Devarim/Shabbat Chazon: Kick Your Shoes Off

The beginning of this week’s Parsha (Torah portion), Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy), makes reference to Chorev which is where Mount Sinai is located, where the receiving of the Torah occurred (Ramban on Devarim 1:2). Rashi points out on Shemot 1:1 that the location of Mount Sinai and the location of the Burning Bush were the same exact place. During the story of the Burning Bush, Moshe (Moses) is told by God to remove his shoes; and also, interestingly, this Saturday night many Jews throughout the world will remove their shoes. Why?

This Saturday night is Tisha B’Av, the day that we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as a number of other tragedies in Jewish history. The removal of shoes on Tisha B’Av is a sign of mourning (Shulchan Aruch 554:16). However, could there be more to it than just that?

To answer this question, let us examine the story of Moshe and the Burning Bush, in Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 3. Moshe is shepherding his father-in-law’s (Yitro) sheep when he sees a fire on the mountain that is referred to by the Torah as “The Mountain of God” (Shemot 3:1): he sees “…a bush that was burning in the fire, but the bush was not consumed” (Shemot 3:2). As Moshe turns to look, understanding that he is seeing something amazing, God begins to speak to him (Shemot 3:4), instructing him not to come any closer and to remove his shoes, for he is now on holy ground (Shemot 3:5).

I would like to suggest that it is Moshe’s direct interaction with God that makes the ground holy in this moment, and thus the reason for the removal of his shoes. The idea of not wearing shoes before the Divine goes on throughout the Tanach (Bible). In the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and latter on in the Beit Hamikdash (The Temple), the Kohanim (Priests) when performing many of their tasks are also required to remove their shoes.

The question is, why? What is it about holiness that makes it necessary to remove one’s shoes? How can it be that the removal of shoes is both something that is done in moments of great spirituality and at moments of commemoration of great tragedy like Tisha B’Av? According to the Talmud in Megillah 28a, when one prays, one should wear shoes. Yet praying is a holy act (as was Moshe’s interaction with God). It seems to be a contradiction, but it may help to examine some other places where Halacha (Jewish Law) requires us to not wear shoes (or more technically, non-leather shoes, but from the perspective of Halacha the two are synonymous, Shulchan Aruch 382:1):

– During Shiva, the seven day mourning period for the death of a relative who you are required to mourn beginning immediately after burial. (Shulchan Aruch 375:1)

– Yom Kippur, a day of Teshuvah, Repentance and Kapparah, Atonement. (Shulchan Aruch 614:2)

What is the common denominator in each of these religious experiences?

When I lost my father Harold Kalb, Tzvi Ben Aryeh vGolda, may his righteous memory be a blessing to us all, during Shiva I remember thinking, “I’m just not myself.” Until that moment, I was my father’s son. That was a major part of my identity. Now that identity had been lost. On a certain level I will, of course, always be my father’s son. His memory and what he taught me will be with me forever. However, the actual, living relationship was gone, and therefore my identity had been changed.

On Yom Kippur, we experience a similar struggle with our identity as we engage in Teshuvah, repentance. Teshuvah is about struggling with who we are going to be for the New Year.

Now let us return to Tisha B’Av. It is a day where we experience the communal loss of the Temples and the tragic loss of so many of our people. This loss also challenges our identity, but as a nation, not just as an individuals as with Shiva and Yom Kippur. On Tisha B’Av, we strive as a nation to understand who we are as a people, and who we can become.

This year on Tisha B’Av, I bless us all that the experience of removing our shoes transforms our identities, so that we can all help to transform the identity of the entire Jewish people.

This week’s title “ Kick your shoes off” is a phrase taken from the song ” I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” by Bob Dylan released as part of the John Wesley Harding album in December of 1967. John Wesley Harding was Bob Dylan’s eighth studio album. It was produced by Bob Johnston. The album is significant in that it marked a return to acoustic music for Bob Dylan after recording three electric albums that were more oriented towards rock and roll than folk music.