Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Metaphors Aren't Just Metaphors

Every Place You Stand is Holy Ground

By: Rabbi Melanie Aron
January 20, 2006

I knew that there were nudist colonies but I hadn't realized that there were social organizations of people who prefer to go barefoot until I went googling for the text in Joshua about removing one's sandals and instead found the Society for Barefoot Living. They preach the health and spiritual benefits of being shoeless, in their words, "symbolizing a way of living vulnerable and sensitive to our surroundings."

My associations with being barefoot are mixed. First , I associate being shoeless with poverty, with those who can't afford shoes, or who are using cardboard and other makeshift materials to cover their feet. For many shoes have been a luxury item, remember the Chelmites carrying their boots so that they wouldn't get muddy. What we consider a basic necessity has been considered by other generations, an extravagance, a special comfort. That's part of why we don't wear our leather shoes on Yom Kippur, but rather afflict ourselves by depriving ourselves of their comfort.

Second, there is the expresssion, "barefoot and pregnant," the image of women held down and held back, restricted to the domestic sphere by their condition and by the lack of the protective gear that would allow them to get out and about in the outside world.

On the more positive side, taking off your shoes at the end of the day, represents comfort and relaxation. It is a sort of Shabbat moment. Work is done and you are entering another realm. Think of the old movies in which the man of the house comes home and exchanges his shoes for a pair of comfortable slippers. Being able to take off your shoes is being at home and at rest.

Taking off shoes can also mean more. There are times when one actively takes off one's shoes as a sign of respect- as in entering a mosque, or a Japanese home, at least since the 8th century.

In this week's Torah portion of course, it is Moses who is told to take off his shoes: Shal Naalechah me'al raglecha, ki hamakom asher atah omed, admat kodesh hu. Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place wherein you stand is holy ground.

This is the first reference to consecrated ground in the Torah, and it is interesting to note that it is not in Jerusalem or even in the land of Israel, but out there in the wilderness of Midian. Later this idea of removing your shoes on holy ground will be extended to the Beit Hamikdash, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where it was customary for the priests to walk around barefoot in the holy precincts. That was probably the custom in ancient synagogues as well, as evidenced by the practice in modern Karaaite congregations. Presently in Orthodox synagogues, when the kohanim come up on the three pilgrimage holidays to bless the people with the priestly blessing, they remove their shoes as well.

I wonder what it means that in the presence of the holy we Jews cover our heads as a sign of respect, but uncover our feet.

The simplest explanation of course is that in removing one's shoes, one leaves behind the shmutz of the outside world. Wipe off the mud and filth when you enter God's sanctuary. As you enter the holy, separate yourself from all the dross of the world.

Another explanation is that shoes are a protective layer and so those with shoes can walk anywhere without paying special attention. But when one is barefoot one must pay attention to where one is walking. A person aware of holiness pays attention, real attention, to where they are going and on what they are treading.

Rabbi Pliskin takes us in another direction when he quotes a famous Musar teacher in explaining this verse. He teaches:

When a person finds himself in a situation with many distractions and difficulties, he is likely to say: "When my situation improves, then I will be able to do what I really aspire to do, to seek holiness, to study Torah and do mitzvoth, but not right now. Now all I can think about are these problems, holiness will have to wait until other things calm down."

"In this situation," said the Chofetz Chayim, "this verse of the Torah applies. Ki hamakom asher atah omed, admat kodesh hu. The place upon which you are standing, that is the exact situation in which you find yourself, is a holy place. In whatever distracting and difficult situation you find yourself, there are opportunities for holiness.

Finally there is what I learned from Rabbi Woody Guthrie. No, you're right, he wasn't Jewish, and certainly had mixed feelings about organized religion, though he was for a while married to the daughter of a well known Yiddish poetess. Some of Woody Guthrie's Jewish related writings have been brought to life recently by the Klezmatics- including one song: Holy Ground. In it he teaches another important lesson, he sings:

Every place you tread is holy ground, every little inch, every grain of dirt is holy ground."

Every place, even your work place, even your kid's messy bedroom, even your errands, every place you walk is holy ground, .

Rabbi Jack Riemer tells a story about the extraordinary power of the awareness of holiness - I am not sure on what it is based, but since there are many similar stories, I am going to take a few liberties and tell it my way.

There was once a community that was in deep trouble. They were shrinking, they were impoverished, they couldn't get along. No one would step up to leadership and if they did they would be destroyed by those who criticized them. Clearly it was a community heading downhill.

This little town had some self awareness about their predicament so they invited a famous rabbi to come and speak with them. However after meeting with them, the rabbi did not have a solution, not to their shrinking population, not to their poverty, not to their dysfunctional communal structure. When he left the people were even more discouraged than before, except that just as he was about to go, someone heard him say, that one of the 36 righteous, one of the lamedvavniks upon which the world depends, lived in this little town. Now maybe he said "efsher" [perhaps] one of the lamedvavniks lived in this town; no matter, word began to spread and slowly, slowly things began to change. Instead of treating each other roughly, people became a little bit more courteous - after all you wouldn't want to be rude to a lamedvavnik. They began to listen to each other, they were more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt- after all the motivations of a lamedvavnik would certainly be kindly. Slowly the town got cleaned up, people began supporting each other, the economy improved, and other people passing through found it a pleasant community and decided to settle there. Looking back the people wondered.

The rabbi had done nothing and yet accomplished a great deal. All these changes because of an efsher (a perhaps, a hint) to remember-that every spot on earth is holy ground.

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