When Moses meets God for the first time, he encounters the Divine presence in a lowly bush at the foot of a mountain near Midian where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. The Sages see great significance in God appearing to Moses from within an unnoticeable piece of dry desert brush and use the image to point out that God may be found everywhere, within every aspect of the world around us, within the soul of every living thing. This Divine Bush was itself a miracle, as it was on fire yet not consumed, an oddity that draws the attention of Moses.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.
God calls Moses to service from within the bush. God instructs Moses to keep his distance, presumably either for his own protection against the overwhelming power of the Divine, or because God wishes to reinforce the idea that human beings cannot occupy the same space as He does. The Divine call, though is accompanied by an additional instruction that seems strange. Moses must remove his shoes, apparently as an affirmation that the ground on which he is standing is holy.
And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
Muslims remove their shoes before entering a Mosque (indeed, all visitors to a Mosque must remove their shoes). This is likely done to create a boundary between the outside world, which is often filled with dirt and grime, and the prayer space. And the Japanese, as well as some Europeans, remove their shoes before entering their homes, a practice that is meant to keep one’s living space clean and pure. Our passage in this week’s parasha, Shemot, gives us a reason for God’s command to Moses to remove his shoes, namely that wearing shoes would somehow violate the holiness of the environment. But in what way are shoes an obstacle to holiness?
First, it can be said that because they are manmade, shoes are an obstacle to holiness. We distance ourselves from God when we tip the balance from that which is natural to that which is artificial. It’s true that the things we make are, in some way, a result of the Divine gifts with which we have been endowed. Nothing that is created is truly manmade, for the materials and talent used to create things ultimately emanate from God. But manmade things give human beings a sense that our own power and status govern the world. It could be argued that God told Moses to remove his shoes because they were manmade, and manmade things prevent us from sensing that we are in the presence of God. From this idea we might learn that is possible to sense God’s presence, God’s holiness, by connecting to things that are natural in our world.
It could also be said that God commanded Moses to remove his shoes so that he would feel discomfort when he walked on the ground. Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace and enjoyed a pampered, sheltered life. He wished to leave that environment and see the suffering of his people. Did he want to observe their enslavement, gather facts and become informed? Or did he wish to experience their enslavement? Only by feeling a small sampling of what the Israelite slaves felt could he summon the necessary passion and zeal to be God’s ambassador for freedom. In short, Moses had to know suffering himself before he could presume to represent the cause of the slaves to the Pharaoh. And God helped him, in a small way, to feel the sting of slavery by making him walk on the ground barefoot. From this we might learn that we each must find a way to better understand the sting and pain of poverty, of homelessness and of hunger in order to summon the passion and commitment required to remedy these plaques.
Moses was told to remove his shoes because they were an obstacle to holiness. Apparently, they symbolized being distanced from experiencing and enjoying the natural world. And they symbolically sheltered him from the pain and suffering of slavery.
That’s something to think about the next time you put on a comfortable pair of shoes.
As a postscript to this week’s post, I ask you to visit the webpage of Masorti Olami and consider donating to their emergency campaign in support of synagogues in France. Our brothers and sisters in France were already feeling vulnerable, and circumstances have only become more complicated in the wake of yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
CLICK HERE to be directed to Masorti Olami’s webpage.