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God Our Atonement.

A Sermon for Sabbath Parah, 5610.

O HOPE of Israel, who art ready to hear and to save in all times of trouble and affliction regard not our sinful state, and condemn us not, though our iniquities testify against us. The creatures of circumstances, the fading flowers of the day, we are lured upon by-paths, and we stray perpetually from the road which leads to thy rest. But salvation is with thee, O Father, and mercy is Thine, and kindness and truth are the seal of thy excellency. Act then toward us according to thy wont, and cleanse us from our transgressions, and sprinkle <<336>>on us the waters of purification, even thy grace, which is poured out the whole world, and which invites all who are unclean to come over and be purified, and which calls on all who are laden with guilt to throw their burden on thee, O God! and Thou promisest to relieve them of their sorrow, to rekindle in them thy holy spirit, and to remove the heart of stone which is obdurate against thy goodness, and which refuses to see thee, although in all the world thy being is manifest, governing with beneficence, and illuminating all with thy wisdom. Cause us, then, to feel truly the forgiveness of our misdeeds, let us be conscious that we are reconciled to thee, and let the nations let

see that our hope was not in vain, and that our waiting for thy salvation was not an idle thing. But let all mankind be enlightened by thy knowledge that they may understand how Thou alone art the Lawgiver, Thou alone the Ruler, and Thou alone the Pardoner of sins; and that as no stranger god was with thee when Thou stretchedst forth the firmament like a curtain, and when thy voice spoke in the thunders of Horeb, so art Thou the sole Refuge for the transgressor, and that Thou alone blessest the just and redeemest the erring mortal. And thus shall thy name be sanctified in the world, and all men worship thee, O Fountain of Purity, for ever. Amen.

Brethren,—In general it may be asserted that controversial sermons are not agreeable to an audience who are more interested in some historical or admonitory address, and who may imagine that controversy should be avoided, for fear of giving just cause of offence to our friendly neighbours, who might deem themselves aggrieved should they in our assemblies have to listen to direct attacks on what they hold sacred. Though agreeing in general with these views, I cannot consent to banish from our Synagogues the discussion of purely Jewish matters, though they come in conflict with the ideas of our neighbours, and are not well calculated for oratorical displays and fine phraseology; nor can I think that any offence can be taken if we temperately discuss our own views in our assemblies; as the object is not to attack others, but merely to give our own people some means of replying to assaults on their religion, to which they are so constantly exposed. If, indeed, we were so numerous that our opinions were backed by the public voice; if we could in a measure coerce the indifferent to profess a veneration for our religion by <<337>>the indignant frown of the majority: then, indeed, it might be possible for the pulpit to confine itself to appeals, and if you will, to persuasions and denunciations.

But unfortunately this is not the case; we are but a handful amidst the vast masses which surround us; public opinion, if not against the morality of our faith, is certainly against our doctrinal views and ceremonial practices; denunciations, as fierce, or fiercer than any Jewish minister can frame, are hurled constantly, even in our hearing, against all those who adopt not the opinions of the majority; all this makes it evident that the mind of our younger persons, especially those who are thrown into general society, ought to be fortified with some sound reasoning when they are asked for the cause of their abiding by their faith, and not merely assign as their sole motive that their fathers had been Jews before them.

This, indeed, is a good reason as far as it goes. It shows in the one who urges it that he feels a sincere regard for his progenitors, whom, both by law and his own impulse, he is bound to love; but it is not satisfactory to the inquirers, nor will it stand the assault of temptation when interest and inclination point one way, whilst the parental admonitions lift up but a feeble warning voice amidst the tumult of passion. It is, therefore, but proper that those who are called upon to address the people should, whilst admonishing them, also endeavour to prove, occasionally, the superiority of our religion, and if this should assume the appearance of a controversial address, it can of right not be laid as a charge of wrongdoing against them.

But let us drop this introduction, which, perhaps, was unnecessary, and it was merely put forward to answer any objection which may have been made against many of the addresses which it has been my province to lay before you from time to time.

The object of all religion is professedly the welfare of mankind, and however absurd his dogmas and cruel his practices, no priest did ever aver that he was an enemy to his species. The very persecutions which we had to endure from the cruellest of all tyrannies, the Romish Inquisition, were professedly contrived for the salvation of our souls; only that we could not recognise in <<338>>the butcheries of millions of innocents anything except the basest superstition, acting, if they were honest, upon weak and excited imaginations. And to this day every absurdity and every trifling hair-splitting invented to torment the human understanding, which are offered in the name of the most sacred gift of the Most High—religion—are all based, as their defenders pretend, on the welfare of mankind; and thus the superficial might think all systems of equal value, or of no value at all, and adopt the first that is offered to him, in case he felt that he required something more than mere dry morality to govern himself by.

Every rational being, however, ought to have some cogent reason why he professes a certain belief, unless he would subject himself to the charge of believing blindly, and of following that of which he has no definite idea himself. Still is this proceeding too often met with; since men will follow a certain  lead without exactly knowing why, and they often fancy that the greater their ignorance the greater is the merit of their faith, as they term it, as though the Almighty had given us an understanding which may be exercised in all pursuits and in every scientific inquiry with the sole exception of religion. This will give us now the following results, first, that it is not a matter of indifference what religion we profess; and that secondly mere believing without inquiry cannot be in accordance with the intention of God, who endowed us with intellect; and that hence absurdities cannot be defended on the sole plea that they are calculated for the good of mankind.

It is not our business to refer to the systems which are lost in antiquity, or which are removed from us by distance, or professed by the unenlightened; for no one asks us to become Greek, Hindoo, or Shaman. We are only told by our enlightened neighbours that we are in error, because we profess to follow Moses’ teaching instead of one they call a greater prophet than Moses. It is not my intention at present to examine into his claim to be received by us; as I only mean to confine myself to the peculiar religious idea which is preached up in his name, and to enforce which millions of Jewish souls have ascended to heaven denying it emphatically, from the burning stake, the <<339>>bloody scaffold, the surging wave, and the ignominious gibbet.

Every one who thinks must be startled with the fact of the great opposition of Jews to the spread of the Nazarene creed, and he must admit, at the same time, that had it not been for a great principle at stake in the contest, the self-sacrifice of our brothers would have been madness, suicide, self-delusion, and not heroism, not an act meritorious in the sight of high Heaven, not praiseworthy in the annals of man. But were our martyrs suicides? were they maniacs? were they self-deluded? Not a Jew, however he transgresses, however he has denied his faith, however he hates his brothers, however far he lets strayed from his God, will say this, will so undervalue the glorious heroes who knew how to maintain their faith, and to perish in its defence if their death was needed; not an opponent to Judaism even, but will dwell with admiration, with respect, nay, with something akin to adoration, on the recital that thousands and hundreds of thousands went forth into exile, stripped of their all but their faith, because they would not, could not bend their knee to the idol of the hour, and swear fealty to a god they did not adore in their hearts.

Mankind saw in their fury, unpityingly, tender maidens, reared in luxury, the admired in a circle of devoted friends, wandering half-perished, famishing for a drink of cold water, on the shore of the raging sea, turning their back for ever on the country which they loved, the songs of which recounted the brave deeds of their fathers, the learning of which emanated from their ancestors, the commerce of which had been enriched and multiplied by the enterprise and skill of their own brothers perhaps,—yes, such as these were seen hastening away bereft of all, the scorn, too, of their former adorers, not heeded by those they had formerly nurtured and relieved in their distress—and why? because they had revolted against the state? because their hands were stained with blood? because deeds of infamy had sullied their name?—no,—no, they were Israelitish maidens, doomed to misery by men, however pure, unspotted, noble were their souls; and why?—because they abided true to the faith of their thrice-glorious ancestors, because they could not imagine, and therefore could not believe, <<340>>and therefore could not acknowledge that the Lord God should change, should be false to His word, and vacillating in His purpose. It was for this they were driven forth, for this they were unpitied, for this they were scorned; and do you call them fanatics? do you believe them mistaken in their line of duty? when a word spoken would have placed them above danger? high in the estimation of the world?

There is therefore evidently something which the Jew avers, for which he lives, for which he is willing to die, which the Nazarenes, for it is of them I speak, deem erroneous, and the contrary of which they have endeavoured to propagate and enforce, during the past eighteen centuries, pending all which time the other had nothing to oppose but an undaunted courage, an inflexible obstinacy, if you will call it so, which nevertheless was the very means best calculated to overcome the danger of annihilation which threatened him, and to extort the admiration of his tormentors.

And yet, it is from the same source that both parties endeavour to fortify their faith; it is the sacred Scriptures which both appeal to in justification of their opinions. We have, therefore, a common medium to consult, and the umpire to decide with whom is the best of the argument, must be the reason with which we are endowed, the light of the spirit which the Creator himself has kindled within each breast. Let us then see what is the principal point of faith about which we contend, and then apply Scripture to its elucidation.

The Nazarene being the claimant of a new revelation, must speak first, we will give him the precedence: he then says, that man in sinning has no means of salvation; that inexorable justice demands a sacrifice; that in the first man, Adam, all his descendants had sinned past redemption, and that it required a new creation, a being unlike any other that ever lived, created though not created, man though not man, mortal though not mortal, a servant of God, though God himself, to assume the sin of Adam and all mankind, and to atone for them to the Creator by his voluntary death.

