In the opening of this week’s parsha, we encounter G-d’s praise of Pinchas for his extra-judicial killing of Zimri and Kozbi. G-d praises Pinchas effusively, and suggests that his actions even prevented G-d’s destruction of Am Yisrael. What remains elusive, however, is any hint regarding the cause of Bnei Yisrael’s sin at this particular juncture. Two parshiyot ago, at the end of Parshat Chukat, the nation successfully defeats the armies of Cheshbon and Bashan- Bnei Yisrael appear on a high, primed for entry into Eretz Yisrael. Last week’s parsha, the story of Bilaam and Balak, occurs outside the purview of the nation, and therefore doesn’t seem to impact their mindset. Yet at the end of Parshat Balak, Bnei Yisrael suddenly begin a large-scale descent towards sin- committing adultery with the women of Moav/Midian as well as serving avodah zara.
What was the impetus for the nation’s sudden decline- why now? A number of suggestions are made by the commentaries, but I would like to share the suggestions of the Ohr HaChaim and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Both suggest that the answer to our question can be found in a seemingly innocuous statement made by the Torah at the beginning of this entire episode. The Torah opens the narrative of Bnai Yisrael’s sin with the words: “And Yisrael settled in Shittim, and the nation began to commit adultery with the women of Moab”. By explicitly mentioning where Bnei Yisrael “settled” before they sinned, these commentaries explain, the Torah also hints to the cause of their downfall. The Ohr Hachaim points out that the root of the word “Shittim” means “to travel and explore”. Following their successful victories against the nations of Cheshbon and Bashan, many members of the nation decided to take a break, and left the camp of Am Yisrael to travel and explore the areas around them. This opened them up to the challenge of outside influences, ultimately leading to their sin. Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on the Torah, gives a similar but slightly different explanation- he suggests that the name “Shittim” references an actual place mentioned in Sefer Micha, a place that was a “woody shady region”. Rav Hirsch explains: “After the victorious fight against Sihon and Og, rich with their booty, Israel settled down to a comfortable enjoyable rest…it was a wooded, shady region which offered a very welcome relaxation after the long wandering in the burning sun of the desert.” It was this desire for relaxation and enjoyable rest that ultimately caused Am Yisrael to “break away from the moral faithfulness to duty to which they kept themselves hitherto” and sent them into a downward spiral into sin.
While the Ohr HaChaim and Rav Hirsch differ in the particular details, the overall message is the same. At this point in time, Am Yisrael had just enjoyed two major victories, and were looking forward to the opportunity to take a break and enjoy themselves- to step out of their regular schedule. And while that desire may have been understandable, the new circumstances and reality also opened the Jewish nation to new challenges and struggles that they were not prepared for- ultimately resulting in their falling to temptation.
In our day to day lives, we often establish a certain routine- and within that established routine, we strive to make sure that proper time is set aside for those things that are important to us- family, Torah study, spiritual growth. While there may be specific times where we fail to maintain all that we strive to accomplish, once a routine is established, we are generally successful at sticking to it, and to prioritizing the values that have been incorporated into that routine. Over time, we are better able to assess and recognize the difficulties and points of friction within this daily routine- and work hard to navigate through them in the best way that we can.
The big challenge occurs, however, when we are taken out of our routine- a family vacation, the Chagim, the summer. Most often, these changes are welcome, and at times even extremely important. We may look forward to these experiences for months. We all need time to take a break from our daily lives- to recharge, re-energize, enjoy ourselves, and relax. At the same time, a singular challenge arrives with these “extracurricular” moments- as, during them, we can no longer rely on our routine, or on our habits, to ensure that we keep to our value system and act accordingly. A change in schedule, environment, and numerous other factors can lead to unique challenges that we are not accustomed to, or typically prepared for. In addition, sometimes the overall atmosphere and mindset during vacation is one of freedom and loosening of restrictions. We must therefore be extra vigilant; to make every attempt to identify the pitfalls in advance and to prepare ourselves for them. In addition, we must be extra-sensitive to our standards and values, and make sure that even during these “vacation” moments, we are true to who we are and to what we believe in.
As we begin another summer season- one that we all deserve after an intense couple of years of isolation, social distancing, and overall anxiety- it is incumbent upon us to remember this message both for ourselves and our children. For many of us and our children, the summer is the highlight of our year- an opportunity to spend more time with family and friends, to go on vacation, to enjoy ourselves and to relax. And most often, it is a well-deserved opportunity; crucial for our mental health and happiness. At the same time, the summer vacation- like all breaks from routine-presents certain challenges. For some of us , summertime may tempt us to lessen our commitment to tefillah, Torah study, and overall spiritual growth; or we may be enticed to participate in specific activities that we would normally not get involved in. For our children, the lack of a basic school structure may create a environment in which they are not davening, learning, or growing spiritually or educationally during these summer months. And we may tend to be laxer about the types of things we allow our kids to do during this vacation period, as well. Specifically for teenage and pre-teenage children, the summer months can sometimes be associated with various types of activities that during the year we would never normally allow our children to take part in- but they we tend to allow it during the summer. As responsible parents, we must not take a passive and laissez-faire attitude towards all of this. We must be thoughtful about the values that are important to us, and ensure that even during this extended vacation, both we, and our children, remain committed to those values. Particularly with regards to our children, we must be sure to fill in any educational and religious gaps that may exist due to the lack of structure- and not allow this time to simply become a “free for all”.
We all, as parents and adults, have religious standards and values that we believe in setting for ourselves and our children. These ideals and principles form the backbone of our religious identity- and we strive to maintain them throughout our daily lives. The lesson we learn from Bnei Yisrael at Shittim is that, while it is always a struggle to stick to our ideals, it is particularly challenging to do so when we move outside our routine; when we are suddenly faced with new and often unfamiliar challenges. The more aware we are of these challenges in advance, and the more we plan for the moments of their appearance- the better equipped we will be to help ourselves, and our children.