Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Reflections on Deuteronomy 10:12

An Extract from a Lecture by [Isaac Mayer] W[ise].

(Continued from page 204.)

The German philosopher J. G. Fichte, once wrote: “Man is not the mere product of the sensual world, and the whole aim of his existence cannot be attained in it. His high destiny surpasses time and space, and all that is sensual. He ought to know what he is and what he should make himself; as his destiny is a lofty one, he must be able to raise his thoughts above all sensual limits; where his true home is, thither should his thoughts necessarily fly, <<336>>and his real humanity, in which his whole mental power is displayed, appears to the best advantage, when he raises himself above those limits, and when all that belongs to the senses vanishes in a mere reflex to mortal eyes of what is transcendent and immortal.” We have raised ourselves up to this view, and have described it in the spirit of the Mosaic doctrine, the practical way actually to reach it. We may, therefore say, that we have passed the first portion of the Mosaic doctrine, which teaches us to long for a better world, to subdue all that is sensual, and to elevate ourselves above the limits of sensuality to mental liberty. Here then the second part commences, which is an answer to the question: “What shall our spirit seek in the region of spirits, or rather for what does our spirit long so nobly, so anxiously and so irresistibly? How can we effect the wishes of our never-resting self?” Our sacred faith answers this inquiry: the free spirit seeks and longs for perfection, and this may be reached by ללכת בכל דרכיו, “to walk in all His ways,” the ways of God; this is the road to human perfection; this is the desire of our spirit.

We have recently described veneration and its consequences; to which we have now to add, that veneration produces in the mind the wish to copy the virtues, the noble deeds, yea, the customs and habits of the object of our veneration; the scholar tries to copy his teacher, the child his parent, as much as possible. If now, God himself is the divine object of our veneration, we must have the desire to copy as much of God’s perfection as we possibly can. It will be seen from this brief consideration, that we have only followed up our adopted course, for to “walk in the ways of God,” is an immediate consequence of veneration, hence, that the biblical verse under consideration is placed in logical order: “And now, Israel; what does the Lord thy God require of thee? Nought but to fear Him and to walk in all his ways.” God’s ways are his attributes, and these are but names of His actions, as Maimonides describes it in the 54th Chapter of the 1st part of his Moreh Nebuchim. I would have translated his own words; but they are much too long for a journal. The learned reader will please to study that section of our ancient theologian, and he will feel satisfied as to my statement, that God’s actions are His attributes. The Hebrew scholar will find, that the Hebrew words רחום חנון, gracious, benevolent, &c., <<337>>describe actions and not attributes. We only know God’s actions, and give names to these actions, which names, in want of a better expression, have been called attributes. Our Talmudists also have, though improperly, used the word מדות in connexion with God.

אחרי ה׳ אלהיכם תלכו וכי אפשר לאדם להלך אחר השכינה אלא הלך אחר מדותיו מה הוא רחום אף אתה הוה חנון וגו׳

“Thou shalt walk after the Lord thy God; can a man then walk after God? (there is no space and no time with Him) but he shall walk after His attributes; and act as God does; as God is gracious so shall man be; as God is benevolent, so shall man be;” The Midrash Yalkut to Isaiah 63, expresses our idea more distinctively:

כל הנקרא בשמי ולכבודי בראתיו וגו׳ וכי אפשר לו לאדם להקרא בשמו של הקב״ה אלא נקרא המקום רחום שנאמר רחום וחנון ה׳ אף אתה הוי מרחם ועושה מתנת חנם. המקום נקרא צדיק שנאמר צדיק ה׳ בכל דרכיו אף אתה הוי צדיק. נקרא חסיד שנאמר וחסיד בכל מעשיו אף אתה הוי חסיד. לכך נאמר כל אשר יקרא בשם ה׳ ימלט׃ (ילקוט ישע׳ מ״ג)

“Every one that is called by my name, and whom I have created to mine honour (Isa. 43:7); the question arises here, How is it possible for man to be called by God’s name? but we call God the Merciful; as it said, God is gracious and benevolent (Psal. 103:8); so be thou also merciful and practise goodness without self interest. God is called righteous; as it is said, He is righteous in all His ways (Psal. 145:16); so be thou also righteous; God is called pious, as it is said: And pious in all His deeds, (ib.); so be thou also pious, and in this manner wilt thou be called by the name of the Lord; and of such it is said in Scripture, Whosoever will be called after the name of the Lord shall escape.” We are to copy God’s deeds as far as possible for a human being, and this it is which our text means by the words “to walk in all His ways.”*

* I have stated that the fear of the Lord is a real stimulus for actions, and actions constitute our religion. I am now at the point to prove my statements.

