We read in the Parsha (Torah portion) the following:
They shall make an ark of acacia wood ( Atzei Shittim), two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.. And you shall overlay it with pure gold; from inside and from outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make upon it a golden crown all around.( Exodus 25:10-11)
The people were being commanded to place the most precious item in the world into this vessel they were to create. The very words of G-d carved into stone were to be placed into an ark made of acacia wood lined with gold. On the one hand the menorah representing G-d’s light was to be made of pure gold (ibid 25:31) and on the other these precious tablets were to be placed in an ark made of wood that was simply lined with gold.
Furthermore the choice of using Atzei Shittim seemed to have been predestined and predetermined. The midrash ( quoted by Rashi ibid 25:5) tells us that that one of the first things the Patriarch Yaacov did when he entered Egypt was to plant Shittim trees for use in the Tabernacle over 200 years later. The use of this specific type of wood was clearly not to be a choice of happenstance.
More perplexing is the fact that this type of tree called Atzei Shittim whispers of another more difficult chapter in the history of this newly formed people”
“Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav . They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods.”( Numbers 25:1-2)
The area and the fountain it contained were called Shittim because of the abundance of Shittim trees in the area. The Midrash Rabba declares “the fountain of Shittim was a place of harlotry and it was the one that watered Sodom.” It was that sense of moral lowness that leads to the idol worship. Rabbi Kook describes the process of idolatry that occurred in Shittim and the idolatry of Peor in the following way .
“The source of idolatry’s appeal is in fact a holy one – an impassioned desire for closeness to God. Ignorance and moral turpitude, however, prevent this closeness, blocking the divine light from the soul. … Instead of correcting one’s flaws, these spiritual yearnings are distorted into cravings for idolatry. The unholy alliance of spiritual yearnings together with immoral and decadent behavior produces the intrinsic foulness of idolatry. “( Shemoneh Kvatzim)
One is left wondering why it was these specific trees from this specific location that were used to create the ark.
Our sages teach that G-d always “prepares the remedy before the illness.” The use of the Atzei Shittim was in fact the cure for the moral failures of the people in Shittim.
We have a way of losing our way when we begin to feel unworthy and impure. Bilaam the prophet of the nations realized that he could not curse the people of Israel Instead at Shittim he tried to debase them into a sense of moral unworthiness and in that lowered state they fell into idolatry.
The ark of the covenant and the tabernacle was going to be a constant reminder of G-d resting within their midst. The ark built of those same trees would reinforce the understanding that moral turpitude was not a function of trees, or springs of water but a matter of choice.The use of the same wood would be a tikkun ( a spiritual repairing) of the sins related to these trees.
The verse in the book of Numbers (25:1) reads “And Israel resided (vayeishev) in Shittim” The Gemara in Sanhedrin (106a) asserts that every time the word vayeishev is used in Tanach it foretells of difficulty and pain. VaYeshev usually refers to a lack of growth and movement. They become used to where they were both spiritually and physically. A person can never remain standing and thereby become stuck or stagnant. Either he is progressing or he ends up regressing.
The people and the land of Israel in our time are undergoing the same dilemma and battle. There are those amongst our people who have lost the vision to grow and progress. Generations of exile mentality has taken its toll. Yet there are others that hear the call of destiny and struggle forward in answer to that call.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mali in his book “Orot Mitzion” points to the Midrash Rabba’s deeper connection. The prophets Zechariah, Joel and Ezekiel describe of the healing waters coming from the Temple mount and healing the bitter waters ” Then said he unto me: ‘These waters issue forth toward the eastern region, and shall go down into the Aravah; and when they shall enter into the sea, into the sea of the putrid waters, the waters shall be healed(Ezekiel 47:8)
It is in the merit of those that will not “settle” but will constantly move forward and grow, that the prophecy of Joel regarding this healing river of water will also be fulfilled. Waters that will heal the plague of unworthiness experienced at Shittim
“And a fountain shall come forth of the house of G-d, and shall water the valley of Shittim.” (Joel 4:18):