|Vol. VI, No. 4
Tamuz 5608, July 1848
Reflections on Deuteronomy 10:12.
An Extract from a Lecture by W. [Isaac Mayer Wise]
My dear friends? “Unto you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord He is God; there is none beside Him. Out of heaven He made you to hear His voice;” by sun, moon, and stars, by thunder and lightning, He made you to hear His voice, “that He might instruct you; and upon earth He showed you his great fire;” He proclaimed unto you his unlimited power by nature’s grand beauty and never-disturbed order; “and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire;” from off Horeb’s flaming summit, His everlasting will, which constitutes your duty, was made known unto you by thousands of voices; by innumerable and incomprehensible miracles He has taught you to fear Him, “that you may know and consider in your heart that the <<194>>Lord, He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.” But I hear you now asking me these questions: “Is it enough for us as men and Israelites to fear God earnestly? Have we done our sacred duties if we tremble before our Omnipotent Maker? Is it enough for us to pray humbly in our closet, to breathe pious sighs, separate ourselves from mankind, with their vanities and attractions, lock up ourselves in a dark convent for the purpose of piety?”
No, my dear friends; this is not the spirit which our religion breathes; the Author of our holy word was also nature’s Author; therefore religion and nature cannot contradict each other. Man is naturally a social being, and society is based on the activity of its members. Man’s constitution is of a progressive nature; and progress requires actions, actual deeds, and condemns sloth, and idleness. The Israelite has, therefore, no such principle as teaches him that he can be saved and earn heavenly bliss by believing in senseless absurdities, and sacrificing his sound reason on the altar of uninquiring faith, or rather of blind obedience to the word of the priests, monks, bishops, and popes; and then sitting still and awaiting the divine grace.
Our principles are: “And now, Israel, hearken unto the statutes and unto the judgments which I teach you, that you shall do them, that you may live,” &c. (Deut. 4:1); “Thou shalt keep his statutes and his commandments which I command thee this day” (Ib. 40); “You shall observe to do as the Lord your God commanded you,” &c. (Deut. 5:20); “Zion shall be redeemed by judgment, and her inhabitants by righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27); “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of tyranny, to undo the chains of the oppressor, and to let the fettered go free, and that ye break asunder every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and to bring the downcast poor to the house? If thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning,” &c., (Isaiah 58:6-8.)
Our revered sages teach us, לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה “Study is not the principal business (of religion), but action.” מרגלא בפומיא דרבא תכלית חכמה תשובה ומעשים טובים שנאמר ראשית חכמה יראת ה׳ שכל טוב לכל עושהם ללומדיהם לא נאמר אלא לעושיהם. ברכות י״ב “It was a proverb in the mouth of Raba, The end of wisdom is returning to God and <<195>>performing righteous deeds; for it is written (Psalms 111.), The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and a good understanding to all them that do his will; it is not said, ‘To them that study, but to them that do his will.’”
Let us now review the two principles which we have stated: first, the fear of God is the basis of our religion. Secondly, our religion demands activity, and excludes every species of idleness. We may, therefore, justly conclude, that the fear of the Lord must be the real stimulus to our mind; it must make us active, since its object is to make us pious and virtuous. The above adduced quotation from the Talmud, expresses exactly this latter principle; but let us reason on the subject, and we shall discover its pure and absolute truth.
The first consequence of this fear is יראת חטא the fear to commit sin. And in this sense did Moses say unto the people, “Fear not, for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.” “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.” (Prov. 16:6.)
אמאי אקרי יראת ה׳ בנין דאיהי אילנא דטוב ורע זכי בר נש הא טוב ואי לא זכי הא רע ועל דא שריא בהאי אתר יראת ודא תרעא למעלא לכל טובא דעלמא׃ (זוהר בראשית)
“Why is it called the fear of the Lord? because thus is the tree of good and of evil; if the son of man has reached this fear, he will do good, and has he not, then will he do evil; they who dwell in the lower world in the fear of God, will ascend to the upper world, attaining (by the ladder of pious deeds) to all the good things of the world.”
