Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1–6:1
This week, as we begin our reading of the book of Shemot (Exodus), we are introduced to Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jewish People.
Moses’ inaugural prophecy occurred at the site of the burning bush. God spoke to him and informed him of the sacred nature of that location:
“The Almighty called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’”
Some time ago I heard a beautiful dvar Torah by a rabbinical student at a rabbinic conference that I attended on why Moses needed to remove his shoes before assuming the leadership of the Jewish people.
The most common interpretation is that in our travels, shoes (or sandals) can come into contact with all sorts of impurities. Since Moses was in the presence of the Divine, he needed to shed himself of any such contamination. Therefore, he removed his sandals. To this day, there are parallels to this practice in many religions where those who enter their houses of worship are asked to remove their shoes. Even in synagogues that perform the Duchenin – the communal blessings of the kohanim (priests), those who offer the blessings remove their shoes.
The more modern interpretation, with which I was previously unfamiliar, points out that footwear protects us from the elements. While wearing shoes, we can walk over rocks, splinters or small pieces of glass and feel no pain or discomfort. They also protect us from intense heat or cold. By commanding Moses to remove his shoes, God was telling Moses that he needed to be vulnerable and feel the pain that others might experience. This was essential for Moses, who was poised to lead a nation of slaves to freedom. If he was going to serve them fully, he was going to have to feel their pain and empathize with their suffering.
Moses, as you know, ultimately risked his life every time he approached King Pharaoh and demanded that he “let his people go.” Moses’ greatness was found not only in his great prophetic power, but also in his boundless empathy for the people he served. He was a humble servant who, throughout his career, put their well-being ahead of his own.
To be sure, we are not all prophets, but the qualities of empathy and compassion can serve us all well. We can walk unflinchingly in the comfort of our shoes and ignore the suffering of others or, like Moses, we can take off our shoes, empathize with the pain that friends, neighbors or strangers endure, and do our best to help them in their times of need. Certainly the bondage of the Israelites was the most pressing issue during Moses’ lifetime. But to this day, there continue to be many forms of exploitation. Throughout much of the world, there are millions of oppressed workers who receive slave wages and can barely feed their families. Sex trafficking and other forms of misconduct abound, even here in the United States. And we all know that people are denied jobs or wrongfully dismissed due to gender discrimination, ageism, racism and other forms of prejudice. Moses is no longer with us, so it is up to each of us to fight the many injustices in the world.
There is a famous quote: “Never judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” Perhaps it would be every bit as instructive to say, “Never judge someone until you have walked a mile without your shoes!” JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix.