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How Do You Tie Your Shoes?

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 14, 2013


Two men are sleeping in the forest in a tent. One wakes up and sees that a bear is coming through their camp toward the tent. He struggles to wake up his partner. He tells him that a bear is outside and says we have got to run.

The man calmly rises and slowly laces up his shoes. His companion says, "What are you doing? You can't outrun a bear.":

The other responds, "I don't have to outrun a bear. I only have to outrun you."

I guess he figured he had good shoes. And speaking of shoes, I came across this sign in a New York City subway last winter. "Tolerant of your beliefs; judgmental of your shoes."

Which leads me to my theme for this morning. I want to talk about shoes - or more specifically Jews and shoes.

But where to begin? Most probably at the beginning - at the point where shoes first enter the Jewish story. It happens in Exodus Chapter 3 at the Burning Bush. You'll recall that Moses is a shepherd in the desert. Something on fire catches his eye. He ventures off the beaten track to see what is happening and there he has his historic encounter with God.

According to the Book of Exodus, God calls to him from the Bush. "Moses, Moses." He responds, "Hineni. Here I am."

God then says, "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals...for the place on which you stand is holy ground."

There you have it. If not Jews and shoes, at least a Jew and shoes.

What we have here, by the way, is a custom that is very much part of the ancient Near East where removing one's shoes was a sign of respect or humility. Thus the priests in biblical times used to officiate barefoot in the sanctuary. Like them, Moses encounters the Holy One without his shoes.

But the story doesn't end there. It gets picked up by the Talmud where someone comments: "We know that Moses took off his shoes, but is there a proper way to do this? Is there a proper way for us to put on our shoes?"

Now I'm willing to grant that almost no one here today has ever asked this question. If you were to think about it, my hunch would be that you do have a pattern when it comes to putting on your shoes. It's so much a habit, however, that you barely think about it. By definition, it's one of those things you do without any thought at all.

But humor me, please. Let's listen to what the Talmud says about putting on shoes.

Here's the text:

Rabbi Yohanan said: Like tefillin, so are shoes: just as tefillin [are donned] on the left [hand], so are shoes [put on] the left [foot first].

But didn't R. Joseph teach us: When one puts on his shoes, he must put on the right first and then the left?

The answer is that, since we have two traditions, he who acts in either way acts [well].

R. Abaye continued: But perhaps R. Yohanan (left/right) didn't know Joseph's teaching (right/left). If he had heard it, he might have retracted?

Or perhaps he heard it and thought that he was right anyway.

R. Nahman said: A God-fearing person satisfies both views.

And who is like that? Mar, the son of Rabina.

What did he do?

He put on the right sandal (a la Joseph) but did not tie it. Then he put on the left (a la Yochanan), tied it, and then tied the right sandal. Thus Mar could say that, in a way, each shoe was put on before the other...just the way Yochanan and Joseph taught.

(Revised slightly from Talmud Shabbat 61a)

Jews and shoes!

What do you make of this passage: confusing, irrelevant, silly?

Here is what Adam Kirsch, a freelance writer out of Los Angeles, says about our passage.

It is a clever solution to a problem.

But does it really have to be a problem in the first place?

Does God care which shoe goes on first? My instinct is to say no. Any God I can imagine would be indifferent to this shoe question, because it has no moral implications. Living in a modern society, we tend to assume that life is made up of a large neutral sphere in which we can do whatever we see fit, and a more restricted religious sphere that deals with questions of right and wrong, good and evil.

This kind of dualism, however, is foreign to the rabbis.

For them, Jewishness is not something that comes into play only in theological matters. It is an entire way of life in which there is nothing however trivial that does not participate in Jewishness.

Kirsch continues:

What is frightening about this vision is the degree of mindfulness it requires. Imagine having to worry about offending God every waking minute...It is all too easy for me to imagine the kinds of behaviors encouraged by the Talmud-all that counting and measuring-turning into full-blown obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Which is why I am quite sure you and I are not the Orthodox Jews we sometimes encounter. We've all met Jews or heard about Jews who obsess about every act in every moment. Searching for the precise way to do everything and anything minute by minute is unthinkable for us.

As Reform Jews, that's the kind of mechanistic behavior we have always sought to avoid. Reform Judaism has always sought to develop a thinking, creative Judaism where rituals aren't solely ends in themselves. We value rituals with meaning. Rituals that elevate us.

But listen one more time to one sentence in Kirsch's critique of the Talmud on shoes. Kirsch writes:

For [the rabbis], Jewishness is not something that comes into play only in moral and theological matters. It is an entire way of life in which there is nothing however trivial that does not participate in Jewishness.

There is nothing trivial.

For me, that's the point. That's the value.

On this day when we are supposed to be supremely attentive to our behavior, the point is that all aspects of our behavior matter. The value I'm seeing here is the notion that nothing we do is really trivial.

I'm not suggesting that I'm literally going to pay attention to the way I tie my shoes tomorrow morning. For me, that's not the point. I am saying, however, that paying some more attention while I'm performing the trivial act of putting on my shoes is hugely important. That is not trivial at all.

For example, tomorrow morning while I am putting on my shoes, will I be cursing up a storm because I am late.

While I am putting on my shoes, will I be screaming at the newspaper people because my paper got wet in the rain.

