This Torah portion addresses a quintessential experience in our collective Jewish history. It is a powerful scenario of a reluctant leader and of God’s presence in our lives. It is an example of a different form of prayer. Humility and responsibility. The compassionate, Divine voice and God’s sparks of holiness. It is a volley between the possible and the hesitation of the human soul.
Moses is tending the flock in the wilderness when:
“An angel of God appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush … the bush was aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And God said, ‘Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.’ … And Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God.”
What is the significance of removing one’s shoes while on holy ground? Moses is in the desert! The ground may be uneven. Surely, there are rocks and thorns. Yet shoes are a layer between our feet and the ground. Being barefoot outside brings you closer to the elements and all that nature has to offer. It literally grounds you.
The Hasidic Rebbe, the “Ollalot Ephraim,” wrote:
“The world beneath our feet is always filled with small stones and debris. When we wear shoes, we easily walk upon all sorts of small things which stand in our way; in fact, we barely notice them. But when we walk barefoot, we feel every single stone and pebble, every thorn and every thistle, every last rock hurts us. And this then is the hinted meaning of the text: To Moses, the preeminent leader of the people Israel, God said: ‘Shal na’alekha’ ‘take off your shoes,’ meaning the leader of each and every generation needs to be aware of every barrier, every experience of suffering that is placed upon the way. A leader must feel the pain of the people and must be sensitive to their every suffering.”
Is this a beginning or an end for Moses? Is it an end to his solitude? His simple days grazing the sheep must have been a sharp contrast to the life he had in the palace. In Midian, he built a life far from his former reality. Was the moment he removed his sandals the end of the life he had finally chosen for himself?
Or was this a beginning, a start of a new journey for himself and the Israelite community? Was this an awakening of a soul and a purpose? Was this his personal struggle to find himself and God? Had Moses ever been on sacred ground before he answered “heneni?” Do we have to verbalize the moment it happens for it to be real? Was the space holy or was it sacred because of the encounter with God? And what IS holiness?
Rabbi Bradley Artson in “The Bedside Torah” wrote that “The great Ga’on, Saadia, was one of the earliest to recognize that holiness is not intrinsic to any one particular site; rather, holiness is the result of what we do, and the meaning we can focus into a particular moment or special ritual on that site. In commenting on the words ‘holy ground,’ Saadia explains that the phrase means ‘made holy.’ The sanctity of that site derives from what God and Moses do there, not from the nature of the place itself.”
Does God need us to call a space holy to encounter the Divine Being? Why do we have the need to identify certain objects as holy? And how can we transform the mundane into holy? And isn’t identifying an object or space as holy akin to calling a relationship, “I-THOU” and thereby automatically making it “I-IT?”
What is it about removing one’s shoes on sacred space? Is it a moment of recognition? Is it about stepping away from the dust and grime of the world around us? Is the very act of removing one’s footwear the holy moment? Is this akin to having to mark beginnings and endings? Why the need to label? Is it for our own purpose or for those around us? Do we mentally have to remind ourselves that we are in another sphere? We must now act differently or mark the time, so we can look back at it with fondness or anxiety.
Heneni. God, the God of all of my ancestors, I am present.
Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.