Extra Caution In The Holy Land
King David asked the Creator of the world, “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). The Ba’alei HaMussar have asked why King David only wanted to “visit” His Sanctuary. Did he not want to “dwell” in it, rather than just visit?
They have explained that a student who visits his teacher is not like one who regularly stays at his teacher’s home. A student who merely visits him – coming only from time to time – stands before his teacher with reverence, whereas one who is a regular in his teacher’s home will take him lightly and no longer sense the gulf between them. This is why King David asked to be like a student who visits his teacher’s home, not like one who is too often there. He wanted to constantly sense the pleasure that one feels upon seeing him for the first time, for by visiting only from time to time, he will not get used to this pleasure.
We can therefore understand what our Sages have said, namely that it is a mitzvah for every person, on the night of Passover, to consider himself as having personally left Egypt (Pesachim 116b). In fact the Sages were afraid that one who recalls the exodus from Egypt each day, morning and night, will end up growing accustomed to it. Hence the Torah has fixed a special time for revitalization, so that the exodus from Egypt should seem new in a person’s eyes, as if he himself had left Egypt. We find the same idea in regards to the study of Torah, which should seem new in our eyes (Sifri, Va’etchanan 6:8), so that we do end up learning Torah and performing mitzvot out of habit.
This may possibly be why the Torah commanded every Jew to travel to Jerusalem three times a year. The Sages have termed this Aliyah laRegel, an expression that requires an explanation. Were they going to spy (laregel)? They only went to Jerusalem and to the Temple! Yet because a person would go to Jerusalem for the holidays, he would succeed in removing the tendency for performing mitzvot out of habit (hergel), a tendency that made its way into him as he performed mitzvot without focusing on what he was doing.
In fact we find that when the Children of Israel stopped going to Jerusalem for the holidays, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: “My soul detests your New Moons and your appointed times” (Isaiah 1:14). The Sages say that a non-Jew once asked Rabbi Akiva why Jews celebrate the holidays, since Hashem had expressed Himself in this way. Rabbi Akiva replied, “If He had said, ‘My soul detests My New Moons and My appointed times,’ I would say as you do. However He said, ‘your New Moons and your appointed times’ – the holidays instituted by Jeroboam. As for the real holidays, they will never be abolished” (Tanchuma, Pinchas 17).
This teaches us that G-d did not say that He abhors the holidays of the Children of Israel, but only the holidays of Jeroboam, who did not allow the people to reach Jerusalem. When the Children of Israel stopped going to Jerusalem, they grew accustomed to the mitzvot, which became routine mitzvot, performed without any real concentration. Thus Hashem said, “My soul detests your New Moons and your appointed times” – for as long as the holidays were those of G-d, and as long as people were careful not to fall into a rut, they would give G-d satisfaction. Yet when they stopped being those of G-d and became those of Israel, their intention was no longer to carry out Hashem’s commands, but to simply rejoice during the holidays with family and friends. It was in this regard that Hashem said: “My soul detests your New Moons and your appointed times” – you have grown accustomed to the mitzvot and forgotten the One Who gave them. I want nothing to do with them, for they are not Mine.
As long as the Children of Israel came to Jerusalem for the holidays, their deeds were performed for the sake of Heaven, and they did not fall into a rut or trample upon the mitzvot. Yet when they stopped going to Jerusalem for the holidays because of Jeroboam, they immediately began to forget their Creator. They ended up performing mitzvot out of habit, and celebrating the holidays only for their own pleasure, not for the sake of Heaven. In so doing they irritated G-d, Who said that He had no desire for such holidays.
Like the First Time
According to what we have said, we can fully understand the command that G-d gave to Moshe: “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). The Sages say in the Midrash, “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). We need to understand why it is forbidden to wear shoes where the Shechinah dwells.
We may explain this by saying that the verse is teaching us a lesson in proper conduct. Given that “Hashem spoke to Moshe face-to-face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Shemot 33:11), we could have thought that Moshe would have grown used to Hashem’s glory and no longer paid attention to it out of force of habit. In fact a student who speaks with his teacher once or twice is not the same as one who speaks with him nine or ten times, the latter’s sensitivity having been dulled by habit.
We find a story related to this in the Gemara: “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, the sensitivity of its residents to the Sages was dulled, for they treated the Sages like one of their own.
Since there was reason to fear that Moshe would grow accustomed to the glory of G-d, 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 teacher. 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,” My holiness being constantly the same.