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 Parshah, we read that Moses 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?" Moses mused. "And, how will the Jew survive on earth? Will the sanctity of heaven not lure him in?" Moses marveled at this paradox as he gazed upon the desert.

The desert, Moses prophetically knew, is where mankind would receive its first glimpse of Jewish greatness.5 The desert, Moses realized, was also the place where Jews would first encounter G‑d. 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. He found himself inexorably drawn to G‑d's mountain, as some metals are drawn to magnets. This, he knew was where heaven and earth would meet, where G‑d would descend and mankind ascend.

He approached the mountain and beheld a fascinating sight. A thorn bush was engulfed in flames, yet the bush was not consumed. In his meditation Moses 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.7 Moses was mesmerized. Why will the bush not burn? Why does the allure of heaven not consume the Jew?

Moses was no stranger to the meditative experience, but this time he wanted to rise to the next level.8 He instinctively knew that pulling away from his ego would elevate his meditation to the level of prophecy.9 He quietly murmured, "I shall pull back from here so as to behold this great vision," and reached for the prophetic plateau.10

The earlier vision now leaped into focus. Moses 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. Enthused, he cried out in total readiness, "Here I am."

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."11

One Response, Two Meanings

G‑d's response was not given in reproof but in guidance, not only to Moses 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.

Shoes are outer garments that protect our feet as they tread upon the earth's soil. Thus, the "shoe" represents the body—the outer garment that encases and protects the soul as it sojourns in the soil of the material realm.12 To ascend G‑d's mountain, to enhance our spirit, we must first remove our shoes, our materialism. The 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.13

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.14

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 is why the foot of the mountain is so much holier than its peak.15