When Moshe Rabbenu confronts Hashem at the sneh – the burning bush, he is, in a way, confronting himself. The Midrash, in explaining what had brought Moshe to this site in the first place, gives us insight into why Moshe is chosen for the task of leading Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. The Midrash in Shemot Raba, quoted by Rashi, points out that Moshe found his way to Har Sinai in order to ensure that his flock would not graze on privately held land but only in unclaimed areas. Therefore, concludes the Midrash, G-d chose Moshe to lead His flock, Bnei Yisrael. A related Midrash views shepherding as a testing ground for Jewish leaders. Both Moshe and David are judged by the care and compassion that they show their respective flocks. Their performance in that relatively lowly field marks them as future leaders of Klal Yisrael. A person who is willing, as the Midrash tells us that Moshe was, to carry a tired lamb, is an ideal candidate to lead. Yet, as subsequently becomes clear, Moshe is a reluctant leader who needs to be convinced of his suitability for the task ahead.
The sight of the sneh is in itself the first step in this process. Many Midrashim and Meforshim ascribe significance to each aspect of what Moshe sees, turning the sight of the sneh into an active part of Moshe’s first recorded prophecy. According to this approach, the sneh, the flames and even the angel within each represent a different aspect of the situation that Bnei Yisrael finds itself in and G-d’s (and, according to some, Moshe’s) relationship to that reality. Rabbenu B’Chaya, however, suggests a different approach. The sight of the sneh, the angel within and, finally, Moshe’s discerning of the G-d Himself, is in fact a process designed to introduce Moshe into the world of prophecy. When Moshe first sees the sneh, he imagines it to be no different than any other bush, and the flames engulfing it no different than any other fire. Why, then, is it not consumed? Further examination, enabled by Moshe’s successful, if unwitting, assimilation of the miraculous nature of the sneh, reveals the angel within. Once Moshe’s developing prophetic sense grasps the angel’s presence, he is then ready for the next step, G-d’s command to remove his shoes. Rabbenu B’Chaya compares this process to a person leaving a darkened room and emerging into the bright sunlight outside. Without proper preparation, the person will be temporarily blinded, and in extreme cases might suffer permanent damage. A person unprepared for prophecy runs similar risks. Hence, Hashem prepares Moshe for the prophetic encounter ahead.
While a careful reading of the pesukim does not readily lend support to this approach (read perek gimmel, passuk aleph to dalet to see why) its appeal on a logical level is self-evident. As Moshe is about to enter into a very intense encounter with Hashem without any prior prophetic “experience”, it seems quite reasonable that he would require some training or preparation.
The next step is the demand that Moshe remove his shoes. The Ralbag sees this demand as a tool to enable Moshe Rabbenu to connect with the holiness of the site that he has stumbled upon. This is reminiscent, of course, of the command to the cohanim to remove their shoes so that nothing comes between their feet and the ground of the Mikdash at the time when they are performing the Avoda. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch builds upon this idea and explains that by removing their shoes, the cohanim are encouraged to identify with the Mikdash and with all that it stands for. Similarly, by taking off his shoes, Moshe is being instructed to fully identify with the sanctity of Har Sinai and, by extension, with the values of the Torah, which would ultimately be given at that site.
The Abarbanel, however, sees Moshe’s doffing his shoes in an entirely different light. Shoes are the ultimate expression of sensible, down to earth clothing. In fact, “sensible shoes” is a common phrase used to deride uncomfortable footwear. Sensible shoes might be boring, but they don’t hurt your feet. It is precisely this aspect of shoes, their sensible, get real aspect, that G-d seeks to remove from Moshe. For Moshe is at this point a realist. He wishes to understand the reasons behind Am Yisrael’s present predicament and how they can hope to improve their lot. Moshe, who seeks only to understand the art of the possible, is destined to be discouraged. For Bnei Yisrael’s situation is not only desperate, it is impossible. But God intends that Moshe understand not the geopolitical standing of Bnei Yisrael but the Hashgacha, the Divine providence, which has brought Bnei Yisrael to this point and which will be required to extricate them from their current straits. This, then, is the message of removing his shoes. Strip yourself, G-d tells Moshe, of all your expectations based upon a rational, sensible reading of the map. Understand that you are to be a player in a drama whose outcome can not be predicted based upon accepted models of power relationships and statecraft. Accept that it was not blind fate that created the present galut, nor will it be diplomatic initiatives or ill-conceived rebellions (such as the one ascribed the Midrash to Bnei Ephraim thirty years earlier) that end it. Instead, now that you have stripped yourself of these illusions, recognize that it was G-d who created the circumstances of the galut for His own purposes, and it is G-d who will change these circumstances and create a nation dedicated to Him and the principles of the Torah. The shoes, representing the natural order, must be removed so that the understanding of Hashgacha necessary to effect a Yiziat Mitzrayim may be discerned.
Maaseh Avot Siman L’Banim. We live in a time where our reading of events is often dictated by a somber realism. This realism did not allow for the creation of an Eretz Yisrael two generations ago. This realism did not allow for the reunification of Yerushalayim a generation later. And finally, this realism could not conceive of an individual defying the Soviet Gulag and a decade later spearheading the spiritual defense of Yerushalayim. This is the realism which prevents us from discerning, and more importantly, appreciating, the role of Hashgacha in our national existence. Our mission, then, is to take off our shoes, and smell the Hasgacha in the air.