The Story of Isaac Levinsohn

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 10
“What must I do to be Saved?”
I AM a native of Russia, and was born in the year 1855, in the town of Kovno. My parents were pious Jews, much devoted to the glory of God under the Jewish traditions. My father, fasted every Monday and Thursday, with the object of mortifying the flesh, and in order to justify himself before God, who has said, "Ye shall be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11:4444For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Leviticus 11:44)), and "Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God." (Deut. 18:1313Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God. (Deuteronomy 18:13).)
It was my father's wish that his children should be brought up in the fear of God, and specially that his sons might be devout Jews. My elder brother did not wish to follow the desire of his father and become a Rabbi, as he preferred the study of foreign languages, science, and philosophy. He entered the college in Kovno, and finished his studies at Grodno.
Seeing his eldest son give so much time to the world did not at all satisfy my father, and he determined to bring me up a devout Jew, under the teaching of a Rabbi full of zeal and piety.
When I was five years of age, my father began to instruct me in Hebrew, that I might read the prayers of the Liturgy every morning, afternoon, and evening, and informed me that if I did what the Rabbi wished and obeyed him in all things, and also prayed three times a day, God would be very pleased with me.
The idea that God would be very pleased sank deep into my heart. I tried to do everything that my parents, and especially my Rabbi, wished me to do, respecting the great law in the Bible, "Honor thy father and thy mother," and also the words of the Oral law, "The fear of the Rabbi is as the fear of the Lord.”
When eight years of age, I could read any part in the Hebrew Bible, the Targum, and the great Rabbi Rashi's Comments on the Bible. My Rabbi began also to instruct me in the Talmud, and gradually led me to give up reading the Bible, as he considered the study of the Talmud more important. My whole time was devoted to studying with him in his house, for I was the only pupil he had undertaken to bring up and instruct in the Rabbinic doctrines.
On my tenth birthday, my father invited a few of his learned friends, with the Rabbi who was my teacher, and three others, to examine me. They were to give their judgment as to my qualifications for becoming a minister. The examination was passed through to their satisfaction, which so pleased my father that he gave a dinner to the poor of the synagogue, and asked them to pray to God on my behalf. He also promised me fifty rubles on my thirteenth birthday if I succeeded well in another examination. All this made me more earnest than ever in living a holy life.
About this time serious questions began to arise in my heart, and I asked myself, What is really the Word of God? and, after some reasoning, I came to the conclusion that the Bible must be the book given by God. So I asked the Rabbi if I could devote a little more time to its perusal. But he wished me to occupy myself solely in Talmudic study. However, I spent one hour every night before going to bed, and two hours every morning before prayers, in perusing the Bible alone. When my thirteenth birthday approached, I was instructed in the articles of the Jewish faith. The Rabbi told me that as soon as I reached thirteen I should be regarded as a man, and should have to be responsible for my sins before our God, Jehovah. This great thought of responsibility for sins filled my mind with solemn thoughts, and led me to inquire earnestly, "What must I do to be saved?”
At the age of twelve years and eleven months, my father took me to the synagogue, and informed me that all the sins I had committed were upon him; but for all the sins I committed from my thirteenth birthday, I should be responsible before God. I entreated him to continue to bear my sins for two or three months longer, as I was afraid that I should very soon sin against the Holy One. But he told me this could not be done. Then I cried bitterly, being perfectly certain that it was an utter impossibility for me to live a perfect life.
The infinite holiness and purity of the great Creator, and the depravity of man's heart, convinced me that there was nothing in me but sin. But there was no way open: my father said I must undertake the responsibility of my sins before God, so I undertook it, and confess that after that day I felt the burden very heavy.
My thirteenth birthday came, and my father took me-to the synagogue, where he offered me to the Lord, with prayer, according to the Jewish custom, and thanked God that he was no longer responsible for my sins.
On the same day he invited the Rabbi to his house with several elders of the congregation to examine me in what I had learned since my tenth birthday. They expressed their belief that the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had called me to the ministry of the Jewish faith, but I rejoice to know that the God of grace had a better office and much greater honor for me—namely, to be a servant of His in the vineyard of Christ, and to be a prince before the Most High, and to reign with Christ forever. My father and the Rabbi then put their hands upon me, and blessed me, saying, "God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh." (Gen. 48:2020And he blessed them that day, saying, In thee shall Israel bless, saying, God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh: and he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Genesis 48:20)) The promised present of the rubles was given me, and was distributed among the poor of the synagogue, who were asked to pray for me.
The next day I put on my phylacteries, and went to the synagogue to pray, and was very careful in my prayers, which lasted nearly two hours. But I was weary, and, when putting the phylacteries together after prayers, I dropped them upon the floor. So I fasted for twelve hours, and did so with satisfaction, thinking it was pleasing to God.
About this time I began to be much concerned about justification before God. I felt that none of my good works could really justify me before the Holy One, and solemn thoughts about eternity filled my mind. My mother noticed my seriousness, and asked what had happened. I fell on her neck, kissed her, and wept bitterly for some time. "Mother," I said, "I am afraid God will not be satisfied with my goodness, and if death should summon me, I shall be unworthy to stand before Him.”
She assured me that if I continued to study the Talmud, obeyed the orders of my Rabbi, and did all that my rather wished me to do, praying three times a day, I should be saved. But her answer did not satisfy my soul.
Some weeks passed, during which I continued to study the Talmud, under the instruction of my teacher. On one occasion he asked what it was that made the very great difference in me since my thirteenth birthday, so I told him that, since I had become responsible for my sins, I felt that I should never be justified before God, and was often troubled with the fear of death. Crying most bitterly, I said, "Rabbi, if I should die, where should I go?”
His reply was, "You will be punished for your sins first;" and informed me that everyone must go to hell for a time; but that the good would, after punishment, enter paradise, and be with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I asked my father if he knew any way by which I might be saved, but he could give me no better answer than my teacher. Fear of death increased still more, and I went on for some time, downcast and sorrowful.