, that, even as is the wont in human agreements, we should closely examine, and diligently study, the nature and requirements of this covenant, so that fully comprehending, we may be enabled strictly to perform them, and so that like our ancestors of old, we may determine that “all those things which the Eternal hath said unto us we will do.”† To this important end it will be necessary that we consider on the present occasion,
First. The possibility of the Divine revelation afforded at Sinai; and
Secondly. Its necessity.
And may God, the knowledge of whose holy name we would humbly strive to spread, and whose honour and glorification we would ardently desire to promote;—may He, in his infinite mercy, illumine us with a spirit of understanding; may He guide and assist our meditations and bless our inquiries. Amen.
My friends, we have proposed to consider in the first place, <<229>>the possibility of a divine revelation; not because we think there are any amongst us so foolish as to entertain the slightest doubt thereof; but being convinced that the surest and best means for staying the progress of error no matter where found, is to expose it, and actuated as much by the hope that you may be enabled to follow up the teachings of some of the lights of Israel* on this head, as by an earnest desire to do the fullest possible justice to our subject; we are induced to dwell for a few moments on this theme, so that we may be enabled to present to you, however briefly and imperfectly, what the wise and good amongst us have thought and said on the subject, and so, that when you shall speak of these things to the unenlightened, “they may believe that the Lord God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto you.”† We therefore proceed to observe,
1. The possibility of a Divine revelation is shown by the Creator’s Omnipotence. Let us picture to ourselves the parent of the human family, as he stood fresh from his Creator’s hand amidst the blissful bowers of Eden. A reasonable being, and endowed with the powers of observation, he sees himself surrounded by numerous and various objects, which, animate or inanimate, alike claim his attention, and which become agreeable or unpleasing to him, accordingly as they affect his senses. When by the exercise of those powers implanted within him, when by generalization and abstraction, he has discovered the admirable adaptation of these objects to certain uses, when he has observed how “the sun rules by day, and the moon by night,”—how “the gates of the east are opened in wisdom, and the seasons are changed with understanding;”—how the congenial shower restores and enlivens the drooping vegetation;—how “the springs are sent into the valleys, to give drink to every beast of the field”—how “the grass is made to grow for cattle, and herb for the service of man, that he may obtain food from the earth,”‡—that food, which he has found to be the staff of life, and which he sees bestowed in abundance around him: in short, when he has discovered the beautiful harmony, connexion, and design, existent in all creation, and when he has farther discovered his own total <<230>>inability to devise or execute anything which shall at all approach such perfection; we can well imagine the awe, admiration, and reverence, with which he must have been filled, when a full sense of the wisdom and omnipotence of the world’s mighty Architect had taken possession of him, and how like the wisest among those who sprang from him, he must have exclaimed, “It is the Eternal who hath founded the earth by wisdom, and hath established the heavens by understanding.”*
And have not we also thus felt, brethren, when there was nought near us but the works of God, the sun, dispensing light and life to all around, and reflecting a thousand beautiful colours from the brilliant dewdrop, or placid stream; the air, resounding with the lowing of cattle, and the chorus of numberless sweet songsters, whose delightful notes entrance the ear; the earth, covered with its lovely green mantle, here spotted with countless beautiful flowers, whose fragrance is wafted on the refreshing breeze, there varied by the fair meadow or rich cornfield, where fruit and herb are alike beautifully scattered? Have we witnessed all this and refrained from acknowledging that “the heavens recount the glory of God, and the firmament showeth the work of his hands,”† that “the Eternal is great, and his greatness is unsearchable ?”‡
And when, impressed with this conviction, we have turned to consider ourselves, have we not been impelled to the conclusion that we do but form part of a beautiful whole, and that, as well as the rest of God’s works have their objects to perform, and their ends to fulfil, even so must we have our vocation, a vocation which we feel to be most high, most important, and most glorious—a vocation which must be most high, which must be most important, and which must be most glorious, to comport with the exalted position assigned us in the scale of creation? When farther convinced of this, and when experience has shown us how totally incapable we are of ascertaining, from ourselves, the ultimate design of God in giving us our being: are we not led to inquire again, “whether there is anything too hard for the Eternal,”§ and whether that Omnipotent One who hath given us the power of imparting our wants, sentiments, and wills, to our fellow-men, could not, if He thought fit, convey to us in an extraordinary <<231>>manner, or otherwise, the expression of his own will or directions, whereby we should become acquainted with those instructions which are indispensably necessary to teach both our relation and duties to Him and to our fellow-creatures?
