Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of December 23 – 29, 2018

“Shoes”

by Rabbi Eli Schochet, AJRCA Professor of Talmud

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

 

Precisely eighty years ago, on this Shabbat, I had a brilliant idea.

Having learned earlier that week that Moses was commanded to remove his shoes in the presence of admat kodesh…a holy place, I made a brilliant suggestion to my father. “Let’s go to shul barefoot this Shabbos and be like Moshe Rabeinu”.

My suggestion was dismissed out of hand on practical grounds.  Chicago winter weather in January is not the time for practicing such an excessive “Frumkeit”.

Over the years one learns of and encounters the practice of removing one’s shoes among Muslims as well as some Sephardic Jews prior to engaging in prayer.  Needless to say, such is also part of the protocol of observing mourning rites upon returning home after the burial of loved ones, and when the priestly benediction is chanted by Kohanim, who stand barefoot, in synagogues before the congregation.

However, today, eighty years later, the spectrum of unworn shoes elicits a totally different association and response on my part.  One that is horrifyingly haunting for it has to do with the Holocaust.

At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C, there is a room filled with shoes, shoes that Nazi victims were forced to discard before being gassed to death.  The words on a plaque next to this haunting, horrific display of shoes are an unlikely inspiration for a song, but the Yiddish balladeer, Michoel Schnitzler, took a phrase from that plaque, “Mir Zeinin sdhich, mir zeinin letzer eidus”. (We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses) and transformed it into a heart-breaking song, “Di shich fartzeilen”.

Schnitzler recalls the impact these words had on him, and his on the spot decision to turn them into a song.

He recounts, “Years ago, my nephew visited the museum and sent me a picture of the plaque with the words, ‘We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.  We are the shoes of grandchildren and grandparents…and because we’re only made of fabric and leather and not blood and flesh, each of us avoided the hellfire.’  We added lyrics that describe the journey of those shoes where they might have been worn all over Europe, and then their final journey and removal—while their owners walked their last few steps toward death.”

It is a fact that each and every one of us who studies Torah does more than read and translate phrases from the Holy text.  Torah study is an existential experience where our own deepest selves and profoundest personal life experiences lend new meaning to our understanding of a biblical phrase.  Therefore, every year Torah speaks to us anew.

Such is the case with me today when “the image of removed shoes” appears in the Torah reading of Shemot.  It is quite different from a childhood association of eight decades ago.

The empty shoes of Moses recall an encounter with the divine.  The empty shoes of the Holocaust museum recall an encounter with the demonic.  Both encounters live on deeply with each of us.

Shabbat Shalom.