In the final verse of this week's Torah portion, the Israelites arrive at their final station in the desert (Num. 22:1): "Then the Israelites traveled to the Plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho."
Yet the final chapter of next week's portion begins (ibid. 25:1): "Israel settled in the Shittim, and the men began to whore with Moabitesses." (Yes, men can whore; in fact, in the Bible, the verb is more often employed in the masculine than in the feminine.)
Wait, "in the Shittim"? What are they doing there? Lower-cased, shittim are acacia trees, but here it's a place name -- one we've never seen before. We have to skip ahead to the travelogue in Numbers 33 to understand that:
They traveled from the mountains of Abarim, and they camped at the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. And they camped on the plains of Moab along the Jordan from the House of the Wastes to the meadow of the Shittim. (vv. 48-49)After 40 repetitions of the refrain "They traveled from [X], and they camped at [Y]," suddenly we have encampment without departure. The camp of Israel does not move, but the men of Israel do -- to the point of settling in Shittim.
The results of this are catastrophic, as the Israelites begin embracing Shittite culture, in particular the worship of Baal Peor. What makes this Baal so bad? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) explains:
Rav Judah said in Rav's name: A gentile woman once fell sick. She vowed, 'If I recover, I will go and serve every idol in the world.' She recovered, and proceeded to serve all idols. On reaching Peor, she asked its priests, 'How is this worshiped'? They replied, 'People eat beets, drink beer, and then make diarrhea before it.' She replied, 'I would rather fall sick again than serve an idol in such a manner.'However, the men of Israel lack the self-respect of this paganess, so "Israel adhered to Baal Peor, and the Lord's anger raged against Israel."
What follows is a plague that kills tens of thousands of Israelites, then a war of vengeance waged by Israel with even more casualties.
And that's why, when the time comes to decamp from the Plains of Moab, Joshua (2:1-3:1) sends spies "from the Shittim." They go to the house of a whore in Jericho, but the only thing they seek from her is information. In return, they spare her and her family, and the Israelites are able to cross the Jordan to the Promised Land -- with focus and purpose.
But this is not the last time Shittim shows up in Scripture. Joel 4:18 states: "In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord's house and will water the stream of Shittim."
Shittim represents the wild excesses of a young nation -- unruly, unbound, unmoored. The Temple, God's house, symbolizes divine inspiration: peace, tranquility, purity, purpose, justice.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could think about it in that way again?