You ask me now, “Which are the attributes of God, or what are His deeds? Teach them to us and we will try to copy them.” But, my dear friends, if you have earnestly followed me in my contemplations, if you have regarded my advice and inclined your ear to my instruction, if you have realized my words in <<338>>your heart and have ascended from step to step up to the point where we now stand: then may I refer you to yourselves for the best answer to this question. Look into yourselves and you will find God in all his majesty and glory as He has revealed himself in nature and history, and as He is discovered in the Holy Scripture; you will find a Power unlimited, a Wisdom infinite, a Goodness, a loving Kindness indescribable; you will see there something more than words, something more than these the mere shadows of things can possibly express, more than the pen can write, more than all books can embrace, and more than all eloquence can utter; you will find there reflected the God of Israel, the Rock of salvation unto all who earnestly seek Him.

What He is, and what He intends to make of himself, He alone must know; so said J. G. Fichte; never forget this truth, and pay constantly earnest attention to the call of your soul. God is powerful without limit: this your soul will tell you; but what is man without power? You must therefore obtain power to govern yourselves, to break the iron rod of iron fate; to shake off, so to say, the dust from your spirit, to break the chains of the passions, and to elevate yourselves to the regions of life and bliss; you must obtain power to rule over pain and grief, over sorrow and calamity, to smile at the midnight storm, and to be happy when poverty, sickness, pain and distress befall you; to meet death whenever it comes, resolutely and fearlessly; you must obtain power to scorn the snares of vice and sin, to scoff at the beguiling beauty of crime and iniquity; to maintain yourselves tree and independent; to be reflecting for yourselves, and acting independently, though opposed by a whole world, where so many men and circumstances, states-craft, priestcraft, and a thousand other hindrances are constantly active and vigilant to deprive you of your best good—liberty; you must obtain power to serve your fellow-creatures, to assist the weak, to uphold the sinking, to sustain the trembling, to support the fainting; you must acquire as much spiritual power as you can; for God has commanded us to walk in His ways; you therefore serve Him, whilst you render yourselves fit to serve Him; you satisfy thus the wish of your soul, whilst the same wish is constantly renewed; and the more spiritual power you have obtained, the nearer will you be unto your Maker, and the more you will know Him in His attribute of omnipotence.<<339>> וחזקת והיית לאיש, “Strengthen thyself and be a man,” said David to his son, “and thou wilt observe the charges of the Lord thy God,” &c.

Look farther in your heart, and observe the Deity, who is reflected there, and you will find that divine wisdom is His crown, God’s wisdom—who can describe it? Who can describe the grand Source of all intellect? What is man without wisdom? גם בלא דעת נפש לא טוב Without knowledge life is a vain nothingness; without wisdom man is an irrational beast. Long for wisdom, long for knowledge to increase the faculty which God has granted unto us in His mercy and goodness. Long constantly for wisdom and knowledge; see, God has charged us to walk in His ways; wisdom is His principal attribute; and how grand and soothing is the idea that man can walk in God’s ways, that man can possess the precious stone of the crown of the Most High, that he can possess wisdom! And can you rationally neglect to long for it? Can you consistently with duty let one hour of your life pass without invigorating your mind, without improving your intellect? No, you cannot; for this very hour would be lost for ever, you would have stolen it out of your life; and how can you justify this neglect when you stand as a disembodied, naked spirit before the throne of grace, when the Father of all worlds asks you, How have you used and appreciated my best gifts, time and reason?* You should long for wisdom, for your soul constantly urges you to do so; God has imbued you with that desire, and if you are free from the bondage of lust and passions, you cannot resist the requirement of your soul, which always longs for wisdom. You must long for wisdom to serve God in truth and purity; you worship Him best by knowing Him; and to know Him is the utmost wisdom. 

* The learned reader will recollect, that the Talmudists and Cabbalists state in different places, that it is the first question put to the spirit appearing before the throne of grace: Why hast thou neglected to study?

Remember what Maimonides said, מי שידע הבורא הוא אשר ימפא חן בעיניו לא מישיצום ויתפלל לבד “Whoever knows his Creator will find grace before Him, not one who only fasts and prays.” Fasting and prayer, together with all ceremonies have only one purpose, one end and aim, and this is to elevate you to the point to know God. Our Bible states in many places, that it is our duty to know Him; and <<340>>to reach this noble end you must constantly seek for wisdom as for hidden treasures.

Listen not, my friends, when sectarians and dark-souled hypocrites say that you ought not to study natural or mental philosophy, history, mathematics, or any other science; heed them not when they tell you, that this or that knowledge will make an infidel or an atheist of you; it is mere ignorance that induces them to speak so, it is their unmanly fear, that you might perhaps be freed from that prejudice and superstition, from a belief in those absurdities and heresies which constitute their faith; think always, that which cannot stand before the eye of knowledge and sound reason is a fiction, and fictions are not worthy to possess our confidence; think always, that the more you know, the more you will know of God; and the more you know of Him, the better will you have served Him; and the more will you be enabled to serve Him in truth and purity. You must acquire wisdom; for in aiding your brethren,—mankind—you serve your God, and he that is a faithful patriot, is a faithful servant of the most High;* and if you serve honestly your fellow-man, you have served your God. Can the fool serve society? can you render aid to mankind without wisdom? you cannot do it, but you may be sure, that the more wisdom you possess, the more fit and willing will you be to serve the community, and this is the holiest temple of God.†

* The combination of the law of the state with the moral and religious law in the Bible, proves sufficiently the truth of this proposition.

