By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 103 – Look At Your Shoes
These past few dapim have introduced us to many of the more technical, nitty-gritty details of chalitza. Precisely how it needs to be done, and what type of shoe can be used. On today’s daf we find that find that, at least according to Rabi Meir, the basic definition of a shoe is something that provides protection to the foot, and what material it is made out of is immaterial. It is quite possible that the Chachamim agree to this basic point, just that they also require that the shoe be made of leather.
With that definition in mind, then, consider the following.
One day during bein ha’zmanim I was without a siddur at Mincha. As I bowed upon commencing Shmoneh Esrei, I was suddenly struck by the realization that, in the absence of a siddur to gaze into, I was staring straight at my shoes! It struck me as odd that my Shmoneh Esrei should begin with a movement that brings me “face to face” with my shoes. My premise, of course, is that the takanos of Chazal do not carry any superfluous, coincidental features, and that there therefore must be some significance to this element of the bowing.
An intelligent individual offered the following explanation. Often, upon being confronted or faced with rebuke of some sort or other, people gaze down at their shoes. This, of course, is an expression of inadequacy and shame. We begin the Shmoneh Esrei by asking, “Hashem sefasai tiftach, Hashem please open my lips and my mouth will relate Your praise.” We feel inadequate and unable to talk to Hashem, praise Him, and make requests of Him; so, we bow and look down at our shoes as an expression of this feeling.
This is a great pshat. So, now let’s try to take it a step further. Who is the One who created us with this tendency to look down at our shoes when we feel inadequate and embarrassed? Without intending to quote Uncle Moishy, but nevertheless having no better way of expressing it, of course it was Hashem! Well, then, when it comes to Hashem it is an explicit pasuk: Ha’Tzur tamim pa’alo, all the works of Hashem are perfect. That means that nothing, absolutely nothing that Hashem does carries any superfluous or coincidental features. Every single aspect, but every single aspect – down to the most minute electrons, quarks, and string waves – of creation must carry a reason and purpose. It must possess some significance. Now, of course that does not mean that we will always be able to figure out what is the significance of every last amoeba or fallen blade of grass; but, we can certainly attempt cogitating the matter to see if we can glean any lessons therefrom. Particularly so when it comes to the various facets of natural human behaviors. So, let’s try.
The Ruach Chaim writes (Avos 1:1) that the primary dwelling place of the neshama is up Above, and that only a small part of it is drawn down and occupies the body. The body, elaborates the Ruach Chaim, is like the shoe of the neshama: just as the shoe clothes only the very bottom, miniscule part of the body; so too does the body serve to clothe only the very bottom, most-miniscule part of the neshama.
Now, imagine for a moment that the part of the body which is encased by the shoe possessed consciousness and the ability to communicate but lacked any ability to see beyond himself.
Enter Mr. Foot.
What do you think Mr. Foot would respond were we to pose to him the following query: Mr. Foot, what is your general opinion of yourself? Probably, his response would sound something like this. “Well, I’d like to think that I’m a good guy – you know, a worthy individual, but…well, it’s just kind of hard to feel good about yourself when most of the day you are trapped in total darkness and feeling sweaty and smelly; and that’s on top of being slammed against the ground constantly. At the end of the day I get washed off and receive a short opportunity to breathe. That’s nice, I guess. But almost immediately thereafter I am thrust back into stifling darkness, only to await another day of solitude, confinement, darkness, and discomfort. To top it all off, I simply cannot make heads or tails of this difficult, topsy-turvy reality of mine; it all seems so endlessly purposeless! So, to answer your question, basically I don’t feel all that great about myself, although it pains me to admit it.”
Now, imagine how Mr. Foot’s self-image would be impacted were you to tell him the following. “Mr. Foot, indeed you lead a challenging life. But there is a critical piece of information that you are missing. You see, you are actually part of a massive and incredible structure called the human body. This body does all types of simply amazing activities all throughout the day. It eats, it talks, it enjoys pleasurable activities, it works hard to provide sustenance for itself and its family; and, most importantly, it engages in sublime spiritual pursuit such as speaking to the Creator of the universe in heartfelt prayer, studying His Torah, and doing mitzvos. All of these activities comprise a life that is infused with the utmost of meaning and purpose.
So you see, Mr. Foot, that yours is in fact not a lonely, isolated, and pointlessly difficult existence because you are an integral component of the gigantic human body. True, you are at the very bottom thereof and are thus subject to what is indeed a challenging experience, but that very fact is in of itself an indication of the supreme importance that you carry for the whole body. You see, Mr. Foot, you are the critical part that provides stability, balance, and mobility for the entire body. That’s right! If not for you, the body would have no way to stand or walk, and you can only imagine what that would mean for the body as a whole – it’s functioning would become crippled, literally! That is why you are constantly “taking a beating” – because the body is standing or walking and it is your structure, phenomenal configuration, and unrelenting support that is enabling it to do so.
Your vital contribution is also the reason why you are confined to socks and shoes – despite the relative discomfort to which this subjects you – for you need to be carefully protected to ensure that you are not damaged in any way by the numerous, perilous obstacles that present themselves everywhere. The whole human body knows very well what he stands to suffer if you were to be damaged in even the most minimal manner, and he therefore covers you with these strong layers of protection in order to prevent that from happening. So, in reality, the socks and shoes are not your jail cell, they are in fact your coat of arms, your protective uniform of supreme honor and prestige!
Rest assured, my dear Mr. Foot, that although it is very difficult for you to perceive all that I have told you, the fact of the matter is that it is all 100% accurate, and I have even grossly understated the extent of your true importance, for to elaborate adequately would require a tremendous length of time.”
Surely, upon hearing this astonishing revelation, Mr. Foot’s chest would puff up with pride and his self-esteem would be radically altered for the better.
When we take our three steps forward and say Hashem sefasai tiftach we may understandably be gripped with a sense of terrible inadequacy and shame. Davening to Hashem means connecting and engaging with Him, to actually come close and forge and cultivate a real relationship with Him. But who am I and what am I, one may be inclined to feel, that I can do such a thing? How can I – a lowly, practically insignificant nobody – dare to even open my mouth to the Almighty Creator of the universe, let alone presume to actually relate to Him?!
So the very first thing we do as we begin to address Him, is bend over and look at our shoes. We look at our shoes and become inspired by the realization that just as the seemingly lowly foot is actually the bottom and critical edge of the gargantuan and endlessly significant human body – that the only part thereof that is actually encased by our shoes is that relatively miniscule yet critically important part – so too does our body encase but that bottom edge of our indescribably great neshama. The relatively minimal sense of awareness and feeling for kedusha that we possess, that aspect of our being that we are aware of, is actually part of a much, much greater whole; and it is that immeasurably greater whole that infuses our actions, words, and thoughts – every single nuance of our lives – with the utmost of purpose and meaning, significance and importance. What we perceive of ourselves is actually that critically and vitally important part that supports, enables, and facilitates the functioning and impact of that awesomely great whole.
When we are reminded of this fact, our self-image is powerfully bolstered and enhanced. We begin to get an inkling of why it is that Hashem is in fact so interested in us, thinks so highly of us, pins all of His hopes on us, and grants us the singular privilege of coming close to Him and forging a real and actual relationship with Him. This starting point of awareness helps us realize how truly great and important we are, and infuses us with the self-confidence that we need to properly daven to Hashem and forge and cultivate our relationship with Him.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.