THE LAST OF THE RABBIS
DEDICATED, WITHOUT PERMISSION, TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
In the midst of the synagogue, at the Jewish settlement in China, is a railed space from whence the Law used to be read, but it is never used, as they have now no Rabbi, and have forgotten their knowledge of Hebrew.--Lecture on China and its Revolution.
AND the knowledge of Hebrew faded gradually out of the minds of the people, and the last of the Rabbis was very old, and the people were forgetting their ancient customs, and were ceasing to be a peculiar people, and were mingling with the nations among whom they dwelt. And the heart of the Rabbi was moved with sorrow, and he preached to the people, that they should learn Hebrew and keep in mind the traditions of their fathers. And he spoke so eloquently to them, that they promised to obey, and began to learn. But they had quite forgotten their ancient language, and it was very hard to learn. And the affairs of life and intercourse with strangers were continually interfering, and one by one they lost all pleasure in their task, and went each his way to his business or his pleasure; and the unceasing hours flew by unheeded, and the last of the Rabbis grew very old.
The evening sun was shining drowsily upon the simple edifice that served the wanderers from a far distant land for their house of prayer, and the congregation were thronging into the synagogue to evening worship, and the Rabbi passed through them for the last time to his accustomed place to read the Law. He was very old and decrepit, but his intellect remained unshaken, and the knowledge of his high and sacred calling made his gait erect and his presence noble even to the last. He bent for a few moments in silent prayer, and then, raising his head, gazed round him with a restless and troubled eye, as if seeking for some one who would fill his place when he at last was gathered to his fathers. But though he gazed anxiously over all the assembled people, he saw not one. He saw before him the descendants of his fathers, who had travelled long a weary journey over a barren land; he saw before him the children of Abraham and the prophets, and of the old sacred heroes of the Bible--God's own peculiar people--far, far away from their native land, their own Canaan, their "land of promise," in a foreign country, amid a strange people; and he saw them departed from the manners of their fathers, and from the knowledge of their language; he saw them in dress assimilating to the people among whom they lived, and in manners too; but though he saw many round him who were learned in the lore and well read in the books of the Chinese, yet he saw none who could take his place--none who, when his voice was for ever silent, could read the Law. And as he bent his head over the sacred book--old and venerable from the hands of a long chain of Rabbis--the sight of it recalled emotions that almost overpowered him, and he thought of all the traditions of the people, since their sojourn in that far-off land, and he thought of his own training for the priesthood, and his regarding the high station he had since reached with such feelings of reverential awe; and when he thought of all this, and of the whole history of his life, spent among this people, he was very sad, and his voice, as he began to read, trembled exceedingly. But as he proceeded, and read of the everlasting promises for fulfilment in the latter days, and of the innumerable acts of condescension and mercy of the Most High, his voice became firm and high, and rolled forth melodiously through the building and out into the still air beyond, like the fabled death-song of the swan. And it was the last time the Law was read, for the Rabbi went home and sickened, and lingered a little time and then died, and the Law was read no more; but the people still continued to worship in the synagogue, and the book still remains open as the last of the Rabbis left it upon the old, time-worn desk, as if it were waiting for the raising up of a new Rabbi to read therein. And there is a feeling of awe in the minds of the people, which causes them to leave it so--a feeling of mysterious reverence connected with a book containing such great and glorious truths, to them, by their own self-imposed degeneracy and ignorance, sealed and unknown. So the book lies there ever, with its face upwards, and will probably lie there through all time, and the Last Day will find it there, open in the self-same place.
And the stranger from a Western clime entered the little synagogue, and looked upon the book; and he thought that he could read there one of the innumerable lessons from God to man--lessons scattered over all His created earth, in every tree and leaf and flower, for unheeding man to read. For he saw in that open yet silent book a mournful lesson of man's headlong pursuit after the things of his body, and of his carelessness of the things concerning his immortal self. And the stranger pondered much upon this lesson, and upon the mutations and changes of this present life, and he thought of the words of a poet of his own land--words left just as he wrote them--as he laid down his pen for ever, from his unfinished labour on one of the greatest poems the world ever saw--words most beautiful in themselves, but inexpressibly beautiful as the last words of a great mind, before being called to inherit those joys of which he writes:
Then 'gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd
Of that same time, when no more change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things, firmly stayd
Upon the pillours of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutabilitie;
For all that moveth, doth in change delight,
But thenceforth all shall rest eternally
With Him who is the God of Sabaoth hight,
O! Thou great Sabaoth God, grant me that Sabbath's sight.