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Vayakhel: Wandering Infrastructure ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Mar 12


Vayakhel: Wandering Infrastructure

Article abstract for Parashat Vayakhel:

This week's Parashah tells of the actual construction of the Tabernacle, affirming that it was fashioned in accordance with the original instructions. The underlying infrastructure of the Mishkan -although always covered with gold or copper- was drawn from a species of trees called שטים, rendered in the translations as acacia.

Why was this particular genus chosen, when it was hardly indigenous to the desert? And if it was so essential, why was it consistently hidden from view?

We seek the answers to these questions in our Sages' pronouncements interspersed throughout their writings. And of course, we examine the gamut of words sharing the two essential radicals of this word -שט- seeking a common thread of meaning among the seemingly disparate imports, but which we believe ultimately emerges, and sheds light on the reason for this species being selected for this sublime purpose.

And everyone with whom there was acacia [שִׁטִּים] wood, for any work of the labor, brought it (Ex. 35:24).

We begin by noting that the Tabernacle as a whole was comprised of acacia wood - from the Ark to the planks. A number of questions regarding this wood:

A. These special trees do not grow naturally in the Wilderness. If so, from where were they obtained?

Our Sages explain (Gen. Rabba 94:4) that Jacob brought these trees along with him when he descended to Egypt: “[Jacob] went to cut down [1]ארזים that his grandfather Abraham had planted in Beersheba, as it states, [Abraham] planted a tree in Beersheba (Gen. 21:33)... Thus is it stated, And everyone with whom there was acacia wood (Ex. 35:24).”[2]

B. Why was this particular type of wood selected for the Tabernacle? Our Sages explain: Ex. Rabba 50:3 - “Israel sinned in the [place called] Shittim - for it is stated, Israel settled in the שִׁטִּים (Shittim) and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Num. 25:1) - and they were healed[3] with שִׁטִּים (acacia wood), as it is stated, Bezalel made the Ark of acacia wood (Ex. 37:1).”[4] In other words, the merit of the shittim-wood in the Tabernacle atoned for the sin at Shittim.

C. What is the underlying meaning of the word שִׁטִּים? In the Talmud, R' Yehoshua expounds it as related to שְׁטוּת (folly): Sanhedrin 106a - “[Scripture states:] Israel settled in the Shittim - R’ Eliezer says: Shittim was the [actual] name of [that place]. R’ Yehoshua says: [Shittim means] that they engaged in matters of foolishness (שְׁטוּת), [i.e., immorality].”[5]

However, this raises another question: Why was it necessary to commemorate such severe sins in the Tabernacle – the most sacred site in the world, when Scripture (Num. 25:11-13) attests that these sins had already been atoned for?[6] And from a linguistic perspective, is R’ Yehoshua’s teaching simply a homiletic exposition, or is there a deeper meaning to the connection between שטות andשטים ?

To shed light on these topics, we first need to examine the word שׁטים, beginning with its classification in Machberet Menachem, and then in contrast to the slightly different explanation offered by Rashi.

Menachem assigns the word שִׁטִּים its own subcategory in entry שׁט, separate from the three other subcategories included in that entry. The three other subsections are: 1) The word שׁוֹט (staff, cane); 2) the noun מָשׁוֹט (oar, paddle), and the verb הוֹשָׁטָה (extension, stretching out); and finally 3) the word שַׁיִט (movement of a boat in water), and the matter of לָשׁוּט בָּאָרֶץ (to wander in the land).[7]

The connection between three of the subcategories - acacia wood, staff, and oar - seems to be obvious, since all three meanings refer to derivatives of wood of some variety. As for the fourth subcategory, which includes all manners of wandering and strolling (שַׁיִט), one can argue that the term שִׁיוּט (drifting, i.e. the movement of a small boat in water) is borrowed from the term מָשׁוֹט (oar), a necessary implement for rowing.[8] Likewise, the expression “to wander (לָשׁוּט) in the land” might also be based on the fact that those who wander in the wilderness and fields typically use wooden staffs or canes, i.e., a שׁוֹט.[9]

However, here we arrive at the apparent point of contention between Rashi and Menachem. Regarding the precise definition of the term שַׁיִט, we note that Rashi explained it as a leisurely stroll.[10] However, Menachem interprets all forms of שִׁיוּט, in water or on land, as matters of racing. Now, a race (מֵרוֹץ) certainly cannot not be equated with an unhurried saunter, entailing as it does significant exertion.

