Walking Barefoot: Jewish Lessons in Leadership

With the last-minute move to avert the U.S. fiscal cliff and the impending Israeli election, our leaders could learn from Moses by taking off their shoes and treading on the pebbles of the people they purport to serve.

I must admit that lately I have spent quite a lot of time contemplating my feet.

While many of us spend a lot of time on our feet, truth is we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how or why they are there in the first place. In fact, since ancient times human beings have devised ways of constantly covering up our feet with several layers, to ensure they rarely see the light of day - except of course when after a long day we unwrap them from their dark confinement and curl our toes on the couch.

The reason I have feet on the brain lately is two-fold: the first is that I have slowly, but surely become a runner (that is, a person who enjoys running as a form of regular exercise). And the second reason is because I recently read the book by the travel writer Christopher McDougall, titled Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen.

This very enjoyable book tells the story of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, a reclusive native- Mexican tribe of super athletes who, just for fun, get up in the morning and go for a jog in the Copper Canyons, and at around the 160-kilometer (100-mile) mark or so, they stop for dinner. This is a true story of a tribe whose favorite pastime is competing in “super-marathons,” and, what’s more, they do it all wearing thin sandals made of leather.

You see, one of the major points in this book is that the reason so many of us don’t like to run, is because we’re not doing it correctly. We put on thick cotton socks, we buy expensive, cushioned sneakers with pockets of air, or zigzagging springs, and then we run exactly the way our feet never intended us to run – by slamming our heels into the ground, over and over and over again. No wonder I stop after three kilometers (two miles).

But, as some modern running theories go, we would all run a lot better, farther and with fewer injuries if we just took off our shoes and ran barefoot. The theory is simple: the more direct contact your feet have with the ground, every single nook and cranny of the earth, the more the twenty muscles in your foot grow stronger, more sensitive, more resilient, and - dare I say - more sure-footed.

This whole barefoot theory is nothing new. No, quite to the contrary. In this past week’s Torah portion we read of the first time someone was advised to remove their shoes in order to be in touch with the ground more completely; the person who took off their shoes was Moses, and the advice-giver was God.

In this past week’s parasha, Parashat Shemot, Moses encounters the Presence of God for the first, but certainly not the last, time. While he is tending to his father-in-law’s flock, he stumbles upon Mt. Horev, and there Moses sees the miraculous vision of the burning bush. It is during this moment of theophany when God asks what may seem like an unusual request:

God says: “Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

The commentators are puzzled by this request. Why does God ask Moses to remove his shoes? Is it because there was a line in the sand? Is it because our shoes are naturally dirty and therefore unfit to be in the presence of God?

One possible answer comes from the Hasidic Rebbe, the “Ollalot Ephraim.” He writes:
“The world beneath our feet is always filled with small stones and debris. When we wear shoes, we easily walk upon all sorts of small things which stand in our way; in fact we barely notice them. But, when we walk barefoot, we feel every single stone and pebble, every kotz vedardar, every thorn and every thistle, every last rock hurts us. And this then is the hinted meaning of the text: To Moses, the preeminent leader of the people Israel, God said: “Shal na’alekha” “take off your shoes,” meaning, the leader of each and every generation needs to be aware of every barrier, every experience of suffering that is placed upon the way. A leader must feel the pain of the people, and must be sensitive to their every suffering.”

This is the meaning of true leadership; understanding the power that comes when we walk barefoot through our lives. When, instead of ignoring the pain and suffering of others that abounds, we make ourselves vulnerable to it. When, instead of choosing a life of padding and cushion, we understand that we were meant to feel every rock and every pebble, every thorn and every thistle of the ground beneath our feet.

With the recent debacle of the so-called fiscal cliff debates in the United States, and with the pending election in Israel – I wonder if perhaps our leaders would benefit from a barefoot walk among the people they purport to serve.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Ilya Melnikov