June 12, 2024
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June 12, 2024
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Our parsha opens with God’s effusive praise of Pinchas for his extra-judicial killing of Zimri and Kozbi. What remains elusive, however, is any hint regarding the cause of Bnei Yisrael’s sin at this particular juncture. Parshat Chukat concludes with the nation successfully defeating the armies of Cheshbon and Bashan. Bnei Yisrael appear on a high, primed for entry into Eretz Yisrael. The next story, of Bilaam and Balak, occurs outside the purview of the nation, and therefore doesn’t impact their mindset. Yet at the end of Parshat Balak, Bnei Yisrael suddenly begin a descent toward sin—committing adultery, as well as avodah zara.

What caused the nation’s sudden decline—why now? The Ohr HaChaim and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggest that the answer is found in the opening words to the narrative of Bnei Yisrael’s sin: “And Yisrael settled in Shittim, and the nation began to commit adultery…” By mentioning where Bnei Yisrael “settled” before sinning, the Torah also hints to the cause of their downfall. The Ohr Hachaim notes that the root of the word “Shittim” means “to explore.” Following their victories against Cheshbon and Bashan, members of Am Yisrael took a break, leaving the Jewish camp to explore the areas around them—opening them up to outside influences, ultimately leading to their sin. Rav Hirsch gives a slightly different explanation. He suggests that the name “Shittim” references a place in Sefer Micha, a “woody, shady region.” Rav Hirsch explains: “After the victorious fight against Sichon and Og, rich with their booty, Israel settled down to a comfortable, enjoyable rest…a wooded, shady region that offered a very welcome relaxation after the long wandering in the burning sun of the desert.” This 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.

According to both commentators, the message is the same. Following major victories, the Jewish nation looked forward to a break from their routine, and to enjoying themselves. And while that may have been understandable, these new circumstances also opened them to new challenges that they weren’t prepared for—resulting in their falling to temptation.

In our daily lives, we establish a routine—and within that established routine, we make sure to set aside time for the things important to us: family, Torah study, spiritual growth. While we may sometimes fail to accomplish everything, we are generally successful at sticking to our routine and to prioritizing the values incorporated into that routine. We also become skilled at assessing the difficulties and challenges within our routine—and navigate them as best we can.

The big challenge develops, however, when we are taken out of our routine: a family vacation, the chagim, the summertime. These changes are often welcome, and even extremely important—a time to recharge and relax. At the same time, a singular challenge arrives with these moments—as we can no longer rely on routine and habit to ensure that we keep to our value system. A change in schedule, environment and other factors can lead to unique challenges that we aren’t 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 identify the pitfalls in advance and to prepare for them. We must also be extra-sensitive to our standards and values and ensure that even during these times we are true to ourselves and to what we believe in.

As we begin another summer season, as parents it’s important to remember this message. For many of us and our children, summer is the highlight of our year—an opportunity to spend time with family/friends, take vacation and relax. Most often, it’s a well-deserved opportunity, crucial for our mental health and happiness. Yet the summer vacation—like all breaks from routine—presents certain challenges. The lack of structure may tempt us to lessen our commitment to tefillah, Torah study and spiritual growth, or the overall atmosphere may entice us to participate in activities that we’d normally not participate in. For our children, the lack of school structure may create an atmosphere in which they, too, aren’t davening, learning or growing spiritually. Many parents also tend to be more lenient about the things they let their children do over the summer. As responsible parents, we mustn’t take a passive and laissez-faire attitude toward all of this. We must be thoughtful about the values that are important to us and ensure that even during this extended vacation we and our children remain committed to those values. By doing so, we show our children that even during a lack of routine one can stay committed—and can even grow in ways not possible during our regular routine.

We all have religious standards and values that we set for ourselves and our children—and we strive to maintain them throughout our daily lives. The lesson from Bnei Yisrael at Shittim is that while it’s always a struggle to maintain your ideals, it’s particularly challenging to do so when exiting our routine, as we are suddenly faced with often unfamiliar challenges. The more aware we are of these challenges in advance, and the more we plan for them, the better equipped we’ll be to help ourselves and our children.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!


Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at [email protected].

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