To explain Rashi’s interpretation of the term שַׁיִט (leisurely stroll), we begin by quoting a verse that cannot be interpreted, it seems, as referring to a stroll: Jer. 49:3 - Cry out, you daughters of Rabbah; gird yourselves with sackcloth, lament and wander [וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה] about in the sheepfolds.[11] Rashi offers two explanations of the word וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה:[12]

A) Wandering troops (citing Targum Yonatan): The movement of troops certainly cannot be described as wandering or strolling without any specific purpose.[13] An organized army is structured around specific missions, which must be completed as swiftly as possible, to avoid detection by the enemy. The troops are essentially in a race to complete their assignments and return safely from the operation.[14] Likewise, it would be difficult to interpret the verse cited earlier in relation to the manna, that the people שָׁטוּ and gathered it (Num. 11:8), as wandering or strolling (along the lines of Rashi), for the people were going out to collect necessary food for their households, not to stroll about lazily.[15]

B) Disgrace: "We can also interpret וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה as and they mock the waste in the sheep pens - an expression of scorn, [as in the verse] וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, [which is rendered by Onkelus as] וְשָׁט עֵשָׂו, and Esau dishonored [the birthright].” Thus, Rashi teaches us two things here: A) that the Scriptural שׁאט and the Aramaic שׁט are connected; B) that the root שׁט can mean both racing / running and disgrace.

Rashi defines the word שאט (with a middle, non-root א), in his explanation of the prophet’s warning to the Ammonite enemies of Israel, in two ways that seem to contradict each other: Ezek. 25:6 - and you rejoiced with all your שָׁאטְךָ בְּנֶפֶשׁ over the soil of Israel; A. disgrace: Rashi - "This means disgrace, scorn, as in Esau scorned [the birthright], which Onkelus renders as ושט עשו": B. lust / avarice (שֶׁטֶף): Rashi (ibid.) - “But I say that שאט is an expression of שטף, or 'gouluzment' (gluttony, avarice in Old French[16]).”[17]

The galloping of war-horses is also described as שטף: Jer. 8:6 - They all follow their course like a horse that is שׁוֹטֵף in war; Rashi - “שׁוֹטֵף means (in Old French) ‘ispridin’ (hasty[18]).”[19] Likewise, in his comments to the Talmudic expression “שָׁטוּף בזמה (in immorality),” Rashi explains that שָׁטוּף is similar in meaning to the aforementioned שׁוֹטֵף in Jeremiah's description of a battle horse, here meaning ardently pursuing a goal.[20] A river that flows uninterruptedly is described as שוטף.[21]

Thus, Rashi equates the unrestrained, impetuouslust of the immoral man (שָׁטוּף), to the unrestrained, impetuous racing of the war horse (שׁוֹטֵף) towards its enemy target. However, what is less clear is how the word שׁאט / שׁט can accommodate both the meaning disgrace, and the meaning lust / avarice. After all, these two seem to be utter opposites - as the former indicates scorn for something, while the latter indicates unrequited desire for it!

We propose that racing and being swept away like a river are in fact related to disgrace, as we shall demonstrate. As for the horse’s ardent pursuit of its target, it should be noted that an animal has no free will or self-control; it either follows the impulse of its natural instincts, or the will of its master. Its “racing” towards the enemy during war is really the result of its rider’s prodding, as expressed in Proverbs: a rod for the horse, a bridle for the donkey (Prov. 26:3).[22] Under the influence of the rod, the horse will conform blindly with its master's will - acting with haste, racing with apparent ardor to avoid the punishing tools brandished by his master. Under the threat of the goad, the horse will trample heedlessly - seemingly scornfully - any obstacle in its path, without hesitation, like a streaming river that swamps and overwhelms (יִשְׁטוֹף) everything in its way.

Likewise, lustful people who are in constant pursuit of immorality (שְׁטוּפֵי זמה) are subjugated to their evil inclination – Satan's alter-ego (Baba Batra 16a).[23] In their thinking, Satan seems like a driver with a rod (שׁוֹט) who forces them to conduct themselves in such lowly behavior, and like the oarsman (בַּעַל הַמָשׁוֹט) whose oars lead all those in the boat in whatever direction he chooses; while they - the unfortunate men with unquenched inclinations - have no choice but to heed their master.

Thus did the Jewish people in the Wilderness sink to the nadir that they reached at Shittim, becoming helplessly attached to a pair of abominations - the idolatry of Baal-peor and the immorality of the daughters of Moab. They chose the “inanities” (שְׁטוּת) of Shittim, “raced” with abandon (שָׁטְפוּ) after sin like a surging river, and “disdained” (שאטו) the cardinal prohibitions of idolatry and immorality commanded at Sinai. The name Shittim (שִׁטִּים) alludes to the pitiful reality of its inhabitants: controlled by the threatening cane (שׁוֹט) of Satan that seemed to leave them unable to resist.