He who fears God, will surely fear to commit vice and sin; for the idea “God,” is closely connected with the conviction of his being the Most Just, and the Supreme Judge of the acts of man. The idea of his Omnipotence is inseparable from his perfect justice and his Omnipresence. Judging according to our limited reason, we must affirm that Omnipotence is possible only by virtue of Omnipresence, and vice versa; Omnipotence is, therefore, an attribute of God, because of its being associated with the idea of supreme justice, since power without justice is tyranny, which can never be thought of in connexion with God.
He who has learned to fear God by studying the Bible, history, and nature, must also have considered, that nothing is hidden before Him; since every part of nature moves according to his will, since all nations have <<196>>followed the course best adapted for the welfare of the whole human race, and since those nations who did not move onward in this principle have ceased to exist, having lost their nationality, and no longer appear on the theatre of action. God is all-just and omnipresent; and who can deny it? How then can man commit sin, how can he give up himself to evil, when he reflects that God, the all-just sees it and writes it into the book of remembrance, weighs it in the balance of justice, and that punishment will surely overtake the wicked? The Omnipotent whom we fear, alone punishes. He, in whose power is life and death, joy and grief, whose executors are all the elements of nature, He punishes vice; and can we still sin? No doubt he who fears God will surely fear sin.
מדרש משלי ל״א שקר החן והבל היופי אין מתקבל לפני הקב״ה לא יופי ולא עושר ומהו מבקש יראת חטא שנאמר אשה יראת ה׳ היא תתהלל כמה עשה אברהם אבינו לפני הקב״ה ולא נתהלל ובמה נתהלל שהיה ירא חטא שנאמר עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלהים אתה׃
“Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain: there is not accepted before God, either beauty or riches; but what does He ask? the fear of sin; for it is said, The woman that feareth God, she shall be praised. How many deeds of piety did Abraham, our father, display before God, and still he was not praised; but with what was he praised? only that he feared sin; for it is said, Now I know that thou fearest God.”
Moreover, the fear of sin and spiritual liberty are linked together by the laws of Providence implanted into the sacred bosom of nature. The term “spiritual liberty” has been misunderstood by many Christian scholars, and an erroneous system based on this misunderstanding. I deem it, therefore, proper to give a pure biblical view about the term which I have just quoted. It is well known that man is composed of two principal component parts, a body and a soul. The body was formed by outward nature, when God bid her נעשה אדם, “Let us make man.” Man belongs, according to his body, to the superior class of animals, and is endowed, like them, with all the passions and desires to sustain himself in a convenient and comfortable condition. He has the instinct to long for food when he is hungry, to sleep when he is tired, &c. He uses his spiritual faulty in this regard merely to distinguish poison from wholesome and nutritious substances, the locality where danger threatens from the place <<197>>which is well adapted for safety and rest, &c. Man is also possessed of the lower animal impulses, as anger, wrath, vengeance, violence, fear, hatred, &c.; and these also have their source in our body, in the animal part of our person, since we observe these passions existing in nearly all the animals in a greater or less proportion. The Bible states, therefore, כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו “for the (formed)* inclination of the heart of man is evil from his youth.”
