And everyone with whom there was acacia wood for any work of the labor brought it (Exodus 35:24).
We begin by noting that this acacia wood was the primary building block of the Tabernacle and its utensils — from the Ark and the Table, to the planks and pillars — although everything was then covered with gold or copper. However, acacia trees certainly did not grow naturally in the Wilderness. How, then, did these newly freed slaves have so much acacia wood for the Tabernacle?
Our Sages suggest (Ber. Rabbah 94:4; see also Rashi to Exodus 25:5) that Jacob brought them along with him when he descended to Egypt: “[Jacob] went to cut down cedar trees that his grandfather Abraham had planted in Beer-sheba, as it is stated, [Abraham] planted an ‘eshel’ in Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:33) … Thus is it stated, And everyone with whom there was acacia wood (Exodus 35:24).” Elsewhere (Sh. Rabbah 50:3), the Midrash explains why this particular type of wood was selected for the Tabernacle: “Israel sinned in the Shittim — for it is stated, Israel settled in the שִׁטִים (Shittim) and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Numbers 25:1) — and they were healed with שִׁטִים (acacia wood), as it is stated, Bezalel made the Ark of acacia wood (Exodus 37:1).” That is, in order to allow them to atone for the sin that they committed in Shittim, G-d commanded them to build a Tabernacle from a wood called shittim. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) also provides meaning for the name of the location: “[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].”
However, this raises another question: Why was it necessary to commemorate the severe sins of the past in the most sacred site in the world, when Scripture (Numbers 25:11-13) attests that these sins were already atoned for? And from a linguistic perspective, is R’ Yehoshua’s teaching simply a homiletic exposition, or is there a more profound connection between the various meanings of the word?
Menachem ibn Soruk assigns the word שׁטים its own subsection under the root “שׁט”, with three additional subsections defined under that root: 1) The word שׁוֹט (staff, cane); 2) the noun מָשׁוֹט (oar, paddle), and the verb הוֹשָׁטָה (extension, stretching out); 3) the word שַׁיִט (movement of a boat in water), and the matter of “לָשׁוּט בָּאָרֶץ” (to wander in the land). [Ribag and Radak link all of these definitions to the root “שׁוֹט”, except for הוֹשָׁטָה, which they link to the root “ישׁט”. The notion of movement in water (שִׁיוּט) is not mentioned by Ribag at all.]
At first glance, there would seem to be a relatively obvious connection between three of the subsections — staff, oar and acacia wood — since all three meanings refer to a piece of wood of some nature. As for the fourth subsection, which includes all manners of wandering and sauntering, one can argue that the term שִׁיוּט (movement of a small boat in water) is borrowed from the term מָשׁוֹט (oar), (see Radak to Isaiah 33:21). Likewise, the expression “to wander (לָשׁוּט) in the land” may be based on the fact that those who wandered in the wilderness and in the fields typically resort to wooden staffs or canes, i.e., a “שׁוֹט”.
However, we should note that Menachem explains the subsection שִׁיוּט in a different manner than the other commentators. According to most commentators, the word implies wandering and sauntering without toil, such as שׁוֹטְטוּ in Jeremiah 5:1, שׁוּט in II Samuel 24:2, וַיָּשֻׁטוּ in ibid. v. 8, and מִשּׁוּט in Job 1:7 (all of which are defined by Metz. Tzion as “walking hither and yonder”), and the word שָׁטוּ in Numbers 11:8 (defined by Rashi as a “leisurely saunter”). By contrast, Menachem interprets all forms of שִׁיוּט in water or on land as being “a matter of racing.” Now, a race (מֵרוּץ) could not be equated with a leisurely walk, as it entails significant toil.
Let us therefore begin by introducing a verse that Menachem does not mention in his work, the verse in Jeremiah 49:3 that includes the word וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה. Rashi offers two definitions. The first, based on Targum Yonatan, is that it refers to troops that are מְשׁוֹטְטִים. Now, the manner of movement of troops can certainly not be explained as wandering and sauntering without any specific purpose. After all, an organized army is structured upon specific missions, and with danger constantly lurking on all sides, these missions must be completed as swiftly as possible. The troops are essentially in a race to complete their assignments and return safely from the battlefront.
We also find support for the view of Menachem in the “wandering (הִשְׁטוֹטְטוּת) of Satan” in Job 1:7, which he also assigned to the subsection “מֵרוּץ”. Satan tells G-d that he his returning from wandering (מִשּׁוּט) about the earth and walking on it. According to Rashi, he meant to imply that “it is my custom to wander about (לָשׁוּט) and see good people and bad people, and I wandered about the entire earth and did not find anyone [as righteous] as Abraham.” We can thus infer from Rashi’s comments that the mission of Satan was comprehensive, in order to be able to differentiate between all the good people and the evil people. By testifying that he did not find a single person like Abraham, the implication is that he indeed investigated each and every person in a systematic manner — a description that is certainly not compatible with an ordinary walk and superficial investigations, but rather implies a “race” from investigation to investigation until he succeeds in investigating them all. Indeed, in their exposition on this verse in the Talmud (Yoma 77b), the Sages compare Satan’s wandering to the crossing of a river, which is only permissible for an express need, such as to check one’s fields or to visit one’s rabbi, and they note that even Satan is not permitted to cross a deep river that would be deemed dangerous to cross for a human being. In any case, we see that the wandering (הִשְׁטוֹטְטוּת) of Satan was in order to achieve a well-defined mission, and not a leisurely saunter and wandering about.
