This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) is Parshat Shemot. It is the first Parsha of the second book of the Torah called Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus. The Parsha contains the famous story of Moshe (Moses) and the Burning Bush.
The story can be found in Shemot Chapter 3. Moshe was shepherding his father-in-law’s (Yitro) sheep. He sees a fire, fire on the mountain. Specifically on a mountain that is referred to by the Torah as “The Mountain of God” (Shemot 3:1) he saw “…a bush that was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed” (Shemot 3:2). Moshe decides to look at this fantastic sight. “…I will turn aside now and look at this great sight” (Shemot 3:3). In a moment Moshe will be having a direct interaction with God. However, even before Moshe realizes that God will be talking to him he understands that something amazing is going to be happening. God sees that Moshe turns to see what is happening and that is when God begins to speak to Moshe (Shemot 3:4). God instructs him not to come any closer and to remove his shoes for he is now on holy ground (Shemot 3:5). What is going on in this moment that would make this ground holy and thus require Moshe to remove his shoes? I would like to suggest that Moshe is having a direct interaction with God and thus the ground became holy due to this encounter and therefore Moshe must remove his shoes.
Why is Moshe required to remove his shoes because he is having a direct interaction with God? In addition, this is not the only time in the Tanach (Bible) where shoes are removed when someone is interacting with God. The idea of not wearing shoes before the Divine goes on throughout the Tanach. 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? I would imagine exactly the opposite—that one would be required to wear shoes in an experience of great sanctity.
According to the Talmud in Megillah 28a, when one prays, one should wear shoes. Is praying not a holy act? In fact, the Rambam in the Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Tephila (The Laws of Prayer) 5:5, says that when praying one should make a point to be dressed properly. How much more so should one be dressed properly when having a direct experience with God? At the very least, one would assume that they should wear their shoes. Therefore, if God instructs Moshe to take off his shoes when having this intense interaction, why is it that we wear shoes when we pray? In order to answer these questions let us examine the places where Halacha (Jewish Law) requires us to not wear shoes:
In the following examples we wear non leather shoes. However, from the perspective of Halacha wearing non leather shoes is synonymous with not wearing shoes at all. (Shulchan Aruch 382:1)
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)
2. Yom Kippur, a day of Teshuvah, Repentance and Kapparah, Atonement. (Shulchan Aruch 614:2)
3. Tisha B’Av, a day that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as a number of other tragedies that have occurred in Jewish history. It is a day of national mourning in Judaism. (Shulchan Aruch 554:16)
In each of these occurrences Halacha obligates us to remove our shoes? What is the common denominator in each of these religious experiences?
When I lost my father Harold Kalb, Tzvi Ben Aryeh vGolda, during Shiva I remember thinking “I’m just not myself.” For a period of time, I somehow lost part of my identity. I could not understand who exactly I was because of the loss of my father. Until that moment I was my father’s son. That was a major part of my identity. Now on a certain level I will always be my father’s son. His memory and what he taught me will be with me forever. However, in terms of the actual living relationship that I once had with him, that is unfortunately over. It therefore challenged my identity. I used to be someone’s son and now I am not. It is the same when anyone experiences loss, you used to be someone’s child, spouse, sibling or God forbid someone’s parent. When that loss occurs you lose an aspect of your identity.
On Yom Kippur we experience a loss of identity as we engage in Teshuvah, repentance. Teshuvah is about struggling for who we are going to be for the New Year.
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 the Shiva and Yom Kippur examples. Therefore on Tisha B’Av we strive as a nation to understand who we are as a people and who we can become.
Shiva, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, the three instances where one is instructed to go without shoes, have in common the loss of our identity. The removal of shoes is a ritual that demonstrates the loss of identity. Therefore it would seem that shoes represent identity. This fits with the Talmud, in Masechet Brachot 60b which explains that during Birchot Hashachar, the morning blessings, one of the blessings, the Bracha, Blessed are You, Lord, God, Ruler of the Universe, who has provided me with all my needs, is meant to accompany putting on one’s shoes in the morning. It would seem that according to the Talmud, shoes represent all of our basic needs. Our basic needs are integral parts of our identity. According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsh, in his commentary on the Siddur (Prayer Book), the morning blessings slowly remind us who we are after waking up from a full night’s sleep. The act of putting on shoes is very much a part of this re- identification process.
What about shoes represents an individual’s identity? Shoes are different from other articles of clothing. Shoes are one of the few articles of clothing that is hard to be handed-
down or lent to someone else. A person’s shoe comes to fit the contour of one’s feet exactly. Every person’s shoes fit them specifically. Once this fit is made, it becomes their shoes and no one else can get that perfect fit from them. Shoes, therefore, have come to represent who a person is. As Forest Gump said “Momma always says there’s an awful lot you could tell about a person by their shoes. Where they’re going. Where they’ve been.”
According to the Sefer Chasidim 454 there is a Minhag, a custom, amongst some Jews that when someone dies you can not give their shoes away, they must be eliminated. I remember when my Grandma Gussie died my father followed this custom with my grandmother’s shoes. When I asked my father why, he answered that you do not give a person’s shoes away, it is as if you are giving them away.
When I visit a Holocaust Concentration Camp, memorial or museum the display that is most emotionally moving to me are the piles of shoes. Either the real ones collected by the Nazis or sculptures. These piles of shoes represent to me the countless identities of Jews and so many others who were murdered by the Nazis.
If shoes carry such a powerful representation of a person’s identity, why does God have Moshe take off his shoes during the episode of the Burning Bush. Does God want Moshe to lose his identity when coming directly before The Divine? Yes, the experience of directly encountering God is so fully encompassing that one loses their identity in the experience. Moshe removing his shoes represents his complete abdication of his identity before God. There is nothing between him and the ground which God defines as holy. What’s more, this is the moment where Moshe will be charged with the mission to help the Jewish people leave Egypt, which will lead to Moshe receiving the Torah. Both of these tasks that God will entrust to Moshe are so awesome that Moshe will be enveloped by these experiences and thus lose his identity. In fact when we think of Moshe these are the two events that define his identity to us. There were many other elements that made up his identity but these are the two events that define him.
Perhaps, one might think that we should never wear shoes when we are engaged in a spiritual experience such as prayer. That one should be shoeless, not only during these intense times of interaction with God, but also during a regular Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), or Maariv (evening) service. Why then does the law state that one must wear shoes while praying?
There is a concept in the Talmud in Pesachim 114a “Tadir veshe’einu tadir, tadir kodem”. Literally, “frequent and infrequent, frequent first”. Whenever one has to do two mitzvot and one is the more frequently or regularly performed mitzvah and the other is the more infrequent and irregular mitzvah, the more frequent and regular mitzvah should be done first and the more infrequent irregular mitzvah is performed second. For example, on Shabbat evening we recite Kiddush. The Kiddush consists of two Brachot, Blessings. One on the wine or grape juice and a second Bracha on the sanctity of Shabbat. We recite the blessing on the wine or grape juice first and the blessing on the sanctity of Shabbat second, because the blessing on the wine or grape juice can be said at almost anytime time or day. Whereas, the Blessing on the sanctity of Shabbat can only be said on Shabbat evening.
Perhaps the same logic can be applied here. Regular prayer that we do everyday requires a deep connection to ourselves and a strong sense of our identities and thus we wear shoes. Whereas the intense experience of a direct encounter with God requires a complete loss of our identity and therefore we must remove our shoes.
I am not sure how many of us today have these direct experiences with God. However, my sense is that the way to prepare ourselves for the possibility of having these types of direct interactions with the Divine is to work on our regular interactions with God through prayer, learning, leading our life in an ethical way and other spiritual experiences where we need to be deeply attuned to our identity and leave our shoes on. Perhaps by doing this one day we will be ready to stand before God shoeless—giving ourselves completely over to the Divine. In the meantime we will have glimpses of this experience on Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av and in a certain way when we sit Shiva, God forbid.
Whether it is regular experiences with God or direct interactions with God, I think we need to keep in mind the way this story opened. Before God spoke to Moshe, before God told Moshe to remove his shoes to prepare him for this extraordinary spiritual experience, the first thing that happened was that Moshe saw the Burning Bush and he choose to look further. When he saw that there was even the possibility of something miraculous happening he chose to learn more. A direct interaction with God came to him because he chose to look. In other words, as the great Robert Hunter wrote “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” I hope and pray that we all strive to look for God “in the strangest of places” and to be blessed with God’s holy light.
This week I used three different songs by two different bands. The first song that was referenced was in the title. The song is called, “Those Shoes” by Eagles. The song is on the album, “The Long Run” which was released in 1979. It was written by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, three superb song writers. The song did not relate so much to what I wrote about this week but I thought the title fit perfectly. There is one line from the song that is relevant though “What you gonna do in those shoes?” The second song is “Fire On The Mountain” by the Grateful Dead. The lyrics are by Robert Hunter, one of the prolific lyricists of the Grateful Dead and it was composed by one of the two fantastic drummers of the Grateful Dead, the amazing Mickey Hart. It is from the album ” Shakedown Street” which was released in 1978. However, the origin of the song “Fire On The Mountain” precedes the ” Shakedown Street” album. In 1976 Mickey Hart released an album called “Diga” which he did with the Diga Rhythm Band. One of the tracks on that album is an instrumental song called “Happiness is Drumming” the lyrics were added latter and the song became known as “Fire On The Mountain.” The song was first performed in concert on March 18 1977 at the Winterland Arena, San Francisco, Ca. It was the last song of the First Set. I used the chorus “Fire, fire on the mountain.” I did not use quotations or identify the source at that point in the article because I did not want to disturb the flow; also I thought all of my fellow Deadheads out there would get a kick out of it this way. I did place it in italics as a hint to others. The last song was also a Grateful Dead song. The quote towards the end of the article by Robert Hunter “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” is from a song called “Scarlet Begonias” from the 1974 album “From The Mars Hotel.” The first time the Grateful Dead performed this song in concert was March 23 1974 at the Cow Palace, Daly City, Ca. It was the seventh song of the First Set. I chose to identify only Robert Hunter and not the Grateful Dead because I felt the article read better that way and to give a secret thrill to the Deadhead community. Jerry Garcia the incredible lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead wrote the music. I was very excited when I was able to work these two songs “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” into the same article. The two songs were very often played together consecutively in concert. In fact, the Grateful Dead would play “Scarlet Begonias” and jam their way into “Fire on the Mountain”. The first time the Grateful Dead played “Fire On The Mountain” was also the first time they played the two songs together. Many Deadheads would refer to this combination as “Scarlet Fire.” This brings back many wonderful memories of my many years following the greatest band in the land. I still love to see many of the splinter bands with various make ups of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead, but it is just not the same.