The Jew denies all this; he says that man, though he sins is not past redemption; that a sacrifice is not absolutely required for the atonement of sin; that in Adam’s fall all mankind did not <<341>>lose their immortal salvation, and that no such being as is alleged to have come, did come into the world; and what is more, that none such exists, and that it is derogatory to God to suppose that He has an associate through whose means alone forgiveness can be vouchsafed to mankind.

It may easily be imagined that there are other points of difference, both in faith and practice, between the parties; but that on which they diverge the most, is the principle just exhibited. Now we contend that our religion being from God, as even our opponents allege, must have been always coinciding with theirs, if they are in the right, and we are the wrong; but that if we can prove that we have always maintained the same idea, from Moses to this time, we must be right, if even they are correct that their prophet was greater than ours. Were it now the case that any one would assert that the Scriptures are not at present as they were in the beginning, we would have no authority to refer to, for our justification; but praised be God! He has enabled us to be faithful guardians  of His word, and we have therefore an unfalsified record to refer to, in case we are asked for the reason of our persevering as Jews.

Let us refer to the history of the most disgraceful dereliction of which we have been guilty nationally, often as we have offended, which is the making of the golden calf, while our teacher was tarrying forty days and forty nights, without food or drink, to receive the law and commandments on Mount Sinai. We had been only just taught how to fear and worship God, had been shown how great He was above all deities, how He was alone the Sovereign of heaven and earth; the fire of glory yet blazed on the top of the mount, where the glorious Presence dwelt; the manna yet descended for us daily, and was spread before the rising of the sun, like sand around our camp; and still we were senseless enough to despair of God’s mercy and truth, because the man Moses, who had led us forth from Egypt, had not returned so speedily as we had expected him; and straightways we repaired to Aaron, to ask of him, “Rise, make for us gods, which shall go before us!” and when we beheld the image of the Egyptian idol, the likeness of a calf, we shouted, “These are <<342>>thy gods, O Israel, that have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt!”

Was ever apostacy greater than this? did you ever hear of a treason more deserving of utter annihilation than this base ingratitude, this wicked forgetfulness of all that had been experienced, when we had been shown how utterly powerless were the gods of Egypt against the outstretched arm of the Lord? It was therefore justice when God spoke to Moses, “Go, get thee down, for thy people,” that is to say, Moses’s people, not any more God's people, “which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, have become corrupt; they have turned aside quickly from the way which I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf; and they have worshipped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and have said, These are thy gods, O Israel, that have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”

Here you see how greatly the Lord thought us culpable; we had deserted Him, through wilful wickedness; we had forsaken the way of His commandments, so soon almost as it had been pointed out to us; and we had made for us a god fashioned by our own hands, and bowed down before it, worshipped it, sacrificed to it, and ascribed to it almighty power, declaring that it and its associates had effected for us what is in the hands alone of the Creator to accomplish. What wonder, then, that the decree of destruction was pronounced against the sinning race, that God told the prophet not to pray for them, that they should perish even as they had despised and rejected Him! Moses was promised that he should become the father of a great nation, in order to fulfil in this way the promise made to Abraham, that he should be the progenitor of a people who should always be in covenant with the Lord, and have Him as their God and Protector.

If Moses had been ambitious, in a worldly sense, he had now an opportunity of being gratified to the highest extent; not alone that he was a legislator under divine inspiration, he had now, also, opened to him the prospect of being a patriarch like Abraham, the immediate father of a nation called by his name. You may say, this would have required ages to accomplish: granted; but what are a few hundred years in the providence of God? what matters it that an event takes place in this or that century? whe-<<343>>ther this or that generation become the agents in the fulfilment of the will of the Most High, in the accomplishment of His vast purpose in which we are all not merely idle spectators, but participants by deeds and thoughts, whether we desire it or not, whether we feel it or not?

But Moses did not desire his own elevation to the detriment of others; he therefore prayed though told that it was useless; thus showing us that man should never despair of God’s mercy, should never believe that the gates of repentance are closed to him, as our wise men teach us, לא היו ישראל ראויים לאותה מעשה אלא לתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה “The Israelites were not deserving of committing this great sin, only to give a confident hope to the repentant sinners.” Whose sin was greater than ours? who deserved more to be destroyed than we? No one; still Moses prayed, he humbled himself for the transgressors, and afterwards called on them to show their regret by humiliation and sorrow for their misdeed; thus proving that they detested their own backsliding, that they felt that they had acted unworthy of their high calling; and in consequence, the Lord remitted their sin, and did not destroy all, although some of the most prominent malefactors suffered with their life for the great scandal which they had affixed to the name of Israel by their senseless worship of an inanimate idol.

