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Torah Commentary
Sh'mot (December 21, 2013)

By Rabbi Rena Y. Rifkin, Coordinator of Faculty
& Family Engagement

MY 14-MONTH-OLD DAUGHTER takes off her socks and shoes a great deal. Most days, she and her socks are on opposite sides of the crib by the end of her nap. When she’s bored in her stroller on walks, we have to be quick and grab her footwear before it falls onto the city sidewalk. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to pick out matching socks and put on her shoes every day. It seems like an exercise in futility for me...unless she is just preparing to approach the Burning Bush like Moses in Parashat Sh’mot.

As we begin the second book of Torah, we are introduced to Moses, and we see him transition from the baby of a Hebrew slave to a son of Pharaoh to a shepherd in the wildness and, finally, to a prophet and the leader of God’s chosen people. In Exodus 3, Moses ascends the mountain and discovers a bush that burns but is not consumed by the fire. The voice of God comes from that burning bush, calls out to Moses and instructs him to remove his shoes before coming closer because “the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Various biblical scholars and commentators explain to us that in Near East civilizations, the custom of removing one’s footwear was a sign of respect and humility, similar to removing your hat before singing the national anthem at a sporting event. It makes sense that Moses would remove his sandals, as God is certainly an entity to which anyone would want to show respect and humility. Yet, it is not Moses who thinks to remove his sandals. It is God who asks Moses to perform this act. And God declares, it is because the land is holy.

We begin prayer services with a nigun — an opening melody to prepare ourselves for our conversations with God. Some Jews put on ritual garb, such as a yarmulke or tallit, in order to change their physicality before prayer. When we want to have a deep spiritual moment, we often close our eyes. Holiness takes preparation. It takes a sense of physical, emotional and spiritual readiness. There is no switch to flip. We must transition.

God tells Moses to take off his sandals so that he can ready himself. By removing his shoes, Moses makes a small physical change to mark the moment and to ready himself for a larger spiritual change. He shows respect for the moment, as well as humility for the place and for the Divine Being before whom he is about to stand. And he opens himself up for a significant and holy experience.

We hope that the world we live in is a holy one…that every place, every person and every moment can be holy. However, in our hurried lives, we rarely prepare for holiness. We pass by it all too often on our way to the next meeting, the next dinner, the next thing we have to do. Holiness is all around us, but we have to stop and take off our shoes.

I am skeptical that a 14-month-old can understand the concept of “stop and smell the roses,” but I do know that my daughter wants to experience everything. She is exploring the world. Every person, place and thing is something to be examined and scrutinized. She touches everything and experiences everything. Maybe she takes her shoes off to explore her toes and see what the world underneath feels like it. Or maybe she does it because she wants every moment to be a holy one.

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