By Rebbetzin Lauren Levin
We see how quickly things can turn in Parshat Shemot. The Joseph era is gone and forgotten, and the Jews are soon perceived as a problem. There follows their oppression and servitude, until a child is born and grows up who G-d tasks with leading them to emancipation.
It is the scene of Moses at the burning bush which is a segue to all that is to follow. The icon of the bush burning yet not being consumed is a powerful one. It pays testimony to the resilience of the Jewish people as well as marking the moment G-d chooses a leader, and the moment the leader has to choose the mission.
Moses, far away from the Jewish people, having started a new life as a shepherd in Midian, stops to look at the fire. He is initially concerned at what looks like a bushfire. It is then that G-d addresses him:
The L-rd saw that he had turned to see, and G-d called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am!” And He said, “Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil.”
Why was Moses commanded to take his shoes off at this moment?
There is one other occasion in the Bible where this happens. Joshua, having just led the people into the land of Israel, is approached by an angel. He is not clear who this person is, and asks him if he is friend or foe. The angel replies:
“And he said, No, but I am the captain of the host of the L-rd; I have now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and prostrated himself, and said to him, What does my lord say to his servant? And the captain of the L-rd’s host said to Joshua, Remove your shoe from your foot; for the place upon which you stand is holy. (5:14-15)
In both narratives, this revelation comes just before embarking on an important task for the Jewish people. With Moses, it marks his appointment as the leader, and with Joshua he is about to begin the conquest of the land of Israel. Yet with Moses, this is the first time that we know of G-d appearing to him. He is taken totally by surprise and needs to be guided through it. Joshua, has had numerous dialogues with G-d. Why did he have to remove his shoes when he encountered the angel?
The appearance of the angel comes at a critical juncture. The manna that has sustained the Jewish people for over forty years has just ceased. This is highly symbolic of the change in way of life that is going to transpire. Under Joshua’s tenure, the people will be weaned off ‘miraculous living’ to serving G-d with faith in a natural world. This is a much more complex faith system than the people had known under Moses. Joshua himself will have to adjust. This is hinted to by the fact that he did not recognise the angel. He will need to master finding the spiritual masked by the physical if he will succeed in leading the people of this generation.
Jewish law derives from these examples that one should remove their shoes in holy places. To this end, the Kohanim in the Temple were barefoot, and even today shoes are removed for the priestly blessing. There are three other times when we are forbidden to wear shoes (leather): the fasts of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and during the shiva period of mourning for a family member.