I think it is safe to say that we are all currently worried, if not preoccupied, about germs, viruses and bacteria. We live amidst constant reminders that the world is not safe, and that we are in danger. There is a new hand-written sign outside of my house directly adjacent to our mezuzah that says, “Please take off your shoes.” Oh, how we have always blamed those shoes for tracking in a myriad of creepy crawly microscopic bacteria. If science tells us anything, taking our shoes off before entering a home is certainly an idea based in sound logic. With a newborn safely inside, and Covid-19 rampaging outside, taking off our shoes seems like the least that can be done in my own home. After some consideration, I have realized that this sign, which was constructed by my wife, could also be interpreted as something rooted in the Divine.
I am proposing that we all take off our shoes–but perhaps not only to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria. Remember that G-d said to Moses: “…put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). While it might be easy to continue reading the Torah, and sort of ruffle through that whole bit about footwear, a closer look is certainly required. I was reading through the Book of Joshua a night or two ago, and this whole shoe (or sandal) issue came up again. “The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Joshua 5:15). While there are many commentaries and interpretations regarding why G-d asked this of two of the most famous prophets, Martin Buber gives a simple and beautiful explanation. In Buber’s “Ten Rungs,” he tells us that G-d has commanded Moses to take off his shoes due to the fact that there exists no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of G-d everywhere and at all times.
G-d is not only everywhere, but always there. While we are confined in our homes, G-d is there as much as G-d is in our synagogues or with us as we travel. G-d is there. I remember eight-plus hour days at work–wearing shoes from the early morning until late in the evening. My feet would be tired and suffocated, seemingly longing for the glorious freedom of the floor. Since we are all better off being home now, it might be the best time to “take off our shoes,” if even in a spiritual way. In Bereishit we are told, “Vayitzer Adonai Elohim et ha’adam, afar min ha’adamah” or, “And the Lord G-d created man, of the dust from the earth” (Genesis 2:7). Since we have come from dust, perhaps we should embrace some of it with our own feet. Do we not put shoes, or barriers, between ourselves and G-d all the time?
I know that I am guilty of this myself. I have a beautiful newborn baby, but do I ever miss a moment when her incredible blue eyes are open to read the latest news about the spread of Covid-19? I am sure I do. How can we live in this moment without shoes? We use them to complete an outfit, to make us taller, to give us status. Now is the time we are permitted to let those pressures fade away. While we are all required to be barefoot, should we not take some time to really feel our feet on the ground? The hustle and bustle of our routine lives requires us to wear many pairs of shoes. Now, we can take time to wiggle our toes in the sand of our spirits, and find something holy in everything. Happiness, which is such a packed term, can perhaps be located within what we view as the minutiae or humdrum of our own homes. Martin Buber said that, “Happiness settles the spirit, but sorrow drives it into exile.” Sorrow is around us, and the challenge is to find G-d, holiness and happiness in an uncomfortable and new setting that is void of footwear.
If we are having trouble finding beauty and the Divine in our homes, it is perhaps helpful to recall that G-d did not first appear and speak to Moses as some majestic gesture in the sky, but in the form of a simple bush that was burning unconsumed. How many bushes on the ground do we miss while always looking up and searching for glorious redwoods? Our tradition tells of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah, who replied to a question regarding why G-d chose a bush instead of a grander sort of tree to communicate with Moses. Rabbi ben Korhah replied that no matter what kind of tree, be it a sycamore or a carob tree, the same question would still have been asked. He said that G-d used the bush to show us that no place on earth, even a bush, is devoid of G-d’s presence. (Exod. R. 2:5). Perhaps we can take the time to notice the bushes a bit more as we walk barefoot for the foreseeable future.
As my family got home from a quick drive around town (we stayed in the car, I promise), I took off my shoes before entering the house as the sign commanded me. I was holding my large five-year-old boy, and it would have been easy to wince and complain, but I decided to root myself in bushes and bare feet. How blessed am I that my son still wants me to hold him? After the world became quiet with sleep, my newborn daughter and I were left awake. I found myself smiling, and putting my hands upon her, her big blue eyes wide open, saying these words that I wish to share with you today as well:
Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.
Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha
V’yaseim l’cha shalom.
May G-d bless you and keep you.
May G-d’s light shine upon you, and may G-d be gracious to you.
May you feel G-d’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.
She quickly stared at me and burped. I laughed, felt my bare feet on the floor, sensed the happiness Buber described, and attended to this bush-like moment.
May you all be blessed to feel the ground beneath your feet, and to feel the presence of the Divine in your own homes as we inhabit them more often than we usually do. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with fear, or out of touch with that which grounds you in joy and happiness, Remember that you can always rely on a seemingly simple act rooted in the Divine. Please take off your shoes–for you are standing on holy ground. Always.