Judging One Another’s Beliefs

These are the accounts of the Tabernacle – the Tabernacle of the Testimony – that were compiled at Moshe’s direction, the service of the Leveyim under the supervision of Etamar the son of Aharon the Kohen. (Shemot 38:21)

1. The meaning of the name “Tabernacle of the Testimony”
The Parshiyot of Vayakel and Pekuday complete the Torah’s account to the creation of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. These final two Torah portions discuss the actual fabrication of the Mishcan’s components, the manufacture of the garments of the Kohen Gadol and Kohanim the High Priest and the other Priests, and the assembly of the Mishcan. The above passage introduces the Torah portion of Pekuday. In the passage, the Mishcan is referred to as Mishcan HaEydut – the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The name associates the Mishcan with testimony. However, testimony must be about some event or fact. What is the event or fact to which the Mishcan testifies?

Many commentators suggest that the term Mishcan HaEydut does not mean that the Tabernacle provides testimony. Instead, the term means that the Mishcan contains or is the home of the Luchot – the Tablets of the Decalogue. These Tablets are referred to in the Torah as the Luchot HaEydut – the Tablets of the Testimony.[1] The Luchot provide testimony to the Revelation. Therefore, the Mishcan that contains the Tablets is referred to as the Tabernacle of the Testimony.[2] However, Rashi disagrees with this interpretation. He suggests that the term Mishcan HaEydut means that the Mishcan provides testimony. Therefore, Rashi must identify the event or fact to which the Mishcan testifies.

Rashi explains that the Mishcan testifies that Hashem indulged or excused Bnai Yisrael after the sin of the Golden Calf. He further explains that when the Mishcan was assembled, the cloud of Hashem descended upon it and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishcan. This expression of Hashem’s presence within the encampment of Bnai Yisrael demonstrated that the sin of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf had been excused or indulged.

Rashi’s phrasing is notable. He does not say that the sin was forgiven or that the nation had adequately atoned for the sin. Instead, he explains that Hashem decided to excuse or to indulge the nation. Rashi seems to suggest that although Hashem restored His presence in the midst of the nation, this restoration represented something less that total forgiveness. An example will help explain this distinction. If a person harms me, and apologizes, I may decide to forgive the person. This means I completely disregard the act of harm done to me. I have decided to treat this person as if the action never occurred. It is erased and no longer a factor in our relationship. However, I may decide that I can excuse the person or that I am willing to indulge him but that I am not prepared to forgive the person. In this case, I am willing to overlook the action. I do feel a need to exact retribution. But I am not satisfied that the person truly regrets his behavior and accepts full responsibility for his wrongdoing. In other words, forgiveness is secured through a change in the wrongdoer. Indulgence or being excused is a unilateral decision made by the wronged party and does not necessarily reflect any change in the wrongdoer’s attitude.[3]

Rashi’s interpretation raises two issues:
• According to Rashi, Hashem did not forgive the sin of the Egel; He excused it. Why were Bnai Yisrael not worthy of forgiveness?
• If Bnai Yisrael did not deserve to be forgiven, then why were they excused? They had committed a very serious transgression and did not deserve forgiveness. Yet, they were excused! How can this be explained?

And Hashem said to Moshe: I have seen this nation and it is a stiff-necked nation. (Shemot 32:9)

2. Various interpretations of “stiff-necked”
After the sin of the Egel, Hashem describes Bnai Yisrael as a stiff-necked nation. What is the meaning of this term? The commentators offer a number of explanations. The consensus is that the term communicates that the nation is stubborn and not likely to repent. However, their interpretations differ in significant aspects. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that the term communicates a resistance to learning an adopting new practices and ideas. The generation that worshipped the Egel was the product of a pagan, idolatrous society. It had assimilated many of the attitudes, beliefs, and values of this society. The nation was certainly capable of moments of absolute clarity. At these moments, the people understood the folly of their preconceptions and embraced the truths of the Torah. However, they were not capable of completely uprooting abandoning all remnants of the worldview that they had developed in Egypt. As a result at moments of extreme stress, the nation was capable of reverting to idolatrous behaviors. The sin of the Egel was such a moment. The stress and anxiety caused by Moshe’s failure to descend from Sinai developed into a fear of abandonment. The nation responded to this fear by reverting to the false but familiar sense of security provided by idolatrous practices.

