This IS the Place

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Shemos
This IS the Place

In this week's portion we find the incident with the Burning Bush (Shemos, 3:1-6). Moshe noticed that although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. Moshe turned aside to get a closer look at this great wonder. However, Hashem told him not to come close. Rather, God told Moshe that he should take off his shoes because the ground that he was standing upon was holy.

From the fact that Hashem told Moshe not to come close implies that Moshe was standing somewhat far away from the bush. Telling Moshe not to come close also implies that Hashem did not want Moshe to stand next to the bush because the Divine Presence rested on the bush. As such, the immediate area around the bush was holy, and Hashem did not want Moshe to stand upon holy ground. Therefore, Moshe must stay where he was, on ground that was not holy.

But, then, Hashem told Moshe to take off his shoes because the ground that Moshe was already standing on was holy. This seems to be a contradiction. Was the ground upon which Moshe was already standing on holy or not?

The Chofetz Chaim says that sometimes the Yetzer Hara tries to convince us that we cannot serve Hashem in the places that we find ourselves. The Yetzer Hara tells us that in this place it is too difficult to serve Hashem. Sometimes we think that if only we were in another place, we could serve Hashem from there.

We are not just talking about geographical places, but we are also talking about circumstantial places. Sometimes we think that under the current situation, it is impossible to serve Hashem. If only the circumstances changed, then we could serve Hashem.

This is a huge mistake. As Jews, we must believe with complete faith that we could serve Hashem in any place and at any time. After all, Hashem is found everywhere ( Yeshaya, 6:3) .Therefore, we can connect with Him from anywhere.

Places and circumstances do not prevent us from clinging to God, sin does (Yeshaya, 59:2). When we sin, we create man-made barriers which prevent us from getting close to Hashem. If we would just remove sin and its partitions, we would find it very easy to connect with God in every place and in every situation.

This explains our story-line a little bit more deeply. When Moshe saw that the Burning Bush was not being consumed, he realized that this was no ordinary fire. Moshe realized that this was a supernatural fire which was manifest because of the Shechina that rested on the bush.

Moshe turned aside towards the bush because he had a strong desire to connect with the Shechina and get close to Hashem. This is precisely why Hashem told him not to take one step closer. Hashem was telling Moshe that he did not have to be close to the bush in order to connect with God. Rather, he could connect with God from where he was already standing. God was as much in Moshe's area as He was in the bush's area.

Hashem told Moshe to take his shoes off. This was a metaphor. Hashem meant to say that all he had to do was "remove his shoes," meaning, all he had to do was "remove sin." Once sin is removed, the partitions that sin created will disappear. Then he will find that God is right there in his place. Then he will discover that the ground that he is already standing on is holy, because God's glory fills that place as well.

We find that Ya'akov Avinu prayed to Hashem that he would obtain the ability to serve God no matter what places he would find himself in the journeys of his life.

When Ya'akov fled from his wicked brother Eisav, the verse says, "Vayifga Bamakom" (and he encountered the place; Vayeitzei, 28:11). The Gemara (Berachos, chap. 4, "Tefilas Hashachar", pg. 26b, based on Yirmiya, 7:16, Rebbi Yosi B'Rebbi Chanina) says that the word "Vayifga" is one of the words used for prayer. Therefore, the Beis Aharon (Rebbi Aharon Karliner, Vayeitzei) says that the words "Vayifga Bamakom" take on new meaning. The new translation is "And he prayed in the place." What was Ya'akov praying for?

The answer is hinted to in those very same words. "Vayifga Bamakom" also means, "He prayed about Makom." Meaning, Ya'akov asked Hashem for the awareness and for the strength to serve Him in any place that he would find himself.

This was a very apropos request because Ya'akov's life was just turned upside down. Ya'akov was just uprooted from his family and from his home. He was being forced to live outside of his land, and he was being compelled to live amongst tricksters and gangsters, like Lavan.

Ya'akov was concerned that his Yetzer Hara would tell him that he could not possibly serve Hashem in that place and under those circumstances. Ya'akov was worried about being convinced that only when he returned to Eretz Yisrael, surrounded by Tzaddikim, like Yitzchak and Rivka, would he be able to connect with God.

Ya'akov asked for the wherewithal to overcome those thoughts and feelings. Ya'akov asked for the insight to realize that he could connect with God, no matter what, and no matter where.

When we find ourselves in different places, we must realize that it is all Hashgachas Hashem. We are not found in different places arbitrarily. We have been sent there with a purpose to carry out a mission. We can serve Hashem from there. Not only in spite of those places, but specifically because of those places.

This idea is echoed in Parshas Vaeschanan where it says, "You will seek from there Hashem." This means, that we must be committed to seek out Hashem from anywhere and from any place. The verse continues, "And you will find Him." This means that if we try, we will succeed in finding Him. The same verse concludes, "When you search for Him with all your heart and with all your soul." Meaning, as long as we become truth seekers, and sincerely search for Hashem, we will find Him (Ohr Layisharim, Vaeschanan, quoting Rebbi Moshe M'Kuvrin; Divrei Shalom, quoting Reb Asher M'Stalin).

We mentioned earlier then when Hashem told Moshe to remove his shoes, it meant to remove sin and its barriers. This implies that shoes are bad. However, the Gemara instructs us to buy a pair of shoes, even if it means that we have to destroy our homes and sell the materials in order to make that purchase. This implies that shoes are a very good thing. We now have another apparent contradiction. Are shoes good or bad? Will the real shoe please stand up!