Likewise, when Scripture says in relation to the manna that the people שָׁטוּ and gathered it (Numbers 11:8), they were going out to bring in manna for an immediate meal, not to saunter about with no purpose. [Although Rashi to the verse does interpret שָׁטוּ as an expression of טִיוּל (leisurely saunter), Gevurot Ari to Yoma 75a already notes that Rashi’s definition is difficult to reconcile with the Sages’ exposition of the verse, for they indicate there that it refers to the collection of manna by the wicked among them — for whom G-d made the manna more difficult to find. And indeed, in his comments on that Gemara, Rashi himself explains that the term שָׁטוּ implies that they had to roam far afield at great distances from the camp to collect their portions. Hence, we once again find the term referring to a wandering that is both effortful and for a definitive purpose.]
Getting back to the verse in Jeremiah 49:3, וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה בַּגְּדֵרוֹת, Rashi offers a second definition as well: “We can also interpret וְהִתְשׁוֹטַטְנָה as ‘and mock the waste in the sheep pens’ — an expression of scorn, [as in the verse] וַיִבֶז עֵשָׂיו, [which is translated by Onkelos as] וְשָׁט עֵשָׂיו, and Esau disgraced.” Thus, Rashi teaches us two things here: a) that the Scriptural שׁט and the Aramaic שׁט are connected; b) that the root “שׁט” can mean both racing/running and disgrace.
In the context of the latter definition of שׁט, we find that Rashi equates it to the word “שאט” (with an א’ in the middle) in his explanation of the prophet’s warning to the Ammonite enemies of Israel (Ezekiel 25:6), explaining the word שָׁאטְךָ to be an expression of disgrace, and equating it to Onkelos’s translation of the aforementioned וְשָׁט as, he disgraced. However, Rashi also adds a second explanation: “But I say that “שאט” is an expression of “שטף”, or gouluzment (gluttony, avarice) in Old French.”
With respect to the meaning of the term “שטף” that Rashi uses here in a description of the enemies of Israel, we find another example of this word that is also used in the context of war (albeit with respect to battle horses). Commenting on the prophet’s lament that the Jewish people refuse to repent, noting that “they all follow their course like a horse that is שׁוֹטֵף in war” (Jeremiah 8:6), Rashi cites the Old French term ispridin (hastiness, liveliness). Likewise, in his comments to the Talmudic statement that “Barzilai of Gilead was שָׁטוּף in immorality,” Rashi explains that שָׁטוּף is similar in meaning to the aforementioned שׁוֹטֵף in Jeremiah describing a horse, which means “running after and ardently seeking something.”
Thus, Rashi equates the unrestrained, impetuous lust 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 of disgrace and the meaning of 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!
As for the horse’s ardent pursuit of its target, it should be noted that animals and wild beasts have no free will or independent control; they either follow the impulse of their natural inclination, or the will of their master. Its “racing” towards the enemy during war is a result of the “prodding” of its rider, as alluded to by the words of King Solomon (Proverbs 26:3), a whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey. Under the influence of the “whip,” the horse will conduct itself completely in accordance with the will of the one wielding it — be it in its “ardor,” haste, or in “racing.” Under the threat of the whip, the horse will also trample with “scorn” any obstacle in its way. Like the streaming of the river, it will “swamp (יִשְׁטוֹף)” everything in its way without calculations.
Likewise, people who are in constant pursuit of (שְׁטוּפֵי) immorality are subjugated to their evil inclination, which, as stated in the Talmud (BB 16a), is one and the same as Satan. In their minds, he seems like a man with a whip (שׁוֹט) who forces them to conduct themselves in this or that manner, 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 in Shittim, becoming helplessly attached to a pair of abominations — the idolatry of Baal-peor and the immorality of the daughters of Moab. They understood that the name of this location, Shittim (שִׁיטִים), alluded to the pitiful reality of its inhabitants: controlled by the threatening “whip” (שׁוֹט) of Satan that left them helpless to resist, they were forced to choose the “inanities” (שְׁטוּת) of Shittim, “raced” with abandon (שָׁטְפוּ) after sin like a surging river, and “disgraced” the cardinal prohibitions of idolatry and immorality that they were commanded about at Sinai.
However, they forgot that, in actuality, they were not horses, who must obey their masters. On the contrary, we humans are our own masters. It is in our hands to grab hold of the “whip” and subjugate our evil inclination, and to seize the oars and control the direction in which we are heading. G-d has given each of us the permission and power to make our own choices. For the root “שׁט” also alludes to the straight and upright acacia tree (עֵץ הַשִׁטִים), which teaches us that we must always “make a bee-line” to matters of mitzvah, with strength and commitment.
So important is it for us to contemplate and internalize this concept, that G-d chose to instill a reminder for us in the Holy Ark, located in the Holy of Holies, by having it constructed from acacia wood (עֲצֵי שִׁטִים) and covered with gold. In this manner it reminds us of the penitent, who appears to all observers as if he is made of pure gold both inside and out, but who knows in his heart and must constantly remember where and with what he previously stumbled, and must heed the warning of our Sages “not to believe in himself until the day he dies.”
May we merit to indulge in the radiance of the Shechinah (G-d’s Divine Presence) that resides above the golden Ark Cover, which rests on and covers the Ark made of acacia wood.