† The Mosaic religion is too meek to claim the title of being an imperium in imperio, as some have called Christianity; but we cannot call it otherwise than our mother, who educates us for our own and society’s welfare.

You will say that I speak from the Talmud, which book is sometimes very severe against the Am Haaretz (the ignorant). So I do; but I also speak with King Solomon, and I have not touched the shadow of the first ten chapters of the book of Proverbs; I speak with our Torah, which stated “you shall walk after the Lord your God,” and commanded us “to walk in all His ways;” but to be sunk in ignorance, and not to struggle daily to come out of it, can never be called walking after the Lord our God. And say our wise men, “If the fear to commit sin preceded a man’s wisdom, his wisdom will endure;” but they also said, “The ignorant cannot be pious; the simple fears not sin.”

Look once more on the Deity who is reflected in your mind, and you will find Him all love, all kindness and benignity; God’s divine love is like the radiant beams of His sun, which scatter light and heat over all the creatures on earth—to the animate and inanimate,—to the good no more than to the bad,—to the pious and virtuous, but also to the wicked and sinful. The soul of man also possesses the noble capacity to embrace with loving kindness God and the world, with all the creatures thereof. Love is the nourishment and bliss of our soul; hatred is a violent and unnatural condition, wherein corruption places us, and is certainly the most acute misery of man. Love is engrafted in our hearts, and our soul constantly longs to enlarge its confines. The first sound uttered by the little infant on its mother’s breast is love, and each motion of his goes to say, “How dearly do I love you!” I will be silent as regards the mother’s love to her little world; let him who can describe it; I feel myself too poor in words to do so. As the child grows up his love grows with him, and it becomes not only daily stronger, but the objects of his love are daily more and more dear to him. Look at the flashing eye of the youth, when the charm of love swims in it, and then say that man is inclined to do evil! Look at the gay face of a mother, whilst kissing her child, when love’s brightness is portrayed forth from all her features; and then attempt to deny that love is our birthright, the nourishment and bliss of our soul. But in truth, hatred is a violent and unnatural condition wherein corruption places us!

The little babe loves his mother, the youth loves his parents, his friends, his bride, flowers, poetry, and a thousand other persons and things; the man has a still larger number of objects for his tender love, and still more has the gray-haired man. And as the objects of our love are multiplied with the progress of years, affection itself grows stronger and more irresistible. Thus God has taught us by the laws of nature to love and prepare ourselves for the enjoyment of a future life, which is all love and wisdom. Our holy faith teaches us, “Thou shalt hear the voice of nature, it is the voice of God, and shalt love all things;” it teaches us still more, it says to us, “Man can do more, he can walk in the ways of the Lord and love all beings both animate and inanimate, his friends and foes, the good and the bad man, the one who is <<342>>near to and the one who is far from him. Our religion teaches us that this natural love is a mere school wherein we have to learn a godlike love for all earthly creatures, as God loves them all with a like tenderness.

It is this divine love which our spirit seeks in the region of spirits; and the more we seek it, the more readily shall we find it; and the more we have found it, the better shall we have walked in the ways of the Lord; the nearer we are to our God, the better are we prepared for the enjoyment of a future life of heavenly bliss, in association with pure spirits.

And also on this earth we find ourselves greatly recompensed, if we walk in the ways of the Lord. The wise is regarded and honoured, and he finds everywhere an opportunity to serve mankind, to be useful to human society, and to be happy himself; he who loves is loved in return; he who loves all beings is the beloved object of all beings, and is therefore happy; he who is strong and powerful in his spirit has always magnificent palaces, perfumed dishes, splendid garments, and superfluous riches; for he can laugh at those who desire to have all these things. He who walks in the ways of the Lord cannot call the world a vale of calamity, the home of outcast sinners, and of miserable imperfect creatures; but he will call it the garden of the Lord, where every flower breathes joy, pleasure, and happiness, the home of the image of God, the school of our spirit, where a friendly and loving Teacher speaks to us the language of flowers and beauty, and rewards us with heavenly gifts by every lesson which we have studied.

I have thus given a few outlines of the idea embraced in the biblical words, “to walk in all his ways.” To describe the whole would require a pen abler than my own; I only endeavour to show the way to the explanations of this verse. Perhaps abler writers will take the subject under consideration.