The Shvilei Pinchas (based on the Bnei Yissaschar in Agra D'Pirka chap. 304, citing Maharam Cheigiz in Mishnas Chachamim, quoting Chachmei Haremez) answers this by saying that shoes are neither good nor bad. It all depends on the ground that we walk upon. Most of the time we should wear shoes because ever since the sin of the Eitz Hada'as, the Earth was cursed (Bereishis, 3:17). Therefore, shoes serve as a separation between our bodies and the cursed Earth. We don't want our bodies rubbing against curse because we don't want to absorb curse into our systems.

By the way, this does not contradict what we said above, that holiness can be found in each and every place. This still holds true. However, since the sin of the Eitz Hada'as, the Earth was covered with a layer of curse. However, underneath that film of curse still lies holiness. We have the power to break through that layer of curse and dig for Hashem in the earth underneath.

However, when a person walks upon holy ground, proper attire would be to walk there without shoes. Holy ground is either a place where the curse has been lifted, or it is a place upon which curse never descended. One example of this is Har Habayis. Since the temple Mount is holy, one must walk there barefoot. This is to enable us to soak up the holiness in that ground (Mishnah Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 54a; Yevamos, chap. 1, "Chameish Esrei Nashim", pg. 6b, Parshas Kedoshim, 19:30).

This also explains a deeper reason why we don't wear shoes on Yom Kippur (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 614:2). Yom Kippur is so holy that curse gets lifted from the Earth for that entire day. Yom Kippur does not only cleanse us, it also cleanses the planet. Therefore, we specifically take our shoes off so that we can connect with the spirituality found in the ground.

Similarly, we don't wear shoes on Tisha B'Av (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 554:1) because that is the date of Moshiach's birth (See Pri Tzadik, Parshas Devarim, #13). When Moshiach comes, he will bring this world full circle, back to the level it was prior to the sin of the Eitz Hada'as. At that time, curse will be lifted from the world permanently. To show that we believe in this and to show that we hope for this, we take off our shoes as if to say, "We are ready for Moshiach. We want a world that is curse free."

So, shoes are neither bad nor good. It depends. When walking on cursed ground, it is a very good thing to have a pair of shoes which separates us from the curse. However, when walking on holy ground, shoes are bad because we do not want an interruption between holiness and ourselves.

Therefore, Hashem told Moshe to take off his shoes because even though Moshe was not close to the bush; (most probably standing on ground that had been cursed since the times of Adam Harishon,) nevertheless, Hashem hinted to Moshe that if he would just remove sin, he would automatically remove curse. Then, it would be so easy to find God and spirituality in the place he was already standing on.

The Sfas Emes quotes his grandfather the Chidushei Harim (Parshas Toldos) who says that this explains why the Avos were involved in digging so many wells (Parshas Toldos, 26:15-22). Removing dirt in the process of digging represented the removing of earthliness in order to get to the holiness underneath. The Torah took out the time to share with us the story about the wells so that we learn to do the same. Namely, wherever we go we should dig for God.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, Vayeitzei, 68:9; Parshas Vayeitzei 28:11) says that Hashem is called "Makom" (Place) because He is the Place of the world, but the world is not His place. Meaning, God does not live within the world. Rather, the world lives within God.

However, this also comes to teach us that God is in charge of place. Meaning, God decides which place each creature must be in at any given time. The reason why we have to be in different places at different times is because we have been sent there to fulfil our mission in life.

A hint which supports the idea that we can find God in any place is found in the word "Makom," which is numerically 186. When you add 1 + 8 + 6, you get 15, which is the numerical value of God's Name "Kuh" (spelled yud hey). This come to teach us that in every "Makom," one can find "Kuh."

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the Jewish custom to wish a mourner, "Hamakom Yinacheim Eschem B'soch Sha'ar Aveiley Tzion V'Yerushalayim" (May God comfort you amongst the mourners over Zion and Jerusalem; Perisha (RabbiYehoshua Hakohein Falk, 1555-1614, Poland, a disciple of the Rema; Yora Deah, 393:3). The reason why we refer to God as "Makom" is because the comfort we try to give a mourner is that Hashem is in charge of Makom. Until recently, Hashem knew that the loved one's "Makom" should be down here on Earth. However, Hashem has decided that now it would be better for that soul to be in a different "Makom," Above in Heaven.

We long for the redemption when there will be Techiyas Hameisim. Therefore, we continue to say, "Amongst the mourners over Tzion and Yerushalayim." When they are comforted, we will also be comforted because God will then send all those souls back down to this "Makom" here on Earth.

There are two suggestions for this week's practical application. First, when we recite the blessing, "She-usuh Li Kol Tzarchi" (for He has provided me with my every need) each morning, let us be reminded that our Sages (Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 60b) coined this blessing to thank God for shoes.

Let's slow down before or after reciting this beracha and remember that shoes keep us away from a cursed Earth. And, let's also remember that if we remove our shoes, meaning, if we remove sin, then, we will have removed the barriers and the curse, and we will be able to connect with God so easily, no matter where we are.

Secondly, let's try to make our places more conducive to spirituality. We probably spend most of our time in our homes, at our places of work, in our cars, and on buses and trains. Let's make sure that the Mezuzos are kosher and affixed properly because they add to the Kedusha of the place. Let's make sure that there are Sefarim in our places. We can take one or two with us at all times. We could have pictures of Tzaddikim on our walls. The nations like to hang posters of athletes on their walls because they are their role models. Our role models are our Gedolim. Having them on the wall makes a statement that we want to grow up to be like them some day.

So, may we all be blessed to appreciate the places we find ourselves in, and work on ourselves within our unique set of circumstances, getting closer and closer to God by removing any partitions in spite of all the arguments that the Yetzer Hara uses to prevent us from achieving our goals, and thus merit to transform this cursed world into a blessed one, and bring the Moshiach, which will be a time when we will all walk around barefoot connecting to all the holy sparks in the ground.