While I am putting on my shoes, will I be telling my child to be quiet because I'm on the phone making an appointment for work.

While I am doing up my laces, will I be enjoying the latest rumors about a co-worker I really can't stand.

None of this seems trivial to me. How I may put on my shoes tomorrow morning can have great consequence.

And later in the day when I arrive at a client's office door late for my appointment, how do I conduct myself at that door when I enter. Am I barging in before everyone else? Am I slamming the door after me?

When I meet someone, am I abrupt? Do I sharpen my pencil without listening to the person at the copy machine who tells me about a family crisis?

When I am at a red light, do I let a slow pedestrian finishing crossing or do I honk? When I’m driving (and in a rush), do I wait for someone to make that left turn in front of me or do I swerve around them at breakneck speed?

The list goes on because how I put on my shoes is only a small instance of how I conduct my life, how I interact with people, how I greet them, smile, grimace, turn away, embrace, ignore, or welcome people.

If you wish, yes, you can say Judaism is about the trivial: how I put on my shoes, how I handle a red light, how I enter a room.

Who pays attention to such trivial matters? Judaism does.

Or choose another word and let's say Judaism values everything we do wherever we do it.

Think about this afternoon's Torah reading. It comes from Leviticus Chapter 19, which begins grandly:


That does not sound trivial. Those are words that suggest grandeur and distance from the world, but that is not at all where the Torah goes.

In contrast, Leviticus 19 proceeds to tell us that being holy is as down to earth as we could imagine. You don't become holy by spending all day cloistered in a room with God's words.

"If you want to be holy," says Leviticus 19, "behave yourself from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep. Treat your parents well. Be considerate of the handicapped, the aged, and those who are displaced. Avoid jealousy, grudges, gossip, and follow fair business practices."

And in one of my favorite verses, Leviticus 19 says, "If someone completes a job for you, do not wait for the next day to pay him. Pay him right away. What if he is counting on your check so that he can buy his child school supplies that very night?"

This is down-to-earth Judaism. As the Chasidic teacher, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught, when the Torah says "You shall be holy," it means, "You shall be holy in all the places where humans live their lives."

Here's a story I told you once many years ago. It's about a new student who arrived at a famous yeshivah. As was the custom, the rosh yeshivah/dean of the school invited the new student along with several other students to his home for dinner. Beans were a customary part of such meals, and when the beans were served, the veteran students were amazed to see the new student eat them awkwardly with his fork and not his spoon. The students began to laugh until they saw their teacher put down his spoon and start to eat the beans with a fork. They all did the same.

Being a good Jew can mean following the Talmud's directions about which shoe goes on first, but it can also mean eating your beans with a fork if it saves someone from being shamed!

As Benjamin Cardozo once said, "The heroic hours of life do not announce their presence by fife and drum." They just happen every tiny minute of each unexceptional hour.

And for those who make appointments or have appointments with others, I still remember the shock of recognition when I encountered the following text in the Mechilta Midrash. It's set in the second century when many Jewish leaders in the Land of Israel were being martyred by the Romans. So the story is told of Rabbi Simon who was sentenced to die by the Romans. Simon was devastated and told his colleague, Rabbi Ishmael, that he felt he had never done wrong in his life. He had studied and followed the commandments.

Ishmael responded with a question. "Simon, do you remember the Torah verse that if a widow or orphan is mistreated in any way, God is outraged?"

"Yes," said Simon.

"Let me ask you, then, during your life did someone ever come to you for judgment or with a question and did you ever let that person wait until you had sipped your cup or tied your sandals or put on your cloak? Whether it be a great or a tiny abuse, mistreating or disregarding someone in any way is still wrong."

Imagine that! Even when they wanted to explain something as horrible as martyrdom, the rabbis said it could be explained by something as minor as bad manners.

That's not in the Ten Commandments. Keeping someone waiting might even seem trivial (there's that word) in light of today's momentous issues like substance abuse, crime, or poverty. But Ishmael, coming out of an equally troubled world, strikes a very Jewish chord when he maintains that decency starts before you say a word.

When you least expect it, you often have your very best opportunity to be a mentsch, to be holy as a Jew.

As one of my teachers taught me, little is not insignificant if it is a little good.

Little (or call it trivial) is not insignificant if it means recognizing that every situation in life provides an opportunity for doing something that matters.

I'm going to close this sermon that began with shoes by talking about bread and another Jewish custom. It's a custom followed by some Jews who don't only look at their challah when they say the motsi. They hold the bread, and recite their blessing with all ten fingers wrapped around it.

Why do this? According to one rabbinic source, you look at your hands before you take advantage of God's bounty in order to ask yourself what these hands have done. Where have the hands been? What have they held? What have they touched?

Like feet that wear shoes, those hands - your hands - have been wherever you have been. And the Jewish question is whether or not you were paying attention along the way.

For if you were, then you might have eaten your beans with a fork, you might not have kept someone waiting.

If you were paying attention, you might have tied your shoes differently. Like Moses, you might have sensed that the ground all of us stand on is holy. The moment and the people we encounter are holy.

Everywhere. Always.

How do you put on your shoes?

It's the great question of Yom Kippur because it's the same as asking how do you live your life - every single moment of your life.

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