In this week’s Parashah, Hashem tells Moshe, “Al Takreiv HaLom Shal Ne’alecha MeiAl Raglecha Ki HaMakom Asher Atah Omeid Alav Admat Kodesh Hu,” “Do not come closer to here; remove your shoes from upon your feet, for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground” (Shemot 3:5). The Or HaChaim points out that this Pasuk mentions two different commands that were issued to Moshe—first, Hashem commands Moshe not to come closer, and second, He tells Moshe to remove his shoes due to the holiness of the ground. The Or HaChaim (ad loc. s.v. Al Tikrav) questions the order of Hashem’s commands: why doesn’t Hashem first tell Moshe to correct his wrong and remove his shoes, and then tell Moshe not to come closer?
Ramban (ad loc. s.v. Ki HaMakom Asher Omeid Alav Admat Kodesh Hu) explains that even though Moshe was far away from the burning bush, Hashem’s Shechinah was resting on the top of the mountain, and therefore, it was forbidden to be anywhere on the mountain while wearing shoes. Although this was a serious prohibition, it was a lesser prohibition than actually coming too close to the place of the Shechinah. Therefore, Hashem warns Moshe to stop approaching Him, because that is the more serious prohibition. The Ramban cites other examples where people are not allowed to wear shoes in a place where the Shechinah resides, such as Kohanim being prohibited to wear shoes during Birkat Kohanim. Another example is found when Yehoshua is visited by the angel of Hashem (Yehoshua 5:15). Why is it so imperative not to wear shoes in Hashem’s presence?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that a person who takes off his shoes in a holy places shows that he is fully devoting himself to the holiness of that place Therefore, during Birkat Kohanim, a Kohein removes his shoes to completely devote himself to the holiness of the floor of the Azarah. The more a person attaches himself to a holy place, the more he will be able to feel its holiness.
The Magein Avraham writes (in his work, the Zayit Ra’anan) that when Hashem punished Adam HaRishon, He cursed the ground (BeReishit 3:17), and shoes were subsequently worn to separate man from the cursed land. However, in a place where the land is holy and contained no trace of the curse, such as the Beit HaMikdash, a person would remove his shoes. The Magein Avraham’s comment seems to be teaching us to strive to attach ourselves to holy places.
In addition to the Magein Avraham, many Meforashim learn out lessons from Hashem’s commandment to Moshe to take off his shoes. The Netziv, Rabbeinu Bachya, and the Keli Yakar write that just as Moshe took off his shoes in front of Hashem’s presence, a person must try to remove all of his connections to worldly pleasures at certain times and places. While most cannot abstain from the pleasures of the world on a constant basis, there are certain times and places where this is obligatory for everyone. For example, on Yom Kippur, when we act like angels, we stand in prayer throughout the day without leather shoes, which symbolizes a full day of detachment from this world and enjoying our closeness to Hashem. In addition to Yom Kippur, it is important that we “take off” our material desires just for a little bit in order to demonstrate our desire to connect with Hashem.
The Chafetz Chaim finds a powerful lesson in Hashem’s commandment to Moshe to take off his shoes due to the holiness of the ground. He writes that people tend to blame their lack of spiritual growth on factors such as their surroundings, their family situation, or the like. A person thinks to himself that if he had better surroundings or better friends, he would be able to reach higher spiritual heights. Hashem’s commandment to Moshe teaches us that the place upon which we are standing is holy. Our holiness is dependent only on our desire to be holy, not our physical surroundings.
It is very important that we realize that each and every one of us has the potential to achieve greatness, regardless of what state we are currently in and what our surrounding are. We should learn about the importance of being in a community which fosters purity and spiritual greatness. If we do so, then it will be easier for us to achieve our full potential.