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Parsha Ki Teitzei

08/23/2018 07:56:50 PM

Aug23

Although shoes appear to be a simple and mundane part of life, the truth is that shoes are really the manifestation of a deep Jewish concept.  As indicated by the numerous shoe references that have seeped into our speech, such as “If the shoe fits, wear it,” “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes,” “Wait until the other shoe drops,” and “Big shoes to fill,” there is great significance placed on shoes.  In this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes the unique Chalitza process as the caveat to the mitzvah of Yibum, the instance in which a person is obligated to marry his childless brother’s widow, in order to perpetuate his brother’s legacy.  Not forcing this mitzvah upon the living brother, there is option for him to turn down the opportunity, but the widow must go with him to court, remove his shoe, spit before him, and say “This is the Man who would not continue his brother’s home.”  Why is the shoe emphasized in this procedure?

The Malbim notes that amongst other differences between people and animals, a defining disparity is that animals are natural followers of their innate inclinations while people have the capacity to live as decision makers whose intellect can govern over inclination.  Representing basic physicality and the regular courses of nature, the ground is a place that animals directly connect with as they walk barefoot on its raw soil.  Being “one with the ground,” animals do not wear shoes, because there is no separation between the workings of the ground and the workings of an animal.  Human beings, in contrast, wear shoes to raise themselves a level above the ground and trample it with their shoes, instead of directly connecting to its material.  We are not simply “one” with our physical instincts, and our “shoes,” representative of intellectual capacity for accountability and autonomy, elevate us to a status above our natural tendencies.  In the rare instances where the ground itself is holy, such as in the Temple, the rule is that the Kohanim must remove their shoes while performing the service, because the special holy ground is something the Kohanim should directly connect with.  This concept is present when God initially appears to Moshe in the burning bush, and instructs Moshe to remove his shoes because the land itself was holy.

Being that shoes represent Man’s decisions and responsibilities, the shoe also became the symbol for trust, control, and power.  For example, the book of Rus discusses methods of business transactions, and advances the “Kinyan Chalipin,” a Halachically binding means of changing the ownership of a particular item through giving a different item as a “trade” for it.  If Reuven wishes to sell his cow to Shimon but Shimon does not have the cash up-front, Shimon still acquires the cow if he gives Reuven some symbolic item of transfer for the cow.  The example of such a symbolic item of trade mentioned in the Pasuk is the shoe, because Shimon’s giving of his shoe to Reuven is tantamount to him saying “You have my word.  You have the essence of what makes me a person and not an animal, and I will be accountable to get you the money.”  From a different angle, the Midrash says that the Shevatim used the money they made from selling Yosef to buy shoes, perhaps showing that while Yosef dreamt that the Shevatim would be subservient to him, the brothers now felt they had the control and power, and they therefore bought new shoes to show that they were making the decisions.     

Returning to Chalitza, the widow’s removal of her brother in law’s shoes was a source of great embarrassment to him.  By taking off his shoe, she is disgracing his decision making abilities and wondering how it is that he is acting differently than an animal.  Where is his sense of responsibility for his family and his courage to make a big decision in crucial times? 

It is well noted that the word for a shoe in Hebrew, Na’al, is also the word for a lock.  After it has been established that the shoe represents autonomy and decision making, it seems quite puzzling that the word should also mean a lock, as the two concepts seem to be opposites of each other.  Extending the idea of shoes a bit further, though, we can understand how fitting it is that locks and shoes are the same word.  Wearing a new pair of shoes is at first uncomfortable, and perhaps even painful, but as time goes by the shoes become broken in, snug and secure, and then eventually worn.  Worn shoes can get battered and torn, but sometimes it very difficult to part with worn shoes.  As the simile for decisions, a new decision is at first tough, but the more we repeat our decisions the more comfortable we become with them, until they eventually become habit.  Habit is to decisions what worn shoes are to new shoes.  A beautiful gift from God so that we can multitask and focus on what really matters to us, the power of habit is also the destructive force that always threatens the power of autonomy.  Our shoes are our decisions, but sometimes habitual decisions turn on us and actually lock us in place so that our very decisions stop being decisions and are instead the locking patterns that inhibit us from moving forward.    

Fri, January 18 2019 12 Shevat 5779