We now ask of the candid inquirer without reference to preconceived dogmas, Does this brief narrative prove the utter condemnation of the sinner? the absolute necessity of an atoning sacrifice? We ask those who assert this idea to point their finger to the passage in the record which teaches this. To our apprehension, we are informed that sin is punished in a strict measure of justice; but that the Lord can and does remit it often in his mercy, without punishing to the extent of the guilt incurred, and that at the same time, when punishment has been meted out, the iniquity is wiped away; because the Merciful wishes to correct and to improve, not to destroy utterly and to everlasting those whose days are brief, whose power is limited, and who cannot, with all their malevolence, influence permanently the course of events.

As the text now reads, and as it unquestionably always did read, it emphatically declares that the <<344>>Lord forgave the greatest national sin that ever was committed, without sacrifice, without mediator, fully and freely as ever forgiveness was accorded to sinners, and the decree of annihilation was revoked, and the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not delayed in its fulfilment longer than it was required in the course of nature to educate a people fit to enter the land which had been promised them for their possession, in which they were to develope the high excellence of their revealed religion before the eyes of all the world.

We know not, indeed, what mystery some may discover in the plainest words almost, which the Bible text contains; but to us there is no hint of an associate, no impossibility in the ONE to accomplish all which He desires to do without any aid or inducement from any other source. But if this should not yet be sufficient, the narrative before us gives us farther insight into the relative position of man to God.

After Moses had obtained a temporary remission, he descended the mount, and coming unto the camp of the rebellious Israelites, he saw only too palpably fulfilled what he had foreseen by his prophecy. There was the dancing, the senseless ceremony of the idolaters, the idol itself, and all in uproar and confusion. We are next told that the prophet summoned around him who were true to the Lord; when instantly all his own tribe flocked to receive his command, which was that they should slay every one his nearest friend who had violated the precepts of the Decalogue in worshipping a false god.

How sore must have been the trial of that mighty mind, in this fearful emergency; to save the life of one Hebrew, he had slain an Egyptian, on account of which he became a stranger to the king’s palace, and was forced to feed the flocks of Jethro in the lonely desert far from the habitations of man; whereas, now he was compelled to see three thousand Hebrews bleed to avenge the outraged covenant. Yet this timely severity recalled the people to their senses, and the remainder stood by, and earned wisdom, and they felt anew that the works of the hands of man cannot save, that they are dead, without breath in their nostrils, without sight in their eyes. And then when the law was again triumphant, and feeling how utterly inadequate all which had <<345>>been done was to wipe out the immense guiltiness of which he had been an eye-witness, Moses repaired again to the mount of God, and appealed anew for what he was assured was not deserved by the guilty.

At the same time he felt conscious, meek as he was to man in general, indifferent as he was to the opinion of the vulgar crowd, that he had been faithful in all the varied relations of his eventful life; and that if any one could be received, he might offer himself as an acceptable sacrifice to his Maker; and he even offered more than his life, the utter forgetfulness of his existence, so as not to be mentioned in that book where are recorded the mercies and deeds of God, in which he the prophet had been the most prominent actor; and he prayed in the records of revelation should not contain the evidence case of God’s forgiveness, that the name of Moses might not be mentioned as a participant in the glorious scheme of the world’s regeneration.

Was ever a nobler sacrifice offered on any altar? What, compared to this, is the boasted redemption on which our opponents vaunt themselves? for there was glory, a name, sects, and followers in multitudes predicated on the sacrifice, which, moreover, is declared to have been both necessary and voluntary. But here the prophet desired to sink into oblivion, so it pleased of God to forgive the sin which bad been committed against him as well as his Master.

Nevertheless, no sacrifice was accepted, and God said:

מי אשר חטא לי אמחנו מספרי ׃ שמות ל״ב ל״ג ׃

“Him who hath sinned against me, will I blot out from my book.”—
EXOD. xxxii. 33.

If any one is to perish, if any one is to be blotted out from recollection, it is not the innocent, but he who has burdened himself with sin; hence it results that a vicarious atonement for all the iniquity of mankind is incompatible with our Scriptures, the acknowledged word of God.—To-day we must break off here in the midst of our subject, which I hope to follow up on a future occasion. And now let us in the mean time trust that the contemplation of it has not been without profit, and that it may rivet closer the bond of our union to our Father in heaven, the Lord One.—Amen.

Adar 17th, March 1st, 5610.