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This Issue's Halacha Article

Parshat Shemot

20 Tevet 5768

December 29, 2007

Vol.17 No.16

In This Issue:

Bare Feet, Please

by Rabbi Michael Taubes

In the very first sentence that Hashem speaks to Moshe Rabbeinu, He instructs him to remove his shoes from his feet, explaining that the place where he is standing is holy ground (Shemot 3:5). The Ramban notes that one may not wear shoes in a place of exalted sanctity; the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah comment that it is forbidden to wear shoes in any place where Hashem's Presence is revealed, and this is why the Kohanim were barefoot when serving in the Beit HaMikdash. The Gemara (Sotah 40a) indicates that the Kohanim also are not permitted to wear shoes when going to the Duchan (platform) for Birkat Kohanim, though this rule is for different reasons, as mentioned there; the Poskim discuss exceptions to the rule due to various illnesses and other factors (see, for example, Igrot Moshe O.C. 2:32, Tzitz Eliezer 14:11, and Yechaveh Daat 2:13). When the ground itself is hallowed, however, there do not appear to be any exceptions and only bare feet are allowed.

In analyzing the reason behind the directive to Moshe to remove his shoes, the Chida suggests that it is designed as an allegory, to teach an important lesson. Inasmuch as the function of shoes is to protect the feet from stones and thorns and the like, their removal makes one susceptible to these obstacles. Similarly, if Bnei Yisrael are comfortable in their exile in Mitzrayim, the comfort needs to be removed if redemption is to take place. As long as they do not feel the pain associated with being in Galut, there is no hope for Geulah. The "shoes," representing that which allows the people to be satisfied with their present condition, must be removed; they need to experience true suffering until they sense that there is nothing they can do but cry out to Hashem, and only then will He redeem them. Hashem is hinting to Moshe that the more intense the suffering of the people is, the closer to the Geulah they progress.

Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in his Nefesh HaChaim (1:5) and in his Ruach HaChaim on Pirkei Avot (1:1), while likewise understanding that Hashem's instruction here was an allegory, presents a very different approach, indicating that just as shoes serve the lower part of one's body, one's entire body really is in existence to serve the Neshamah, the soul. The Neshamah, of course, relates to the uppermost spheres in heaven, but it functions in this world too. Moshe, according to this interpretation, was being told symbolically to remove his body from his soul and prepare himself spiritually for his mission as a spokesman for Hashem. The Chafetz Chaim writes similarly that anyone who wishes to come close to Hashem must remove all separations between Hashem and himself. Any place in the world has the potential to become sanctified by Hashem's Presence; one who wishes to interact with that Presence must remove all barriers, just as Moshe removed his shoes.

A most interesting explanation is presented by Rav Yosef Salant of Yerushalayim in his Be'eir Yosef (which he published only after being urged to do so by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach). He notes that shoes represent man's lordship over all the other items and creatures on earth - the inanimate objects, the plants, and the animals. Shoes generally are made of animal skins, and they step on and even trample the plants and the inanimate objects, reflecting man's complete dominion on earth. It is for this reason, he asserts, citing the Shelah, that we recite the morning blessing of "SheAsah Li Kol Tzorki," "Who has provided me my every need," in connection specifically with wearing shoes, as stated by the Gemara (Berachot 60b). Putting on shoes symbolizes man's power and ability to dominate everything on earth, implying that his needs can indeed be well taken care of.

All this is true in general, most of the time. But in the presence of Hashem, such as in a place where Hashem has revealed Himself openly like at the burning bush, or in the Beit HaMikdash, where His Presence can be sensed, man must remove his shoes, because there it is most inappropriate for man to demonstrate any power or dominion. Man has no lordship in the presence of Hashem, and he certainly can not do anything that flaunts his power or sovereignty; he must therefore remove his shoes in those special locations. Perhaps this is an additional reason for the prohibition against wearing ordinary shoes on Yom Kippur, when one is supposed to feel that he is before Hashem all day. Man has no authority in front of Hashem, and therefore he may not display any. While we are indeed masters of the world in a certain sense, we are reminded from time to time who the true Master is.

The Perfect Man

by Jesse Dunietz (Editor-in-Chief 2005-2006)

It is clear from Moshe's prolonged protests against his transition from expatriate Israelite to archetypal leader that he views his selection as both surprising and unwarranted. There is nothing, he believes, that distinguishes him as leader material; surely Hashem should choose someone with more potential. Though Moshe may not recognize it (or refuses to), it is that very potential that the Torah spends nearly all of Perek Bet showing he possesses. The background that the Torah presents about Moshe spotlights his finest leadership characteristics - the many reasons Hashem insists that he must be the man for the job.

