The Ramban, in his introduction to Sefer Shemot, explains that the purpose of the book is to discuss the exodus from Egypt. In his view, this process of geula is not simply the account of the exodus from Egypt. The contents of the book contain the story of the Exodus, the receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai and the construction of the Mishkan. It is only after Am Yisrael received the Torah, and the construction of the Mishkan, which perpetuates the level of revelation that we all experienced at Har Sinai, that we can consider the geula complete. In other words, this is not simply the story of a physical redemption but rather one of a complex transformation of the spiritual status of the entire nation.
While reading the Ramban, we tend to see the process as a gradual one, with the physical side of things being played out in the earlier parshiot, followed by the giving of the Torah and culminating with the construction of the Mishkan.
I would like to focus on an episode in our Parsha that may shed a different light on this progression.
When Moshe approaches the burning bush, curious to determine the nature of the phenomenon, he is greeted for the first time by God as he is told, “Do not approach, remove your shoes from your feet as the ground you walk on is holy”. (Shemot, 3:5)
(While most of our attention generally focuses on the content of the conversation at the sneh, I would like to examine the preamble instead).
The instructions that Moshe receives are revolutionary in a few ways. Firstly, he is commanded not to get any closer. This in and of itself is a totally new concept. Why would one not be allowed to try to get as close to God as possible? The instructions make clear sense to the experienced reader who is familiar with the restrictions listed in Bamidbar in relation to the Mishkan. Shevet Levi is charged with protecting the Mishkan from unauthorized people entering (and this is primarily in order to protect the people themselves from treading on holy ground when they should not be). Our concept of Kedusha is not simply a magnet that attracts all and rejects none, but rather a more complex endeavor with clear limitations and restrictions as to who may approach and under what conditions.
The second “chidush” is the issue of removing ones shoes. The association is clear with the requirement of the Kohanim in the Mikdash and any individual who enters Har Habayit. (For explanations concerning the symbolism of shoes in this context see the Kli Yakar and the Netziv).
In short, at the very beginning of the Sefer we have our first encounter with “Mikdash”. The concept of a specific location, where there is a greater concentration of the presence of the Shechinah, is not the final stage following the Exodus and Matan Torah, but rather a basic element of our experience with God.
An interesting question is raised by some of the mefarshim: How is it that God allowed Moshe to reach the place that he did without warning him to remove his shoes earlier? It would seem that Moshe was put in a very bad situation; he is informed by God that he is already on special turf that requires a certain mode of behavior that he has already violated.
The Or Hachayim explains that in general in the Torah, there is a greater emphasis placed on negative commandments than on positive ones. He notes that punishments generally apply only to transgressing the negative and not for lack of fulfillment of the positive (with a couple of exceptions). The removal of shoes was a positive mitzvah and therefore not important enough to be mentioned by itself until Moshe had proceeded to the point at which he was prohibited from getting any closer, the negative mitzvah.
Rav Sorotzkin offers a different explanation which highlights a very important concept. He points out that kedusha is not a purely God mandated element. Of course it is God who decides what should have kedusha and what the requirements are for each and every type and place, however the kedusha is a result of the actions of man. When Am Yisrael received the Torah on Har Sinai the mountain had kedusha but only after Moshe was told to actively infuse it with such. (see Shemot 19:12).
The Torah is insistent on the necessity for Moshe to sanctify all elements of the Mishkan: the structure itself, its vessels, the Kohanim and Leviim. The impression that we get is that there is no such thing as inherent kedusha, only the potential for kedusha which, if acted upon, may develop into holiness.
The clearest indication of this concerns the concept of Kedushat Zman. There is no such thing as objective Rosh Chodesh or any of the holidays. The time exists and has the potential to be Rosh Chodesh but only receives its lofty status when declared so by the Bet Din.
The ground near the burning bush had the Shechinah hovering above it. However it did not reach a level of Kedusha until a human, Moshe, approached. Hashem could not have told him to remove his shoes earlier as the place did not yet posses any actual kedusha. As soon as he stepped closer, the presence of man in proximity to God’s revelation could now be defined in terms of holiness.
There may be places that have a certain level of Kedusha, based on events of the past or in anticipation of future. Holiness remains only theoretical so long as we are not willing to approach and enact the Kedusha. Chazal tell us that one of the requirements of Kedushat Eretz Yisrael, for certain issues, is that the Jewish people be living on the land (or at least a majority or possibly even a representation from all elements of the nation). The lack of fulfillment of such a requirement does not simply mean that those who are not living in Eretz Yisrael have lost out on the opportunity to enjoy the Kedusha offered, but rather the kedusha itself is lacking.
Kedusha is not an easy thing to live with. Living a life of Kedusha places many restrictions on various aspects of our everyday life but it is clear that, as religious Jews, we would not give up on even a single one in order to make things “simpler”. We must note that the results of our shying away from Kedusha affects not only ourselves but all of Am Yisrael. The challenge that we are presented with is to constantly find more avenues in which we can increase the Kiddush Hashem in the world by seeking God and realizing our limitations in approaching Him.
After all, where would we be today if Moshe’s reaction to seeing the burning bush would have been “Oh it’s probably nothing!!”?