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Home » Passover, Shemot Parshah

Shemot : Heaven And Earth

Submitted by on December 26, 2004 – 11:15 amNo Comment | 3,351 views

There was a steep mountain pass just outside Premishlan that was impassable during the winter because of its treacherous icy conditions. The Chassidic master, Rabbi Meir of Premishlan, would navigate this pass on a regular basis. When asked for his secret he answered simply, “One who is bound to the heavens above doesn’t fall to the earth below.”

Harnessing the power of heaven to enhance the quality of earth has long been a Jewish goal. In our Parsha we read that Moshe herded a flock of sheep across the desert and from there to G-d’s mountain. (1)

As he led his sheep across the desert he contemplated the parallels between his current flock and the nation that he would one day lead across that very terrain. (2) Because of its docile character and gentle temperament the sheep is symbolic of humility. (3) The Jewish mandate at Sinai would be to sublimate themselves to G-d in total and abject humility. (4)

The Jew will be asked to function on earth but to engage the heavens. Is it possible to bridge the two?” he mused. Furthermore, ”How will the Jew survive on earth? Will the sanctity of heaven not lure him in?” Moshe marveled at this paradox as he gazed upon the desert.

The desert, Moshe prophetically knew, is where mankind would receive its first glimpse of Jewish greatness. (5) The desert, Moshe realized, was also the place where Jews would first encounter G-d. (2) Can this relationship with G-d be the spiritual root of their ability to amalgamate heaven and earth? (6)

An Experience on the Mountain

He set out on a journey of discovery across the desert, exploring one uninhabited spiritual frontier after another in his search for an answer. (7) He found himself inexorably drawn to G-d’s mountain, as some metals are drawn to magnates. This, he knew was where heaven and earth would meet, where G-d would descend and mankind ascend. (2)

He approached the mountain and beheld a fascinating sight. A thorn bush was engulfed in flames, yet the bush was not consumed. (1) In his meditation Moshe immediately grasped the meaning behind the vision.

The fire was symbolic of the smoldering passion for G-d within the Jew, which burns brightly but doesn’t consume him. (8) Moshe was mesmerized, “Why will the bush not burn?” (1) “Why does the allure of heaven not consume the Jew?”

Moshe was no stranger to the meditative experience but this time he wanted to rise to the next level. (9) He instinctively knew that pulling away from his ego would elevate his meditation to the level of prophecy. (10) He quietly murmured, “I shall pull back from here so as to behold this great vision,” and reached for the prophetic plateau. (11)

The earlier vision now leaped into focus. Moshe perceived the fire as an angel calling to him from the bush. The summons excited his passion and he was seized by a sudden impulse to rush forward, to abandon everything and luxuriate in G-d’s beatific presence. (12) Enthused, he cried out in total readiness, “Here I am.”  (1)

At that moment G-d appeared and sternly instructed, “Do not draw closer. Remove your shoes from your feet for the ground you stand upon is hallowed.” (1) G-d would not grant him permission to enter because he was not ready yet. (13)

One Response, Two Meanings

G-d’s response was not given in reproof but in guidance, not only to Moshe but also to us, across the generations. The Jewish experience is suspended between heaven and earth. To inherit it we must enhance both dimensions within us, that of heaven and that of earth. How? In both cases we must remove our shoes. (14)

Shoes are outer garments that protect our feet as they tread upon the earth’s dirt. The body is an outer garment that protects the soul as it sojourns in the dirt of the material realm. (15) (16)

To ascend G-d’s mountain, to enhance our spirit, we must first remove our shoes, our materialism. heaven and earth - innerstreamThe body is appropriate for a material climate but on G-d’s mountain it is a hindrance. Here we must divest ourselves of material considerations and be fully devoted to a holy existence. (17)

One who has removed his shoes and reached the summit finds descent unappealing. From the peak of G-d’s mountain the material realm loses its allure. One prefers to float in the heavens above and never return to earth below. Camping out on the peak is tempting but in the final analysis G-d wants us to descend.

How? Once again by removing our shoes. Another interpretation of these words follows the opposite notion that shoes are floatation devices; they detach our feet from the ground and separate us from our own materialism. According to this interpretation, shoes must be worn when climbing the mountain but must be removed when descending. (18)

G-d calls on us to remove our shoes and descend because the ground below is hallowed. What makes the ground holy? G-d’s wish.