The second half of the section that introduces Moshe (Shemot 2:11-22) focuses primarily on three episodes in which Moshe intercedes in others' disputes. In the first account, he sees an Egyptian striking a fellow Jew, whom he saves by killing the Egyptian. In the second story, which takes place the very next day, Moshe interrupts a fight between Jews with words of rebuke for the attacker. Moshe's subsequent flight from Egypt leads him to a well in Midyan, the site of his third encounter: when the daughters of Re'ueil are driven away from the well by other shepherds, Moshe comes to their defense and helps water their flocks. As the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:45) observes, these three incidents establish a pattern of almost compulsive dedication to defending justice. Moshe simply cannot stand the sight of unfair treatment; the moment he sees any, he rushes to "rise up and save" (Shemot 2:17) the victim, even when he himself is a vulnerable, presumably fearful foreigner, and even after he has suffered in the past for acting on his principles.

The implications for Moshe's leadership abilities are clear: he will not be a man to stand idly by as his people face suffering or oppression, nor will he be one to allow any unscrupulousness to last long among the people. Indeed, as Rabbi Chaim Jachter noted in his Chumash Shiur, the progression of stories emphasizes just how altruistically compassionate Moshe really is. After he kills the Egyptian, he still might be suspected of caring only when a compatriot of his is oppressed by outsiders - but this is refuted by his reaction to the second fight, in which the attacker is a Jew. Even then, he has shown only that he acts to protect his fellow Jews, regarding whom he arguably has some personal interest; by spontaneously saving the shepherdesses whom he does not even know, he proves that his actions are genuinely motivated by dedication to justice. Such empathy and such steadfast determination to follow the dictates of morality are crucial for a successful leader of the Jewish nation.

Though the obvious application of Moshe's penchant for coming to others' aid is the defense of the Jewish people from outside attackers and from each other, Hashem may have another use in mind for this tendency. He surely knows, even at this early stage, that Bnei Yisrael's spiritual road ahead will be a rocky one, and that they will at times inflame His wrath. The leader He seeks is one who, when presented after the Cheit HaEigel with the challenge, "VeAtah Hanichah Li, VeYichar Api Vahem VaAchaleim," "And now allow Me, and My anger shall blaze against them, and I shall annihilate them" (32:10), will perceive the cue to argue on the nation's behalf against His anger. Indeed, Chazal praise Moshe for his quickness in that instance to challenge Hashem's decision. Perhaps, then, an additional reason why Hashem chooses Moshe is this willingness to defend the nation even from the most fearsome of assailants - God Himself.

specific nature of each of Moshe's responses also points to his fitness for leadership: over the course of the three episodes, he demonstrates his ability to interact with others in the modes most commonly needed by leaders. In the first story, he actually kills the offending Egyptian, an unequivocal affirmation that he is not afraid to use force when necessary. This willingness must, of course, be moderated by the tactic he uses in the second story, in which all he does is speak to the disputants - he knows to mediate when appropriate. Finally, Moshe shows in the third incident, in which he steps in without addressing or coercing either party, that he is able to act unilaterally as well. Without attempting to directly influence the behavior of any others, he ensures on his own that the right thing is done. Thus, Moshe can work with, against, and around others, three models of interaction that the head of any type of organization, particularly a national leader, must be able to use.

In short, then, Moshe is Hashem's perfect candidate. With his sense of justice and morality, his willingness to stand by his people through thick and thin, and his flexible approach to interacting with others, he is the first choice for spiritual leader of the Jewish people, and through them he becomes the exemplar for all future generations of Jewish leaders.

Regroup and Restart

by Avi Levinson

A mere day after killing the Egyptian taskmaster whom he had seen beating a Jew, Moshe encountered trouble again. Datan and Aviram, two of the titanic troublemakers in the Torah, got into a nasty argument, and Moshe attempted to break up the fight. He was rebuffed, whereupon Datan and Aviram slandered Moshe to Paroh, necessitating Moshe's flight to Midyan. Moshe came to a well, saved Yitro's seven daughters from the aggressive shepherds, and then married one of the seven, Tzipporah. Rashi (Shemot 2:15 s.v. VaYeishev Al HaBe'eir) explains that Moshe went to the well because he learned from Yaakov that the place to find a wife is by a well. Several questions can be raised on this comment of Rashi. First, why did Moshe want to marry a non-Jew? Second, even if Moshe did not mind marrying outside his people, why was it the first thing on his mind after his narrow escape from Paroh? Finally, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:32) from which Rashi's comment is culled mentions that there was in fact another character who had found his wife by a well: Yitzchak. Why doesn't Rashi cite this precedent as well?