However, they forgot that, in actuality, they were not like horses who must obey their masters. On the contrary, they – and we – are created in the Divine image, with the right - and the obligation - to choose for ourselves. It is in our hands to grab hold of the rod and subdue our evil inclination; to seize the oars and control our direction and destination. God has given each of us the power to choose the correct path always, the task for which we were brought to this world. This too is alluded to by the root "שׁט," the straight and upright acacia tree (עֵץ הַשִׁטִּים), which teaches us that a person must choose his path in this world wisely and intelligently, seeking the good and honest way, without any detour or hesitation. It is so important for us to contemplate and internalize this concept, that God chose to enshrine a reminder for us in no less than the Holy Ark itself, located in the Holy of Holies. The ark was constructed from acacia wood (עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים), but which was covered with pure gold inside and out. The ark's construction warns and reminds a person that although he might outwardly appear - even in his own eyes - to be as righteous and virtuous as gold, on the inside he is fickle, ever liable to turn down the path leading to oblivion, as did the Israelites at Shittim. A person must take heed of this, and “not believe in oneself until the day he dies” (Avot 2:4).

May we merit indulging in the radiance of the Shechinah (God’s Divine Presence) that resides above the golden Ark Cover, which rests on and covers the Ark made of acacia wood. Amen.

[1]היינו שטים, כמו שמוכח מהפסוק שמובא בסמוך. רש"י הביא דרשה מעין זו (שמות כה:ה): ועצי שטים - מאין היו להם במדבר, פירש רבי תנחומא יעקב אבינו צפה ברוח הקודש, שעתידין ישראל לבנות משכן במדבר, והביא ארזים למצרים ונטעם. [2] ב"ר צד:ד - הלך (יעקב) לקוץ ארזים שנטע אברהם זקינו בבאר שבע... הה"ד: וכל אשר נמצא אתו עצי שטים (שמות לה). [3]פירוש, הקדים ה' רפואה למכה (כפי שמצינו במקומות אחרים, עי' מדרש לקח טוב שמות ג:א), שהרי המשכן נבנה בתחילת מסעי העם במדבר, ואילו החטא בשטים היה לקראת סוף מסעם. [4]שמ"ר (וילנא) נ:ג - ישראל חטאו בשטים, שנאמר: וישב ישראל בשטים (במדבר כה), ונרפאו בשטים, שנאמר: ויעש בצלאל את הארון עצי שטים. [5] סנהדרין קו. - וישב ישראל בשטים, רבי אליעזר אומר: שטים שְׁמָהּ, רבי יהושע אומר: שנתעסקו בדברי שטות. [6] במ' כה יא-יג - פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל... וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. [7] ריב"ג ורד"ק חברו ענינים אלו בערך 'שוט', מלבד הושטה, שחברו בערך 'ישט'. בנוסף, ענין שיוט במים לא חבר ריב"ג כלל. [8] רד"ק פירש כן:רד"ק ישע' לג:כא - אני שיט - שמוליכים אותו במשוטים. [9] בענין המלה 'שוט', ציין ידידי רא"כ לסוגיית הגמרא (כתובות יז.) שם דרשו הטיות של 'שוט' בשלוש משמעויות שונות. [10] במדבר יא:ח - שָׁטוּ הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ; רש”י - שטו - אין שייט אלא לשון טיול - אישבני"ר [טיול להנאה], בלא עמל. ולרוב המפרשים, המלה מורה על ענין נדידה, כגון: ירמיה ה:א - שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם; מצצ - שוטטו - ענין ההליכה אנה ואנה וכן משוט בארץ (איוב א). שב כד:ב - שׁוּט נָא בְּכָל שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; מצצ - שוט - ענין ההליכה אנה ואנה וכן משוט בארץ (איוב א). שב כד:ח - וַיָּשֻׁטוּ בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ; מצצ - וישוטו - הלכו אנה ואנה. איוב א:ז - מִשּׁוּט בָּאָרֶץ וּמֵהִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּהּ; מצצ - משוט - ענין ההליכה אנה ואנה כמו שטו העם ולקטו (במדבר יא). [11] יר' מט:ג - צְעַקְנָה בְּנוֹת רַבָּה חֲגֹרְנָה שַׂקִּים סְפֹדְנָה וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה בַּגְּדֵרוֹת. [12] רש"י יר' מט:ג - והתשוטטנה בגדרות - תירגמו יונתן ואתהממון בסיען התגודדו בחיילות. פתר והתשוטטנה לשון חיילות משוטטים... ויש לפתור והתשוטטנה והתעוללנה בזבל גדרות צאן, לשון בזיון. ויבז עשו (בראשית כה) [תרגם אונקלוס] ושט עשו. [13] והערה זו נכונה בכל מצב צבאי, בין אם הכוח הצבאי הינו במצב של התקפה או נסיגה. וגם אם הובס הצבא, כמו כאן, קיימות עדיין סכנות מכל עבר, וקשה לתאר נסיבות שחיילים יתנודדו בשלווה בתנאי פיקוח נפש. [14] ראיה נוספת לשיטת מנחם -ש"שַׁיִט" איננה לשון טיול נינוח, אלא מרוץ- יש להביא גם משיטוט השטן: איוב א:ז - וַיַּעַן הַשָּׂטָן אֶת ה' וַיֹּאמַר מִשּׁוּט בָּאָרֶץ וּמֵהִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּהּ; רש"י - משוט בארץ ומהתהלך בה - כן דרכי לשוט ולראות רעים וטובים ושטטתי בכל הארץ ולא מצאתי כאברהם. מדברי רש"י יש ללמוד שמשימת השטן היתה להבחין בין הרעים והטובים כולם. וממה שמעיד שלא מצא אחד כאברהם, משמע שאכן בדק את כל אחד ואחד בצורה שיטתית, תיאור שבוודאי אינו מתאים לטיול סתם ולבדיקות מקריות, אלא ל"מרוץ" מבדיקה לבדיקה, עד שיבדוק את כולם. ולכן, כשחז"ל פירשו פסוק זה (יומא עז:), השוו את שוטטות השטן לעניין לעבור נהר, דבר שאיננו מותר אם לא לצורך ברור אפילו לשטן בעצמו! ומכאן ששוטטות השטן היתה בכדי לבצע משימה מוגדרת, ולא בדרך טיול סתמי. [15] אחר כך ראיתי שבספר שאגת אריה העיר שאף בגמרא (יומא עה.) משמע שלשון "שַׁיִט" מורה על הליכה למטרה מוגדרת (להרע): רשעים שטו ולקטו. מכאן קשה לי על פירוש רש"י בפירוש התורה, שפירש אין שייט אלא לשון טיול בלא עמל, וזה היפך ממה דקאמר הגמרא הכא, רשעים שטו דמשמעו להרע, וכדפירש רש"י הכא שטו משמע למקום רחוק כמו משוט בארץ. [16] לעזי רש"י (גרינברג): גולוזמנ"ט = תאוה, זלילה. [17] אזהרה לבני עמון, אויבי ישראל: יחז' כה:ו - וַתִּשְׂמַח בְּכָל שָׁאטְךָ בְּנֶפֶשׁ אֶל אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל; רש"י - בכל שאטך - לשון בזיון פותרין בו, כמו: ויבז עשו (בראשית כה), שתרגם אונקלוס: ושט עשו... אולם, מוסיף רש"י גם פירוש שני: רש"י (שם): ואני אומר, שאט לשון שטף, גולוזמנ"ט בלע"ז. [18]לעזי רש"י (גרינברג): אישפרידי"ן = פזיז. [19] יר' ח:ו - כֻּלֹּה שָׁב בִּמְרוּצָתָם כְּסוּס שׁוֹטֵף בַּמִּלְחָמָה; רש"י - שוטף - אישפרידי"ן בלעז. [20] שבת קנב. - ברזילי הגלעדי שטוף בזמה הוה; רש"י - שטוף - כמו: סוס שוטף במלחמה (ירמיהו ח:ו) - להוט אחר הדבר ורודף. [21] וכן מצינו שהנחל שזורם בלי הפסק נתאר כדבר ששוטף תמיד: ישע' ל:כח - וְרוּחוֹ כְּנַחַל שׁוֹטֵף, ישע' סו:יב - הִנְנִי נֹטֶה אֵלֶיהָ כְּנָהָר שָׁלוֹם וּכְנַחַל שׁוֹטֵף, יר' מז:ב - וְהָיוּ לְנַחַל שׁוֹטֵף. [22] משלי כו:ג - שׁוֹט לַסּוּס מֶתֶג לַחֲמוֹר. [23]וראה מראית העין לחיד"א (בכורות ה:) שמקשר בין המלים "שטן" ו"שטות": המקום "שטים" נקרא כך מלשון "שטות" (משום שהתעסקו שם בשטות, כשיטת רבי יהושע שם), והמלה "שטים" שווה בגמטריא למלה "שטן".

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