There was a lot of traveling back and forth in the Book of Bereshit (Genesis): Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Noah rode on the flood for months on end, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob traveled all over Canaan, North to Haran and Damascus, and East to the land of the Philistines and all the way to Egypt. But now, in the Book of Shemos (Exodus) we are about to start a long and toilsome journey – what Dr. E. Urner Goodman, the founder of the Order of the Arrow, called the greatest camping trip of all time – the Exodus from Egypt through the Wilderness to Canaan.
A new Pharaoh comes to power who does not know Joseph and all that he did to save Egypt from the famine and make it powerful. Pharaoh sees that the Children of Israel have done well in the fertile Land of Goshen. He is afraid that, if Egypt is attacked, the Israelites will join the enemy. So he begins to enslave the Israelites, by engaging them in work that is backbreaking and meaningless – building cities in swampy land, where the structures they build fall down and have to be rebuilt. Many Israelites also have become like the Egyptians, and have lost their faith in God, so they become spiritually enslaved as well.
Pharaoh orders that the midwives kill all Jewish baby boys, but the midwives disobey him. He then orders that all baby boys, even Egyptians, be killed. Amram, an Israelite leader, and his wife Jocheved, have a baby boy. Jocheved hides the baby for three months, then puts him in a little ark of reeds and sets it adrift in the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, finds the ark and adopts the baby, naming him Moses.
Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt but, as a man, goes out to see the land. He knows he is a Hebrew. When he sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew slave, Moses kills the Egyptian. He realizes that Pharaoh will punish him for this, and runs away to Midian.
In Midian, he encounters Zipporah and her sisters at a well, watering their sheep. He defends the women against other shepherds who want to water their sheep first, and the women take him home to meet their father, Yitro, the priest of Midian. Moses marries Zipporah and works as a shepherd.
One day, Moses sees a bush on a mountain burning without being burnt to ash. He goes to investigate this strange sight, and is stopped by God, Who tells him that he should not come close to the bush, and to remove his shoes, because the place is holy.
God then explains that the cries of the Israelites have been heard, and they are to be freed by Moses acting as God’s messenger. Moses tells God that he does not want to undertake this task for many reasons: Pharaoh will not listen to him, the Israelites will not believe God has sent him, and he has a speech impediment. God explains that the people will come to believe him when they see God’s signs and wonders and that his brother, Aaron, will repeat what he says so people will understand him.
Moses goes to Egypt and tells Pharaoh to let the people go. Pharaoh not only refuses, he makes the Israelites’ work harder by decreeing they make their own bricks as well as building. This naturally upsets the Israelites. Moses has begun the process for the Exodus, which will take place soon.
Did you notice anything about how Moses begins his journey that is different than when you start on a hike?
When you begin a hike, you put your shoes or boots on. Moses begins his journey by taking his shoes off.
Granted, Moses was told to remove his shoes by God, because the place he was standing was holy. Some people still remove their shoes as a sign of holiness. On Yom Kippur, many people do not wear shoes made of leather but only of canvas, rope or plastic. People did not wear shoes in the Temple. In those congregations where the kohens give the Priestly Blessing, they remove their shoes before going up on the pulpit. But why is removing your shoes or wearing less sturdy shoes a sign of holiness?
Jewish tradition connects shoes with property and physical things. One of the morning blessings thanks God “for providing me with my every need”; this prayer is linked to putting on one’s shoes. Shoes are a sign of comfort, since they separate us from the cold, damp or roughness of the ground. To remove your shoes makes you vulnerable to your surroundings at every step, and reminds you that you are part of nature as created by God.
We can put shoes on our spiritual life, as well. If we do not treat people with sympathy when they have problems, or if we do not try to understand people who are telling us about their feelings, we have put on shoes that separate our spirit from theirs.
Maybe we should think about not only removing shoes from our soles, but also from our souls.
Best wishes for a happy 2019, filled with good things.