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Parshas Shemos (5775)

Take Your Shoes Off!!

Those of you living south of the border (and here I am referring to the border between Canada and the US) may not be aware of this, but proper Canadian etiquette requires that you remove your shoes as soon as you enter someone’s home. This is a bit of a hangover from the long and slushy Canadian winters when shoes worn outside in the snow can easily dirty up someone’s living room, but is practiced all year round, even in the summer.

[Even I got into the act when I moved up to Canada in 2002. At a souvenir shop near Toronto I found the perfect plaque for a Canadian house that is now hanging right near my front door. It reads: “Life is made of choices …remove your shoes or scrub the floor”.]

It turns out that Canadian homes aren’t the only places where people are asked to take their shoes off. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shemos, Moses turns aside to see the Burning Bush and G-d tells him: “… remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (see Exodus 3:5).

Indeed, the Talmud in Berachos 62b learns from this verse that one must first remove his shoes before entering the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, out of respect and reverence for the holiness of the site (see Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Laws of Beis HaBechirah 7:1-2).

We also find the idea of removing one’s shoes with regard to the relatively rare mitzvos (commandments) of yibum and chalitzah.

The Torah dictates (see Deuteronomy 25:5-11) that if a married man dies childless, the widow is to marry her dead husband's brother, preferably the eldest. The firstborn son they produce together is considered a continuation of the dead husband's line. This practice is known as yibum, or levirate marriage. The brother-in-law is called the yavam; the widow is called the yevamah.

If the dead man's brother does not wish to marry the widow, or she does not want to marry him, a standard divorce is insufficient to sever their bond. Instead, they perform a procedure known as chalitzah, which means ‘removal’; in this case, the removal of the brother-in-law's shoe. Only after the chalitzah ceremony has been completed is the widow free to marry someone else. Since Talmudic times, the universally adopted custom is to prefer chalitzah over yibum.

[You can view a sample of the kind of special sandal that had to be used for the chalitzah ritual at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, or online at: http://www.mishnahyomit.com/learnAids/Yevamot-Shoe.pdf ]

The Jewish mystics explain that the purpose of yibum is for the soul of the deceased brother to reincarnate into the body of the baby that is to be born to his widowed wife together with his brother, thus giving him a second chance to fulfill his destiny here on earth. This is because the only way that a soul can accomplish anything in this world is if it has a body through which it can get around and fulfill its mission.

If the brother decides not to do yibum, thus denying his brother’s soul the chance to come back and fulfill his destiny in this world, he, in turn, must do the chalitzah ritual in which his widowed sister-in-law removes his shoe in front of the rabbinical court. This symbolizes the brother’s refusal to allow his deceased brother to have a “foothold” in this world.

In this way, we see the “shoe” to the “body” as a metaphor for the “body” to the “soul”. Just as the shoe enables the rest of the body to gain a foothold on the ground and to move around freely without impediment, so, too, does the physical body allow the spiritual soul the ability to move around here on earth and to accomplish its goals.

This explains why Moses was commanded to remove his shoes before coming close to G-d in the Burning Bush, and why we are commanded by the Torah to remove our shoes before entering the Holy Temple. You see, even though we are “in our shoes” most of the time, there are certain holy places in this world where we must “take off our shoes”, i.e. elevate ourselves above the physical world, in recognition of the rarefied holiness of the site.

Removing one’s (leather) shoes on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is also the same concept. During this very spiritual time – the holiest day of the year - we “take off our shoes” and attempt to rise above the physical world just like the Heavenly Angels.

Of course these holy times and places are somewhat artificial, meaning that they are only meant to help us recharge our spiritual batteries every so often in preparation for the real task at hand – to live spiritual, holy lives within our very physical bodies.

King Solomon, the wisest of all men, wrote about the Jewish people in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 7:2: “How lovely are your footsteps in shoes, O daughter of nobles!” The Bible commentators explain that Solomon was referring to the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that the Jewish people undertook in order to celebrate the festivals in a holy place.

Alternatively, King Solomon was impressed by the footsteps that the Jewish people stepped in shoes, i.e. when they put their shoes back on as they were leaving the Holy Temple. It is relatively easy to be spiritual and holy when you are “out of your shoes” and in a place such as the Holy Temple. But that’s no kuntz (great trick or accomplishment). King Solomon noticed how the Jewish people acted in a spiritually elevated way even as they left the rarefied holiness of the Beis Hamikdash and put their shoes back on to go back to their routine lives.

We can easily apply this lesson to our daily lives. Sure we can be spiritual and holy when we are in the synagogue and the Holy Ark is right there in front of us (and the Rabbi is watching us). The real kuntz is to be that way all the time – even when we are home and our shoes are back on (metaphorically, if you live in Canada) and we are living physical lives.

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