It is his wish that we share the insights and inspiration gleaned above with those who have yet to make the climb. This wish can be fulfilled only below among the people who have not yet climbed. This is why the foot of the mountain is so much holier than its peak. (19)


  1. Exodus 3, 1-5
  2. Zohar, Exodus p. 21 a
  3. Midarash Shir Hashirim ch. 2 17a. The Midrash enumerates many forms of relationship that we share with G-d such as father and son, shepherd and sheep as it is written, “And I shall place my sheep, the sheep of my flock.” (19) For the difference in meaning between the two, see Ohr Hatorah p. 755 (R.Menachem M. Schneerson, Third Rebbe of Lubavitch, 1789-1866) and Likutei Sichos v. 15 p. 253. (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe Of Lubavitch, 1902 1994)
  4. Likutei Torah Leviticus p.37 (Rabbi Schneeur Zalman of Liadi,, founder of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, 1745 – 1813)
  5. Shemos Rabba ch. 2.4. The Midrash explains that Moshe was drawn to the desert because of all the great miracles, such as the Manna, the clouds of glory and others – that would be performed on behalf of the Jewish people in the desert.
  6. Shemos Rabbah, ch. 2.2 relates that Moshe chased a sheep who ran for many miles. When the sheep finally reached water, Moshe cried out, “Had I only known that you were thirsty I would have brought the water myself.” And he carried the Sheep back. When G-d saw this he commented that Moshe who knows how to care for the need of each individual is worthy of being a shepherd to the Jewish people. This story may also be understood allegorically. The sheep is Israel, and the water is the Torah. Moshe chased the sheep to find out what drives it and discovered that Torah is the source of its nourishment. When he saw this he carried the nation in his arms and brought the Torah to them.
  7. See Commentary of R. Bachye on this verse(R. Bachya ben Asher, 1255-1340 Saragossa, Spain,)
  8. The classic understanding of the metaphor is that the bush is Israel and the flames are its persecutors. Despite the intensity of its persecutions, Israel will never consumed. Alternatively, the bush is Egypt and the flames are the ten plagues. Despite the intensity of the plagues Egypt would survive to absorb every last one of them. See Shemos Rabbah ch. 2.5 and Kli Yakar. (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz,, 1550-1619) But the interpretation in this essay follows the commentary of R. Bachye on this verse.
  9. Shemos Rabbah ch. 2.5. In the beginning an intermediary angel descended, then the Shechinah itself descended. See also R. Bachye, Ramban (R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) Malbim. (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, Russia 1809-1879)
  10. Maimonidies Yesodei Hatorah ch. 7. (R. Moshe Ben Maimon, Egypt 1134-1204) R. Moshe Shternbech in his book Taam Vadaas offers a unique view of the instruction to Moshe to remove his shoes. He explains that shoes lift a person up off the ground and are symbolic of arrogance. Moshe was told to strengthen his sense of humility.
  11. The Hebrew word translated herein is “Asurah.” Most commentators translate this word as I shall turn towards the fire, meaning I shall draw closer to the fire. The interpretation in this essay relies on the commentary of Kli Yakar on this verse and that of Kedushas Levi. (R’ Levi Yitzhak of Berdiche, 1740-1810)
  12. Shemos Rabbah ch.2.6
  13. See Ramban on this verse. He writes that Moshe had not yet reached the pinnacle of the prophecy that he would attain upon his return to Sinai in the leadership of the Jewish nation.
  14. This section of the essay is predicated on two contrary interpretations of the shoe’s meaning. The classic meaning (15) is the one depicted first in the essay. The second and opposite reading of the shoe is based upon Kedushas Levi.
  15. See Commentaries of Malbim and Kli Yakar. R. Bachye adds that the shoe itself is symbolic of materialism. He says that materialism clings to the body as the shoe molds to the foot.
  16. The commentaries mentioned in footnote 14 add that when a man refuses to marry his brother’s widow, (one who had died childless) his shoe must be removed. The symbolism therein is that since he refused to establish a material heir to his brother’s lineage, his shoe must therefore be removed.
  17. R. Bachye sees the Hebrew word shal from the root word Shlilah, which means negation. Hence the words remove your shoes read as negate your materialism.
  18. Shemos Rabba 6.7 suggests that Moshe asked to be granted royalty rights over the Jewish nation and he was refused. Kedushas Levi explains that the king is required to connect with the nation to exert a positive influence. Moshe’s thoughts were perpetually locked in the celestial sphere and focused on G-d, which made him unfit for the kingdom. Nevertheless he was king over the generation in the desert since, they too, were primarily focused on the study of Torah and spiritual pursuit. In this sense Kedushas Levi sees the Hebrew word Naal from the Root word Neilah which means locked and the Hebrew word Raglecha from the Hebrew root regilut which means habit or custom. The instruction would read “Remove the lock that habitually fixes your thoughts upon the divine and pay more attention to the people.”
  19. This is the mystical reason for the Jewish exile into foreign lands. G-d scattered his children to the lowest of the lowlands knowing that in exile the Jew would uplift his environment and make it holy. The further away from Israel we are sent the more we manifest the notion that the foot of the mountain is holier then its peak. See Sfas Emes 1885 (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur 1847–1905)
  20. Yechezkel 34
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