Rashi disagrees. He does not understand the term as describing an inability to learn and adopt new and novel outlooks. Instead, he explains that the term describes an unwillingness or inability to respond positively to criticism. Rashi does not explain the source or cause of this resistance to accepting criticism. In general, this character flaw is a consequence of poor self-image or weak ego. In order to accept criticism, a strong ego is helpful. A person with lacking this degree of self-assuredness struggles to maintain a positive self-image. Therefore, he resists all criticism. Conversely, a strong self-image allows a person to accept that he or she has a flaw without feeling that this flaw is a threat to his self-respect. A nation of freed slaves can be expected to struggle with self-image issues. The members of the nation are likely to have weak self-images and egos. Accepting criticism will difficult if not impossible.

According to both of these explanations, it was unlikely that the generation redeemed from Egypt could fully repent. According to Sforno, the nation could achieve moments of complete clarity. However, the absolute abandonment of the views, beliefs, and behaviors learned in Egypt was beyond its grasp. As a result, they remained susceptible to reverting to these beliefs and behaviors. According to Rashi, the people lacked the ego strength to accept criticism and learn from mistakes. Therefore, they lacked the ability to engage in the introspection needed to completely shed the remnants of idolatry from their perspectives and behaviors. Consequently, Bnai Yisrael was not forgiven for the sin of the Egel. Forgiveness would have required a level of repentance that was beyond the capacity of the nation. Nonetheless, Hashem did excuse the nation. Why did He excuse them?

3. The Torah’s minimal standards for beliefs and convictions
Maimonides explains that there are certain beliefs regarding Hashem that every Jew must adopt. For example, every member of Bnai Yisrael must acknowledge that Hashem is incorporeal and He is an absolute unity not subject to any form of division. He explains that these fundamental ideas must be taught to every Jew at his or her level. Maimonides limits this list of fundamentals to very few elements and also, prescribes a minimal degree of understanding as being adequate for those who are either uneducated or incapable of a more thorough, broad, and definitive understanding of the Torah’s fundamental principles.[4] This is an amazing concession. Maimonides often stresses the importance of a proper understanding of Hashem[5] and devotes much of his Moreh Nevuchim to developing this understanding. How can Maimonides’ emphasis upon the importance of a proper understanding of Hashem be reconciled with the minimal standard he proposes for the uneducated or less capable?[6]

Maimonides is suggesting that although these unfortunate individuals have not secured the level of understanding for which we are all required to strive, nonetheless, they are excused for their shortcoming. In other words, the Torah establishes a minimum set of beliefs and an ideal. We are all required to strive for the ideal. But if we achieve only the minimum, we are excused. In short, a person who, as a consequence of ignorance or incapacity, has developed an incomplete or not completely accurate understanding of the Torah’s fundamentals, is excused for this shortcoming.

4. Forgiveness vs. indulgence
Based upon Maimonides’ comments, Rav Yisrael Chait suggested an explanation of Hashem’s response to Bnai Yisrael’s failure to fully repent from the sin of the Egel. The nation accepted the fundamentals of the Torah. The people were not completely immune from beliefs and attitudes that if carefully considered would be seen to be inconsistent with the Torah. Also, this lack of introspection and study resulted in some ambiguity and occasional ambivalence. However, the nation accepted the fundamentals at a level consistent with its capacity. Therefore, the nation’s failings were not forgiven. Forgiveness requires a level of repentance that was beyond the capacity of the generation that left Egypt. However, they were indulged or excused.

5. Tolerance for others
This suggests that we also should exercise care in judging one another’s beliefs. Even if they are not completely consistent with the Torah, we should try to educate and avoid condemning these individuals. Certainly, there are a few very basic beliefs that should be taught rigorously and extensively to all Jews. But beyond this short list, we should exercise the same behavior demonstrated by Hashem towards the generation that created and worshipped the Egel.[7]

1. E.g. Shemot 31:18
2. E.g. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 1:50.
3. Rashi’s comments are based upon the Midrash quoted by Yalkut Shimoni, BeMidbar 10:723. However, a similar Midrash is found in Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 51:4. In the Midrash Rabba version, Hashem does forgive the nation for the sin of the Egel.
4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 34.
5. E.g. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 36.
6. It should not be assumed that Maimonides is merely exercising pragmatic compassion for those less fortunate – those who lack either the wit or opportunity to secure a proper education. Maimonides is famously unsympathetic for those who err in their grasp of the fundamentals as a result of the misfortune of their upbringing or their incapacity to grasp these principles. See for example Moreh Nevuchim volume 1, chapter 36.
7. Rav Yisrael Chait, TTL Library, The Tabernacle of Testimony D-346.