Exodus – ‘Shemot’: Please remove your shoes

The first encounter with the Almighty by Moshe is one we are all familiar with. Moshe finds himself alone in the desert and noticing an extraordinary phenomena of a Bush burning yet not being consumed by the fire he turns aside to examine this remarkable occurrence. On drawing closer Hashem commands Moshe to remove his shoes because it is “admat kodesh”  hallowed ground.

Rav Yosef Salant raises the question as to what was the significance of Moshe being asked to remove his shoes. He quotes a statement from the siddur of the Shlah that the blessing that we recite every morning at the start of shacharit  service “ Sheasi li kol tzarki”  is a blessing we recite on wearing shoes. King David observed that there is a hierarchical structure to creation with four levels starting with inanimate objects the next level up is foliage a higher level still is animal kingdom and the climax of creation is humans.

Humankind eat and benefit from everything in the world and therefore when a person takes the skin of an animal and makes shoes to tread on with his feet  it symbolises and demonstrates his dominion over the rest of creation. Therefore the blessing of sheasa li kol tzarki is recognition of the fact we as humans should act in a fashion that highlights that we are above all other aspects of creation. By contrast when Moshe was standing in the presence of the Almighty it was a time he was required not to recall dominion over creation but to recognise the need to subjugate himself in the presence of Hashem. It was for that reason Moshe was told to remove his shoes signalling that he would be willing to completely subjugate himself in the eyes of Hashem without any separation.

Rav Salant sees in the wearing and removal of Moshe’s shoes  here two facets to  mankind , on the one hand an awareness that we are expected to  transcend  our physical selves and constantly be vigilant to ensure we do not lower ourselves to act in an animalistic fashion. Secondly to be mindful to remove any vestige of pride or self- worth in the service of Hashem represented by the shoes

Rav Dessler develops this approach further by suggesting that the command to Moshe to remove his shoes hinted to the notion of removing the covering which is hiding your character defects and faults from yourself. Only then says Rav Dessler will the “place you are standing “be “holy ground” and from there you begin your spiritual ascent.

This idea challenges us to strike a balance between recognising the greatness of humankind that should be manifest in the way we act in contrast to the rest of creation, but at the same time we should have a sense of humility and modesty being cognisant that we stand in the presence of the Almighty.

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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