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On peeling away what protects us from the world

I offered an extemporaneous d'var Torah at services yesterday. This is what I said, more or less. (Deep thanks to my hevruta partner, with whom I shared these thoughts afterwards, and who offered the insight about being unsteady on one's feet.)



וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ--כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא.

And God said: do not come any closer. Take the shoes off of your feet, for the place where you're standing is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)

The story begins when Moshe is herding his father-in-law's sheep. He sees an angel of God within a bush aflame. The bush burns but is not consumed. He says to himself, "I need to go see what's going on; how is this possible?" So he turns toward the bush to look. That's when God calls his name and tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where he is standing is holy. 

On a surface level, the instruction is simple: take off your shoes. So he does. Taking off our shoes makes us vulnerable to thorns or stones (or tiny lego bricks! yes, I am the mother of a six year old) which might be in our path. Doffing shoes opens us to the world. 

There's a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov -- which I first encountered via Reb Zalman z"l, in his book A Heart Afire -- which creatively rereads the phrase to argue that God was instructing Moshe to strip away his habits. (The interpretation relates the phrase מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ, "off of your feet," to the verb להרגיל, "to become accustomed" or "to practice" –– literally, to feel that one is standing firmly.) Our habits of inattention can protect our hearts from the world just as surely as solid shoe soles can protect our feet.

And that's exactly what this story mitigates against.  Authentic spiritual encounter requires us to remove our habitual ways of seeing. It calls us to remove the habits which allow us to keep our hearts safely locked-away. God calls us to remove the shoes from our feet and calluses from our hearts, to peel away the protective layer which allows us to keep the world at a distance, so that we can be real with what is.

When we remove our "shoes" -- when we peel away the calluses, the leather, the protective coverings which habitually occlude our hearts -- we open ourselves to the full range of human emotion and experience. We open to our sorrow and our anger and our grief... and also our delight, our exultation, and our joy. All of these are required in order for us to be present to the miracles hidden in plain sight. 

Following God's dispatch means precisely not feeling secure on our feet -- because otherwise we're making our spiritual practice about us (and about being in control), and not about God. So take off your shoes. Remove the calluses which protect your heart. Remove the habits which allow you to keep the world at arm's-length. Let yourself be vulnerable, even unsteady. Imagine what miracles you might see.


Image: Jackie Olenick's beautiful print Holy Ground, which hangs in my office.

Other divrei Torah on this parsha: