Parashat Shelah: Satan and the Summer Months
The Torah in Parashat Shelah tells the distressing story of the spies, who were sent to see Eretz Yisrael and then convinced the people that they would be unable to conquer the land. Curiously, the Torah tells us that the spies were sent to Eretz Yisrael during the time of “Bikureh Anabim” – when the grapes began to ripen. This occurs in the summertime, and Hazal indeed tell us that the spies left on the 29th of Sivan, and returned forty days later, on the 8th of Ab.
The question arises, why is this information significant? How does it add to our understanding of this tragic story?
The Midrash Pelia – a compendium of cryptic comments by our Sages on the Humash – explains that the timing of the scouts’ mission is the reason why it failed. The mission ended in tragedy because it took place during the period of “Bikureh Anabim.”
The great Kabbalist Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli, who authored a commentary to the Midrash Pelia, explains that while the Satan always poses a threat to the Jewish People, its power increases during specific times of the year, including the two summer months – Tammuz and Ab. Indeed, as we know, many calamities befell the Jewish Nation during these months, such as the destruction of both Bateh Mikdash. The Hebrew word “Anabim” is spelled “Ayin,” “Nun,” “Bet,” “Mem,” and the letters preceding these four letters are “Samech,” “Mem,” “Alef” and “Lamed” – which spell the name by which the Satan is called (“Sama-el”). (In truth, the word “Anabim” is written also with the letter “Yod,” but according to Kabbalistic tradition, the word is written in the “heavenly Torah” without a “Yod”; this subject requires a fuller discussion in a separate context.) On this basis, Rav Shimshon explains, we can understand the Midrash’s remark. The phrase “Bikureh Anabim” may be read to mean, “that which precedes ‘Anabim.’” The Midrash is telling us that this was a time when the Satan is given special power, and thus our evil inclination is particularly strong. Hence, the timing of this expedition is the cause of its failure, as the scouts were especially prone to succumbing to their Yeser Ha’ra (evil inclination).
This notion, that the Satan has special power during the summer months, is plainly visible even in our day. The months of Tammuz and Ab generally fall during the months of July and August, which we instinctively associate with a “loose” atmosphere, and when we are all especially prone to relaxing our religious standards. This is also the time of year when modest dress becomes a particularly difficult challenge in light of the hot weather and generally laid-back atmosphere. Not coincidentally, our schools and yeshivot close down during these months, and students are left without their ordinary framework of Torah study and outside the Torah environment in which they spend their days throughout the rest of the year. All this proves the accuracy of Rav Shimshon of Astropoli’s depiction of the Satan’s unique strength during Tammuz and Ab.
Moshe told the spies before they left, “Ve’hithazaktem” – “You shall be strong.” We need to be especially strong and vigilant during this time of year to maintain our religious standards and not relax our commitment to Halacha. Certainly, we are all entitled to a relaxing vacation, which often proves valuable and vitally important for our physical and emotional wellbeing. At the same time, however, especially because of the relaxed, laid-back environment of summer, we need to take extra special care and, as Moshe instructed, to “be strong” in maintaining proper Torah standards. Recognizing the special power given to the Satan during the summer months, let us redouble our efforts to avoid improper behavior and remain faithful to our values even as we enjoy a well-deserved period of relaxation.