To answer these difficulties, we must address why Yaakov went to the well. The Ramban (Bereishit 29:2) explains that Yaakov did not go to the well intentionally. Rather, Hashem arranged for him to meet his future wife there because the water represented the Torah (see Bava Kamma 17a) and the Beit HaMikdash that Yaakov's descendents would establish. Hashem wanted Yaakov to know, as he was about to begin building the Jewish nation, that the nation's ultimate purpose was to grow spiritually through the Torah and the Beit HaMikdash. Yitzchak, on the other hand found his wife at the well by happenstance; there was nothing significant about the well other than that it happened to be where Eliezer found Rivkah.

Rav Dovid Orlofsky explains that Moshe went to the well because he wanted to start things over. Once he saw that there were slanderers amongst Bnei Yisrael, he felt that they deserved their slavery in Mitzrayim (Rashi to Shemot 2:14) and no longer deserved to be redeemed (ibid. 3:11). Accordingly, he went to the well intending to find a wife through which he would start Bnei Yisrael anew. He did not want to marry someone from the Jewish people - he turned his back on them. The first thing on his mind when he fled Mitzrayim was to find a way to restart Bnei Yisrael from scratch. This choice does not resemble Yitzchak finding a wife by a well, so Rashi does not mention that precedent. But it is exactly why Yaakov ended up at the well in Aram. This also explains why Moshe chose to go to Midyan. Just like Yaakov, who went to Avraham's family in Aram in order to start the Jewish nation the first time, Moshe went to a member of Avraham's family, Midyan (see Bereishit 25:2), to start over.

Rav Moshe Lichtenstein (in his Sefer entitled Tzir VaTzon) takes this idea one step further. The Torah tells us that Moshe ran away from Midyan while he was yet young. When he returned to Mitzrayim to begin the process of redemption, he was eighty years old. Why don't we know anything about the intervening sixty years? The answer is that Moshe cut himself off from Bnei Yisrael. He had no interest in maintaining any connection to the Jews, so the Torah does not tell us anything about him during that time.

How did Hashem give Moshe the message that he was to return to be part of the Jewish nation? He appeared to him in a Sneh, a thorn bush. There were two subtle messages in this choice of venue for revelation. First, a thorn bush also has flowers. Hashem wanted Moshe to realize that while Bnei Yisrael might have some flaws, they also had positive potential that made them worthy of redemption. Second, Rashi notes that Hashem wanted Moshe to understand that "Imo Anochi VeTzarah," "I am with them during hard times" (Tehillim 91:15), made apparent by Hashem's choice of the sharp thorn bush rather than some nicer tree. Moshe was supposed to understand that if Hashem still was with the Jews, he should rejoin the Jews as well.

Finally, events come full circle. Moshe left Mitzrayim intending to become the new progenitor of Bnei Yisrael. Yet he learned his lesson. When offered that exact option after the Cheit HaEigel, Moshe refused, going as far as to argue that if Hashem wanted to destroy the Jews, He would have to wipe out Moshe's name from the Torah. Moshe had become a true leader of Bnei Yisrael, able to see past the faults of the people and prepared to defend them to the utmost.

We can learn a potent lesson from Moshe. He was willing to condemn and reject Bnei Yisrael because he saw Lashon HaRa amongst them. Though Hashem obviously felt that this was not sufficient reason to discard the nation outright, Rashi (3:12) makes it clear that this decision was based on Bnei Yisrael's future acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai. At their present level, Bnei Yisrael in fact were unworthy of being redeemed. The Chafetz Chaim goes to great lengths to demonstrate the terrible destructive power of Lashon HaRa, devoting a lengthy introduction to the seventeen negative Mitzvot, the fourteen positive Mitzvot, and the four curses that one potentially can violate by speaking disparagingly of others. He also makes reference to the Yerushalmi (Peiah 1:1) that declares Lashon HaRa to be equivalent to violation of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality, and murder. It would behoove us to learn from Moshe, mistaken though he was, that negative speech must eradicated in order for redemption to come.

Staff at time of publication:

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