Moreover, brethren, we are generally unable to trace or explain the origin of our ideas; yet we know that these are most commonly engendered from external causes, and that we frequently permit these causes to influence our sentiments and actions. How can we suppose that the Almighty Causer of these causes should not be able to affect our minds in a different manner, and by a manifestation of himself more clear, extraordinary, and satisfactory than that afforded by the light of his works, “so teach us ordinances and laws which should show the way wherein we must walk and the work that we must do?”* These are questions, my hearers, which we have only to put to ourselves to be convinced of the affirmative of the proposition we are desirous of proving. But:
2. The possibility of a Divine revelation is not only shown by the Creator’s Omnipotence, but by other of those attributes, which natural, as well as revealed religion, have ascribed to Him. For we cannot suppose that He who “is good to all,”† and whose Benevolence is proclaimed by everything that is, should have abandoned man, the most glorious of all his works, to the unaided exercise of his reason only, for a discovery of those things which it so deeply concerns him to know; nor can we reconcile with the ideas we are taught to entertain of God’s Wisdom the belief, that, while He should have assigned to each and every object in creation some use and end, He should have sent on earth, a being possessed of such capabilities as man, merely to live and to die; nor will it comport with the notions we have of the Divine Justice, to suppose that God should have declared his will in respect to these, and not in respect to us, that He should have “made a decree which must not be transgressed”‡ by the heavens, the earth, and all that in them is, but should have left us uninstructed and unenlightened. From these considerations alone, might we deem ourselves justified in concluding, that not only is a divine communication possible, but in the highest degree probable, and indeed
3. The general sense of mankind has, in all ages of the world, <<232>>been in favour of the possibility of a Divine revelation.—The conviction has always been felt, by saint, by savage, or by sage, that some communication has subsisted between God and man; and no matter how various and conflicting may have been the opinions they entertained of the nature of this revelation, whether they have discovered it in the flight of birds, the entrails of animal, or in any of the other more imposing and direct forms in which the oracular divinations of heathenism may have declared it, they have ever concurred in the one point of belief, that the Deity could, and did, favour certain men, at different times, with a supernatural illumination of his will. The history of the world, showing how the most important undertakings and events, and how the mightiest revolutions which have convulsed it, have resulted from a supposed or real dictation from God to man, amply proves how convinced the human family have ever been of the possibility of such a dictation. But what need we of such testimony, when
4. We Israelites prove in ourselves the possibility of a Divine revelation.—Nay, not only its possibility, but its reality. With the “law which Moses sat before us” in our hand, we exclaim, “God spake all these words,” and none can nor dare gainsay us. With us there is no question as to its possibility. We affirm that the Almighty did really and immediately instruct our ancestors in those rules of conduct which were necessary for their guidance while on earth, that from the Mount Sinai He really did proclaim to them,
and that we have duly received, and inviolably preserved the instructions, “so that it may be well with us, and with our children after us.” Therefore, brethren, need we say nothing more now on this head, but let us pass on to the second subject of inquiry proposed, which was to show that a divine communication to man was really and indispensably requisite.
1. The necessity of a Divine revelation is shown, from the impossibility of man’s obtaining any just conception of the being or nature of God, by the mere exercise of his reason.—When man <<233>>became conscious that he, the heavens, the earth, and the fullness thereof, were the work of an Infinite Being, whose omnipotence, benevolence, and wisdom, they plainly attested: he became conscious at the same time that “unto God every knee should bend,” and that unto the Creator his adorations and thanksgivings were due. He, therefore, prepared “to proclaim the name of the Eternal, and to ascribe greatness unto his God;”* but in so doing, he most forcibly proved how faint, how very faint, is the ray of human reason, when it seeks to illumine those “secret things which belong to the Lord.” Creation, as we have before said, too clearly taught him in its beautiful harmony and design, as did also his own wonderful conformation and endowments, that their Author must not only be infinite in power, but in wisdom also, and that consequently He must have had some ultimate aim in all his works; but what that ultimate aim could be, limited human comprehension was unable to determine.
In the same way were benighted mankind unable to form any correct notion as to the cosmogony of the world; and accordingly we find, that the various views they entertained, on this point, attached to the Deity so many various characters, and were in no small degree the means of originating numerous religious systems. For some, imagining fire to have been the active agent in the world’s production, proclaimed the sun, its apparent source, as the only fitting object for adoration; others observing the same properties and powers seemingly possessed by the moon and stars, claimed and obtained for them, their share of man’s religious homage; whilst others pointed to the vast and foaming ocean, and willing votaries bent in dread to the mighty spirit of the waters. But man’s idolatry and degeneracy did not stop here. The process of deification, once commenced, was farther promoted by the supposed beneficial or hurtful influences possessed by the various objects of nature; and, therefore, there was nothing too insignificant, even to the stick of wood, and nothing too revolting, even to the foul reptile, which man did not honour with the name of god, and before which he would not readily bow down and worship. Now let us not suppose, that the gradual progress of knowledge and civilization would have been sufficient in itself to dispel such midnight darkness without the Divine interposition; for facts <<234>>and experience show the contrary to be the case; and the Hindoo, who even now worships his three hundred millions of gods, affords awful but convincing testimony to the truth of our assertion, that unless enlightened by divine instruction, men would be utterly incapable of attaining to any just knowledge of the Creator’s existence. But not of his existence only, equally unable would they be fully to apprehend any of the Divine excellencies; and thus we see that
2. A Divine revelation was necessary to instruct the human race in God’s attributes and perfections.—Brethren, how striking the contrast exhibited in the characters given to the Deity by our happy and blessed faith, and by the various doctrines of heathenism. Whilst our holy law represents Him as a being of long suffering, and abundant in mercy and truth, the polytheistic systems display to us their deities as beings, to whom the innocent blood of childhood would prove a pleasing oblation, and who would favourably accept, as an offering of sweet savour, the blackened remains of widows burned at their husband’s funeral pile, or the slaughtered carcasses of countless human victims. Indeed, Paganism has almost invariably represented its divinities, as beings of the greatest cruelty and vindictiveness, whose hot anger could only be quenched by human gore. The beautiful teaching, that God “delighteth not in the death of the sinner,”* formed no part of the heathens’ religious knowledge, and their notions of God’s mercy were exceedingly vague and indistinct, since this was not so clearly shown by the light of nature as his other attributes. Therefore, when, by neglecting God’s worship, which an inherent sense taught them was an obligatory duty, they became conscious of having incurred the Divine displeasure, and they turned to their creed for instruction, they found nought but thick darkness, for it was unable to point out to them any means of reconciliation with the Eternal. They knew not that “He being merciful forgiveth iniquity, and destroyeth not, yea, he frequently turneth away his anger, and awakeneth not all his wrath;” for, the consoling doctrine of the efficacy of repentance and amended conduct, shed not its bright and blessed halo around their path.
In like rnanner, they had but dark and confused notions of the Almighty’s justice; for while the goodness of their Creator, as <<235>>displayed in his works, led them to suppose, that He would be pleased with, and reward, both the services with which they approached him, and their efforts to follow the right and flee the wrong in so far as they were revealed to them: they could not but discover, that while those who led a life of violence and corruption, and attached themselves to evil, frequently flourished, those who were observant of their duties and clave to the good, frequently perished. There then were confusion and darkness again; for they could but indistinctly understand that God’s justice and man’s free will, rendered a life after death and a state of future reward and punishment indispensably necessary. We find, therefore, that man, in endeavouring to acquire, by the sole use of his reason, a knowledge of the Divine attributes and of religious truth, did “but grope in darkness without light.”* The same may we say of his search after moral truths, and with equal warrant affirm, that
3. A Divine revelation was necessary, to afford the human race such a moral system, which, while it would promote the happiness and perfection of the creature, would display, at the same time, the wisdom, and glory of the Creator.—That man, if left to his own guidance only, would be as unable to frame for himself a true or perfect system of morals as of religion, history abundantly proves. Thus we find that both with the ancient and modern followers of Paganism, the one system has always resulted from the other, and the moral character of these unenlightened beings has been formed in no slight degree by the nature, the attributes and worship of their deities. Therefore, we observe bloodshed, suicide, and murder, counted as matters of small moment by those who deemed human sacrifices the most effective means for propitiating their gods; whilst orgies and rites, the most absurd, shameful, and licentious, were introduced and countenanced by those who taught that to such the greatest acceptance would be extended. Whilst some condemned theft as a crime, others upheld it as a virtue; and whilst some denounced parricide or infanticide as most unnatural and reprehensible acts, others recommended them as necessary and praiseworthy deeds. Some devoted all their energies to suppress the prevailing acts of corruption, incest, and gross impurity; whilst others took as much <<236>>pains to promote and encourage them. And amidst all this darkness, amidst all this horror and confusion, who shall say that light, a revelation, was not needed? Surely not we, my brethren; no, we are too fully conscious of the indispensableness of a divine light, to guide us through the narrow and crooked ways of our pilgrimage on earth, and also to point out for us the straightest and surest way to our blissful abode in futurity, to say like unto this. No, we raise our voices in words of praise and thanksgiving only, inasmuch as a divine revelation being necessary our Heavenly Father did not hide the light of his countenance from us, but in his infinite mercy and brace, did deign to select us from all people, give us his law, and thus plant eternal life within us, ברוך אתה ה׳ נותן התורה Then let us bless and glorify the Eternal for this inestimable gift; let us show that we duly appreciate it, by not permitting it to depart from our mouth nor from the mouth of our children, for now and evermore; and finally, let us show our worthiness of this most choice and valuable gift of our God, by studying and executing all that it shall demand of us.
And now unto Thee, Gracious Father! do we lift our voice. O, grant, we beseech Thee, that our hearts may be ever impressed with a due sense of thine infinite mercy and grace, in leading us forth from the darkness and ignorance and superstition, and shedding around our path the light of thy holy law. We pray Thee, O Lord, to receive our sincere and heartfelt thanks, for thy surpassing kindness, in affording us those instructions, laws, and precepts, which have proved as a tree of life to such of us as have laid hold on them. More especially do we praise Thee, O Lord, for the gift of thy blessed word, since it hath taught us those things so necessary for us to know, and which but for Thee we never could have discovered. Accept the praises and adorations wherewith we now approach Thee, most holy God, in return for thine infinite benevolence in drawing near to us at Sinai, and thereby bestowing on us the means for inheriting everlasting happiness and life. O, let the light which thou didst there kindle, continue to shed its cheering brilliancy around us, even until that day when, brighter than the sun which can illume but one half of the globe at once, it shall shine forth refulgent on every family and place in thy world. O Lord, grant this for thine excellency’s sake, and we do say, Amen.