It's The Shoes
Have you ever gone to someone’s home and been asked to remove your shoes before coming in? Have you visited a mosque or Buddhist temple where prayer is recited without shoes? What’s wrong with shoes? Why are we being asked to take them off?
In Judaism, we find the exact opposite. We are taught that one may not pray without shoes. In fact, the only time we are supposed to officially remove our shoes is when we are mourners in a Shiva house.
It is all that more perplexing then when we read about Moses’ encounter with God in front of the burning bush. As Moses approaches the burning bush, God calls out and says: “Do not come closer, remove your sandals from your feet.“ It goes on to say “for the ground on which you stand is holy”. This tradition of removing shoes in holy places doesn’t catch on in Judaism. The kohanim, the priests in the Temple, wore shoes during the rituals and rites. People don’t remove their shoes when visiting the Kotel. We wear shoes in the synagogue.
So why was Moses commanded to remove his shoes at that holy spot? It is normally understood by the rabbis to be because our shoes often pick up dirt and contaminants, gross things from the ground. Removing them allows us to be in the holy place in a state of purity.
My colleague, Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky shares a different understanding. It is really about empathy. When we wear shoes, they protect us from the elements. We are protected from the hot ground in the summer and the freezing snow and ice in the winter. Shoes allow us to walk over stones and glass and other potentially harmful things. They allow us to meander through our travels in comfort and protection.
When we walk with no shoes it makes us vulnerable to the elements. Maybe, what God was telling Moses was, take off your shoes so you can feel a sense of vulnerability. If you are going to be the one to lead the slaves to freedom, you must be able to empathize with them. You, who grew up in luxury in Pharaohs palace, must begin to feel empathy for the very people you will lead out of Egypt. Only someone who can understand the pain of others can truly help lead them.
What are the things that we do in our daily lives to comprehend the plight of the vulnerable in our society? It is only when we have a realization of their troubles that we can truly help them.