How do we know that removing shoes afflicts one’s soul?
Says the Talmud: “…Because it is written: ‘And David went up by the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went up, and he had his head covered and went bare’ – bare of what? Obviously, bare of sandals. [Not necessarily] Perhaps it means bare because he journeyed without horse and whip?
Rather, said Rabbi Nachman Bar Yitzchak, the inference comes from Yeshayahu 20:2: ‘Go and loose the sack-cloth from off of your loins, and put your shoe from off your foot’, and it is written: ‘And he did so, walking naked and bare’ – bare of what? Obviously, bare of sandals. [Not necessarily] Perhaps it means that he went in patched sandals, for if you were not to interpret the verse in this fashion, then ‘naked’ would also have to be understood as him being stark naked? Rather, just as ‘naked’ surely means shabby garments, so too ‘bare’ means patched sandals!
Rather, said Rabbi Nachman Bar Yitzchak: [It is derived] from here: ‘Withhold your foot from being unshod, and your throat from thirst’, i.e., withhold yourself from sin lest your foot become unshod; withhold your tongue from idle speech, lest your throat become dry [faint with thirst].”
At this stage, the Talmud has established a connection between removing one’s shoes and affliction, but we still remain perplexed as to the mechanics of the relationship.
Let us go back to the beginning. Why does the Torah instruct us to afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur at all? How do such actions affect or at least act as catalysts for atonement? And more specifically, how can this rationale be applied to the prohibition of wearing shoes?
Rav Hirsch explains that Yom Kippur demands the absence of any gratification of the senses. He says this is the true definition of ‘affliction’ in our context. The objective of this holy day is to bring atonement for the past and purity for the future.
Spiritual activity and enjoyment are the substance of human life, but as a result of our sins we forfeit the spiritual strength for one and our right to the other. Therefore, on Yom Kippur, we give expression to our misuse of the power God granted us to manage His world according to His will. We lay no hand on anything that can be transformed for human purposes.
Moreover, Yom Kippur teaches us that in terms of strict justice, we have no further right to continue our existence and gratify our senses. We should therefore present ourselves as what we really are – spiritually poor; and we do this by avoiding any indulgence of the senses.
In this context, affliction does not mean self-castigation. It means to make oneself ‘poor,’ i.e., to deprive oneself of bodily pleasure and minimize one’s physical existence.
Rav Hirsch notes that the wearing of shoes symbolizes self-support, according to Chazal.Thus, taking off one’s shoes on holy ground appears several times in the Tenach as a sign of complete submission to the holy.
If removing one’s shoes is a sign of surrender and submission, then perhaps this is also why an individual placed in halachic excommunication – having separated himself from the community in one way or another – is required to remove his shoes. The only genuine form of penitence for the arrogant rebel is through subservience and submission. He took the law upon himself. He decided he knew better than anyone else so now he must remove his shoes in a symbolic act of unconditional surrender!
With this in mind, we can suggest we are indeed ‘afflicting our souls’ on Yom Kippur by reminding ourselves of our self-aggrandizing tendencies, as reflected by our shoes. Having spent the past year running towards pointless objectives, relentlessly pursuing physical, short-term pleasures, we temporarily discard the medium that enhanced our speedy downfall.
We remove our shoes to surrender ourselves to the Omnipresent, placing our ego aside and ‘making room’ for God to enter our personal reality.
(*Paradoxically, nowadays instead of feeling discomfort, awkwardness or humility on Yom Kippur, we actually feel more comfortable wearing sandals, slippers, trainers, and with this in mind there are many who specifically just wear socks or go barefoot on Yom Kippur.)
Another aspect of shoes is their ability to define our behavior. Not only the type of shoe we choose to wear, but what we do with our shoes on as opposed to our behavior having removed them.
Wearing shoes mirrors a declaration of intent: purpose, action and achievement. From the moment we rise until we go to bed, our readiness for activity is often reflected by the shoes we wear. Today we have shoes for every kind of activity – walking shoes, running shoes, basketball shoes, gardening boots, hiking boots, sandals, slippers etc. We put our shoes on to go to work; we take them off when our work is done. One of my most relaxing moments of the day is sitting in the armchair, loosening the laces, and swapping my restrictive formal leather shoes with a comfortable woolen slipper.
Shoes also define us as the superior, the conqueror. In business, as in the military, polished shoes are a sign of pride and power. The most chilling scene in a military occupation is perhaps the sight and sound of an invading army marching through the streets of the city that has just been conquered. The sound of boots marching in perfect unison reminds the vanquished that a new ruler has arrived, a human dominator.
(*And the opposite is true too, whenever visiting Yad Vashem Auschwitz or Maidanek, the sight of hundreds of thousands of shoes is a very powerful experience. The conqueror marches with the polished boots, the victim has his shoes removed, and is forced to survive barefoot in subservience)
A relative has died, and, to an extent, so has our world. We are instructed to stop and remove our shoes in order to ‘ground’ ourselves and assess our predicament, with the ultimate objective of moving forward into a new reality.
When we put our shoes back on after that week of ‘desperation,’ we return to a newly defined world. On the one hand, nothing will ever be the same again. On the other, by wearing our shoes again, we show our intention to rejoin society with new vigor and enthusiasm, despite our terrible loss.
Furthermore, by removing our shoes during this week, we openly admit the frailty and finite essence of man. Before the death of our loved one, we marched through life under the pretence that we would live forever, that we were God. Now, with our tragic loss, we are harshly reminded of the truth. We thus remove our shoes in an act of surrender to the Almighty. Seven days later, we put them on again with a new humility. How long this lasts depends on our ability to internalize our painful experience.
These ideas can be applied to Yom Kippur.
Last year is over, and what is done is done. We are instructed to stop, remove our shoes, introspect and make a decision to move forward into a new reality. As we prepare to beg for our lives, we hand over our ‘weapons’ to the Almighty – we remove our shoes. By doing so, we openly admit the charade we have been living. We don’t have a leg to stand on. We spent much of the year believing that we were in control; we knew what was best. Today, we humbly acknowledge that whether we live or die is entirely up to Him. Our objectives can only be fulfilled with God’s help.
When we put our shoes back on, we are returning to a newly defined world. We are invigorated with the power that the Almighty has given us. Despite the “holy ground” we tread in this world, the Almighty has granted us the power – symbolized by our shoes – to use that world to create, change, grow and become the best we can.
Let us live this message! The point is not for man to lie helpless on the floor all his life, passive in absolute subservience to God. If that were the case there would be a prohibition of wearing shoes at all! Human beings were created to march forward, to achieve, to use the Almighty’s world for worthy and positive change – while never losing sight of reality. We put our shoes on again on Motzei Yom Kippur, but we realize we are extremely limited in our ability to support ourselves.
We march proudly into the New Year, knowing we are created in the image of God.
But we also march humbly, knowing we are created in the image of God.