The Power Of Habit
It is written, “[G-d] said, ‘Do not come any closer to here. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground’ ” (Shemot 3:5). Here the Sages in the Midrash state, “Wherever the Shechinah appears, one must not go about with shoes on, and so we find in the case of Joshua: ‘Remove your shoe’ [Joshua 5:15]. Hence the kohanim served in the Temple barefoot” (Shemot Rabba 2:6). I would like to explain why it is forbidden to wear shoes in a place where the Shechinah dwells, rather than removing any other garment with which a person covers himself. The reason is that Scripture is teaching us proper conduct. Concerning Moshe we read, “Hashem spoke to Moshe face-to-face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Shemot 33:11), and we might suspect that Moshe could have become accustomed to Hashem’s glory, since he constantly spoke with Him. Since Moshe was accustomed to this, perhaps he would no longer pay attention to His glory because of the temptation to grow proud. This is because a student who speaks with his master once or twice is not the same as one who speaks with him nine or ten times, in which case he grows proud. In the Gemara we read, “Ravina was sitting before Rabbi Jeremiah of Difti when a certain man passed by without covering his head. ‘How impudent is that man!’ he exclaimed. He replied, ‘Perhaps he is from Mata Mahasya, where Sages are common’ ” (Kiddushin 33a). Rashi explains that since there were so many Sages in that town, its residents treated them like one of their own.
Since there was good reason to suspect that Moshe would become accustomed to the glory of Hashem, He warned him by saying: “Remove your shoes from your feet.” In other words: Be careful not to act like someone who is used to speaking with his master, and each time that you speak with Me, it should seem like the first time you are speaking with the Shechinah. The reason is that the ground upon which you are standing is holy, for there My holiness dwells at all times.”
Your Feet, Your Habits
We must realize that an allusion is contained in the words that the Holy One, blessed be He, used in speaking to Moshe: “Remove your shoes from your feet.” The term ne’aleicha (“your shoes”) actually designates closure (neila), and ragleicha (“your feet”) is actually hergel (“habit”). In other words: As a treasure trove is closed before all men, so should My word be to you. Just as no one enters a treasure trove or can see what is inside, likewise is My word to you. You must feel like a man who is looking at a treasure trove, not knowing what is inside. Each time that he looks at it, he wants to open it. My word should seem this way to you, as if it were completely closed from the outside. Each time that I come to speak with you, it should seem as if you have never heard My voice before.
Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, warn Moshe, since this was not the case with the other prophets? The answer is that because Moshe saw “through a clear glass” – whereas the other prophets saw “through a dim glass” (Yebamot 49b) – it was specifically Moshe who was told by the Holy One, blessed be He, to remove his shoes. In other words, he was not to become accustomed to the Shechinah.
In reality, we find that Moshe was careful in this regard and did not gaze upon the holy Shechinah, although he could have. Our Sages explain that Hashem waited, as it were, for Moshe to look at Him and to see the revelation of the Shechinah (Berachot 7a). However he avoided looking, as it is said: “Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look at G-d” (Shemot 3:6). In his eyes, the Shechinah was like a closed treasure trove, into which no eye could look.
The Kohanim Went Barefoot
The kohanim, when they served in the Temple, also had no right to wear shoes, for the offering of sacrifices and incense atoned for the Children of Israel. The kohanim were the representatives of the people, and Hashem wanted to show the Children of Israel that they must not perform mitzvot out of habit. Otherwise, mitzvot would seem burdensome to them, which is why the kohanim went barefoot in the Temple. This served as a constant reminder that we must not act out of habit. All Jews must learn from their example and not perform mitzvot out of habit. Hence everywhere we find the Shechinah, we also find a prohibition against wearing shoes. This is because, when walking barefoot, a person remembers that he must not act casually with the Shechinah.
We are familiar with the explanations of the Ba’alei HaMussar on the verse, “One thing I asked of Hashem, that shall I seek: That I may dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Hashem and to visit in His Sanctuary” (Tehillim 27:4). Here they ask why King David only wanted to “visit” Hashem’s Sanctuary, not to “dwell” it in. They explain that a student who visits his teacher is not like one who lives in his teacher’s home. This is because a student who merely visits him – coming only from time to time – stands before his teacher with reverence, whereas one who constantly finds himself in his teacher’s home and is a regular there will act casually with his teacher and not truly appreciate his presence. Hence King David wanted to be like a student who merely visits his teacher, not like one who is a regular in his home. He wanted to constantly sense the pleasure that one feels upon seeing him the first time, for by visiting only from time to time, one does not grow accustomed to it.
Along the same lines we read, “The wise man says: ‘If you want your friend to hate you, visit him constantly. If you want him to love you, visit him infrequently.’ In this regard it is said, ‘Let your feet be scare in your fellow’s house, lest he grow weary of you and hate you’ [Mishlei 25:17]” (Orchot Tzaddikim, Sha’ar HaSina).