The second, or rather the principal part of man, is his spirit, the soul, which is styled in the Bible “the image and likeness of God.” The soul must be of a pure, holy, and rational nature, or else it could not be called “an image of God.” Being of such a divine nature, it contains man’s superior faculties and qualities, such as reason, freedom of will, divine love, self-consciousness, and the constant desire to advance towards perfection, since we see the animal destitute of all these capacities. God combined these two opposing elements in one, linked them together with adamantine bonds, and called this composite being, “man.” The Bible says, “And he breathed into his nostrils a soul, being a living spirit, and man became a living being.” Soul and body, as natural opponents, constantly struggle for the dominion over each other. The body seeks and desires instinctively to gratify its desire for pleasure and necessities, by enjoying the whole at once, by drawing in unremittingly nature’s sweetness, without being interrupted by the rebuke of reason, or by the rational dictates of temperance; it wants to be married to the dust, of which it was taken, and to make the spirit follow in the direction which it has chosen. We call these bodily desires יצר הרע evil inclination, or שטן Satan,or סמאל Samaël. If the body is always allowed to gratify its passions, they grow constantly stronger and more irresistible, they generate germs for new passions, they enforce the satisfying of the lower and mere animal desires to such an extent, that at last reason is entirely employed in carrying out the demands which are altogether bodily, and are never satisfied until they have destroyed them<<198>>selves and the body too; reason thus becomes enslaved under the tyrannical sceptre of animal instinct, and man has lost his identity, his personality, his freedom, (see Maimonides in the eighth chapter of his שמונה פרקים, and in הלכות תשובה, and the Talmudical aphorism עבירה גוררת עבירה, “the consequence of one sin, is another sin,” may be understood accordingly, כל מי שממתיק את יצרו בנערותו סופו להיות מותח עליו בזקנותו שנאמר מפנק מנוער עבדו ואחריתו יהיה מנון והעבד הוא יצר הרע שהוא עבד לאדם לצורך העולם הזה. (ילקוט משלי דף קמ״ד) “He that follows his passions in his youth, will be governed by them in his old ageאמר רבי יוסי יצר הרע בתחילה דומה לחוט ולסוף דומה לעבותות העגלה. סוכה נ״ח “Rabbi Jose said, The evil passion is, in the first place, like a thread, and at length becomes thick, like the rope by which a wagon is drawn.” “The Lord is known by the judgment which he executeth, the wicked is snared in the works of his own hands.” O, sublime thought! “The wicked will return to the grave, all the nations that forget God,” (Psalms 9:16 and 17.) “The wicked return alive to the dust.”*
The true investigator will find, that all sins and vices originate in the uncontrolled passions of the body, which overrule at last the spirit.
But the spirit of man is an image of God, descending pure and holy from the hand of its Maker. Our soul is gifted with reason; which faculty teaches to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and the reason of even the worst sinner tells him that right is right, and that wrong is always wrong. Our reason, when sound and unclouded, teaches us that the consequences of virtue, morality, temperance, and honesty, are good and lovely, and that evil follows upon vice. Yea, sound reason tells us that it is good to be virtuous, and that it is wrong to be vicious. Our <<199>>soul has self-consciousness which knows at all times, that man is much better than the beast of the field, much nobler, and more highly endowed than his fellow-creatures; wherefore, he should never lower himself to their level. This self-consciousness tells man, that he has the spiritual power to rule over nature and her children; wherefore, he ought to elevate himself above her narrow spot wherein she has confined man on earth. Our soul has conscience, or rather the will to do good and to abstain from evil. There is, perhaps, no man on earth, who will not feel a joyful satisfaction when he goes to render a service to virtue in virtue’s name, and after he has done so; and the worst criminal even possesses this feeling, if his vices are interrupted by a noble deed. There are, probably, but few men in the world who feel no fear, no painful emotion when being about to do evil, or who feel not reproved and blamed, no regret and grief after having sinned.
Love is another attribute of our soul; man loves; and whatever circumstances he may be placed in, he sympathizes with some fellow-beings, however corrupted he may be. Our soul knows the divine Source from which she sprung. She knows the rock from which she was hewn; man feels the existence of God, and the irresistible desire to be united with Him, to love Him, to praise Him, to pray unto Him.
