G-d observes that “man’s inclinations are toward evil.” And it is true that, in a state of nature (as seen in the Flood generation), man becomes the Alpha Predator, defining Right as Might. Those who are powerful revel in their animalistic urges: rage, lust, the desire to show dominance over those less powerful.
The Torah solution is to direct mankind to cover and block the animal within us. We layer on all the trappings of a holy society: modest clothing, formal manners, and consideration for others. We strive to be more than just the sum of our body parts.
Yet there is no doubt that our natural inclinations are toward satisfying animal instincts, most prominently promiscuity and unfaithfulness. There is a specific word for adultery in the text: שְׂטֶ֥ה. It appears twice in the Torah:
וְאַ֗תְּ כִּ֥י שָׂטִ֛ית תַּ֥חַת אִישֵׁ֖ךְ וְכִ֣י נִטְמֵ֑את וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אִ֥ישׁ בָּךְ֙ אֶת־שְׁכָבְתּ֔וֹ מִֽבַּלְעֲדֵ֖י אִישֵֽׁךְ׃
But if you have gone astray while living in your husband’s household and have defiled yourself, if any party other than your husband has had carnal relations with you”
זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הַקְּנָאֹ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּשְׂטֶ֥ה אִשָּׁ֛ה תַּ֥חַת אִישָׁ֖הּ וְנִטְמָֽאָה׃
This is the ritual in cases of jealousy, when a woman goes astray while living in her husband’s household, and defiles herself
It is an odd word, because this word, שְׂטֶ֥ה, is only used in two ways in the text: the word for adultery, and the name of a wood!
Not just any wood, either. Sheeteem, acacia, is specified as the wood used in the tabernacle! But why is everything made of wood specified as “acacia” in the text? Why not merely say “make it out of wood.”?
I think the answer ties together beautifully: we know the tabernacle is there to guide the people toward holiness. And while much of the tabernacle is made of acacia wood, none of that wood was visible. Indeed, any visible tree or wood was explicitly forbidden from being in the tabernacle. Everything that was made of wood was in turn covered in either copper, silver, or gold.
I think the tabernacle reflects us! We are, in part, animals. We seek crookedness, indulging our animal natures and passions. We are tempted by evil.
But the Torah is telling us, by naming the wood as the wood connected to adultery, that we cover that element of ourselves. That it is OK that we recognize how we are made, as long as we also recognize the obligation to cover and cloak our animal natures in the stuff of civilization: the most refined and processed materials known to the ancient world. In order to serve G-d, we cover our nature with artifice.
There is even a natural component to this. If you look at images of acacia trees in the Sinai you’ll notice that they were not straight and beautiful trunks like cedars. Instead, they are twisted and crooked. Both in word and in physical appearance, acacia represent the natural inclinations of man, the desire to go astray. But in G-d’s house, we cover nakedness of all kinds. The human body is that of a hairless ape – and so we dress it, and cloak its urges in manners and gentility and all the trappings of a holy society. We always aim to be better!
[an @iwe and @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]