I’ve developed a prayer-time ritual that I don’t really think my synagogue’s board of directors would appreciate seeing in the sanctuary on a Friday evening —- I take off my shoes.
I began my daily morning prayer routine last fall by praying at home before putting on shoes for the day. Then, when I moved my weekday morning prayers to the synagogue, after dropping off my son at preschool, I found I just wasn’t as comfortable with my shoes on, so I began removing them before I sat down in the chapel.
Over time, as friends occasionally joined me to pray, I invited them to remove their shoes, to relax and be comfortable in the physical and emotional space we were about to share. I recognize my friends aren’t a random sample of the population, but many of them happily removed their shoes and thanked me for the opportunity to do so.
As people began to ask me why I removed my shoes, I feared it might be a bit crass to admit I did it just for comfort. Fortunately, I happened to recall there was a Torah story about removing one’s shoes in a holy place, so I used that as an “excuse.”
This week, I finally took the time to find the story, and I learned it wasn’t, as I had incorrectly remembered, a story about Jacob. Instead, in Chapter 3 of Exodus, Moses is on Mt. Horeb and encounters a bush that is burning, but is not consumed by the flames. G-d calls to Moses from the bush, and Moses replies, “Here I am!” Then G-d said to Moses:
“Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
As I read those words, I began to ponder why being in a holy place meant that Moses needed to remove his shoes…
I had always thought the point of that story (regardless of the main character) was that removing one’s shoes was an act of respect for the holiness of the site. But now I think I had been wrong. After all, is there any “thing” Moses could have had on his shoes that could have desecrated a truly holy site? And, as every place that exists can be a holy site, if that was the reason, wouldn’t Moses need to not ever wear shoes again??
What if, instead, God wanted Moses to remove his shoes so Moses could literally FEEL the holy place … to fully experience standing within eyesight of that burning bush???
After all, is the beach not more awe inspiring if your toes are in the sand? And how much more beautiful is a lawn full of think green grass when you walk on it barefoot?? The sensory information provided by our bare feet gets bound up in our memory of being in a specific place at a specific time … and maybe THAT is what G-d was offering Moses: an opportunity to fully experience being there, to add another sensory experience to his memory of the event.
Or … when placed in the context of the instruction to “not come any closer,” … maybe “take off your shoes” was G-d’s way of saying “don’t run away!”?? Perhaps G-d didn’t care about Moses’ shoes …
Could it be that what G-d wanted from Moses is, in fact, the very same, very simple thing my Granny, z”l, always wanted when I asked what I could get for her — just time for us to sit and visit??
Was G-d doing the very thing I feared was too crass an excuse for inviting my friends to remove their shoes when they arrive in the chapel to pray with me? Could it be that G-d’s instruction for Moses to remove his shoes was simply an attempt to make Moses comfortable?? Maybe this story is yet another example of the Torah teaching us how to welcome guests?
I know I’ll never have answers to all those questions, but the next time you find yourself struggling to get into a proper emotional or mental “space” to pray, try losing your shoes. It just might radically change the experience for you, as it has for me…
**** But if a Board Member of a synagogue asks what on earth you are doing, please don’t mention my name. Just blame G-d, and cite Exodus 3:5!