It is the grand object of our reason to make its agent living and happy amidst happy beings, and to advance towards perfection. Our passions and earthly desires ought to be moderated, softened, and elevated above animal instinct, and to be controlled <<200>>by reason, in order to effect this laudable end. Therefore is our spirit constantly opposed to the gross passions of our, body, and it tries constantly to become their master. If man listens more to the dictates of his spirit than to those of animal instinct, then does he elevate himself, from the low state of instinct to spiritual freedom, since the term “spiritual freedom” signifies to have the mental power to act up to the full dictates of our own reason or conviction; and the more the spirit has endeavoured to master the passions, and the more completely it has brought them under its control, the farther is man advanced in spiritual freedom; and the highest point of this liberty is thus also the highest elevation of virtue, since virtue has a positive value only by its being the result of a free choice; the total loss of mental freedom is therefore the extremity of vice and sin, since it is the problem of life to gain “spiritual freedom,” and since all the means have been given unto us to accomplish this end.* These views concerning “spiritual liberty,” are the very axis around which King Solomon’s words from the first to the last verse revolve.† Our Torah is based on this very principle; every page of the Bible speaks of it; only the corrupted spirit of sectarianism, the mind warped by unsound heresies, could deny it. Our ancient sages have been of the same opinion, and modern philosophy, (which people usually call infidelity,) proves the truth thereof.
(מכילתא ויקרא ט׳ ו׳) ויאמר משה זה הדבר אשר צוה ה׳ תעשו אמר להן משה לישראל אותו יצר הרע העבירו מלבבכם ותהיו כולכם ביראה אחת ועצה אחת לשרת לפני המקום כשם שהוא יחידי בעולם כך תהיה עבודתכם מיוחדת לפניו שנאמר ומלתם את ערלת לבבכם וגו׳ מפני מה כי ה׳ אלהיכם הוא אלהי אלהים וגו׳ ואם עשיכם כן וירא אליכם כבוד ה׳׃
“And Moses said, This is it that the Lord commanded you to do. Moses said to Israel, Those evil desires which you have shall you banish away from your heart, and you will then all be united in fearing Him, and be in one accord to minister before God; as He is the Only One in the world, so will be your service a peculiar one before Him; that is the meaning of the verse which says, <<201>>And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and why? for the Lord your God is the God of all gods, and if you will do so, then will the glory of God appear unto you.”
(זוהר לך לך דף צ׳) ברכו ה׳ מלאכיו אלין אינון צדיקיא בארעא דאינון חשיבין קמי קנ״ה כמלאכי עילאי ברקיע בנין דאינון גברי כח דמתגברי על יצריהון כגבר טוב דמתגבר על שנאיה׃
“Praise the Lord, ye angels,—This means those righteous men upon the earth, as they are regarded before God like the superior angels in heaven; because they are the mighty ones of strength, who conquer their passions as the good hero conquers his enemies.”
It would be exceedingly hard for man to find for himself the proper means to elevate his spirit and subdue his passions and worldly desires, since only practical experience may enable him to discover and appreciate such means; therefore God in His attribute of love and goodness revealed unto us His divine law, which radically embraces two principal sections; first, חובות הלבבות “the mental duties,” such as the commandments, to think about God and His attributes, to study the law and the scientific branches connected with it, to teach it to our children and fellow-men, to love God and man, to forgive our enemies, to act justly and to speak always the truth, to sanctify the Sabbath and festivals by piety and learning, and many others, which have the end and aim to elevate and strengthen our soul; secondly, חובות הגוף “bodily duties,” such as the commandments against eating forbidden meat, about fasts, Niddah, &c., which have the tendency to subdue and master our earthly passions.*
I have in the above advanced thus much about “mental freedom,” so as to correct some erroneous views concerning it entertained by some Christian sects; (perhaps I may speak in another place more extensively about it,) and sufficient to prove the proposition with which I started, that “The fear of sin and spiritual freedom are linked together by the laws of Providence <<202>>implanted into the sacred bosom of nature.” One must be at liberty to fear sin, or else he cannot fear it; he that fears sin will surely avoid it, and there must again be freedom of choice to do so; he that avoids sin, does literally nothing but conquer his passions; the more effectually he does so, the more freedom he acquires for himself; and the more freedom he has gained, the better will he be fitted to avoid sin; thus they are linked together. The fear of sin and the advancement in spiritual liberty towards perfection, are the first and the great consequences of the fear of the Lord; therefore, kind reader, may you long for this sublime virtue, that you may assure unto you the blessed consequences of it. Our immortal Teacher, therefore, impresses on our minds כי אם ליראה את ה׳ אלהיך “nothing but to fear the Lord the God.”