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Holy Ground

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

"And He said (God to Moses), Do not come any closer, remove your shoes from off your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground." (Exodus 3:5)

When television first reached the shores of Great Britain, the BBC asked the general public for suggestions to what they should call someone who watches television. The Talmud, 2000 years earlier, explained the meaning behind this. All languages are an agreement among people. We all agree to call this a chair and that a table, but we could just as easily have named that a chair and this a table. In other words, words are arbitrary, and we can call someone who watches TV whatever we want. In fact, we often do.

One might erroneously conclude that the study of words and languages is meaningless. That would be a mistake. In fact, it is so important, that to sit on Judaism's highest court, the Sanhedrin, one must be fluent in 70 languages. A judge, specifically a judge of people has to have the deepest love of life, and as much as we all may profess such conviction, without a matching love of wisdom, it's really not life we love, but comfort.

Wisdom is the science of making life meaningful and fulfilling, and every nation has a unique wisdom. Its language is a reflection of how its people see life, and without a true understanding of its language, you would be missing that nation's unique wisdom.

For example, if you know a little Spanish you will appreciate that "siesta" does not translate as "nap." It's more a reflection of how you view your day than the time you take to close your eyes. Words that reflect a culture's world view cannot be translated into another language with a different world view. This inability to truly capture what words mean in another language is why the Rambam (Maimonodes) writes that all translators are liars.

Similarly, the Yiddish word "nachas" does not translate as "joy." You don't have to be Spanish nor Jewish but you do need to know the words. A word is an insight into life. It's a reflection of how the speaker thinks.

People cannot think outside their language. If you don't have the word, you cannot ponder the concept.

In the Eskimo language of Inuit, I am told, there are approximately 100 words for snow. That means there are types of snow I don't see, even though I have to shovel it.

If all you speak is English you cannot think outside the sum of all the English words. This is true for all languages. Therefore, if you studied the entire dictionary of a language you could know what the speakers think.

Now, take all the English words you do know. What does it tell you about the thinking of English speakers?

All English words are descriptions of the physical world. Whatever room you are sitting in, there are words to describe everything you see. Given the time, you could recreate the room just through words. This is not possible however, in classical Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew only has primary colors and approximate measurements. Hebrew is clearly not a language for understanding the physical world.

But, just as Hebrew is inept at describing the physical world, English is terrible at describing the spiritual or emotional world.

English has no words to tell anyone, least not yourself, how you feel.

By the way, how are you feeling today?


Can you tell me how you are feeling relative to yesterday?

"A little bit better."

Does that tell me anything? Can you express your feelings about your spouse or children in ways that you couldn't be talking about your new car?

Not to diminish either, but what does the word love mean if it can be used to describe feelings for your spouse and your new surround-sound home movie theater?

This paucity of sentiment doesn't end there. "Spiritual," "transcendental," "paranormal," all these words mean the same thing - nothing. They are more a reflection of what we don't know, than what we do. The English speaker knows what normal is, so paranormal (para + normal) means more than that.

What does that mean? Nothing.

Similarly transcendental and spiritual are just labels for worlds we know nothing about, so we put them all into the category of the supernatural (super, meaning more than, + natural) and leave it at that.

Leaving it at that has severe consequences for a human being, who is essentially a spiritual being (whatever that means). It means the soul that is aching to express itself is stymied.


Without the words, you cannot think about your feelings.

Go one millimeter below the physical surface and English goes dark. In the physical world we have a multitude of words for colors, shapes and dimensions. A multitude of words for money and how it is doing; your investment portfolio can easily be defined and categorized. But not your spiritual portfolio.

And thus we come to the word "holy."

What does it mean?

I like to joke that in the Pentagon they have two war departments, the department of wars and the department of holy wars. What is the difference?

Holy wars cost twice as much. That's how the Pentagon sees them. Truthfully, it's how I see them too, at least as it relates to the world's current wars.

How can someone eager to end lives be engaged in a "holy war." Is this not an oxymoron? Why is it that the people proclaiming a holy war are more violent and more willing to inflict widespread collateral damage than those in a conventional battle?

I think it true to say, that any meaningful definition of the word "holy" can never lead us to include the proponents of 9/11.

I am always amused when people get offended because you walked on their holy ground. Not that I need place my toe on their so-called sacred dirt just to tick them off or to see what will happen to my foot. But rather, I feel compelled to ask, "What happens when a Jew, or an infidel by another name, steps on your holy ground? Does the time/space continuum slow down? Does the holiness leave in a huff and go stay with someone else's dirt?"

Maybe this is too sacrilegious to ask, but why is an infidel worse than a bird? What happens when a non-religious bird alights on such property? Or, dare I ask, when he "does his business" there?

Maybe the birds know it's holy ground, or maybe the birds converted? But I jest, if you couldn't tell.

In our verse above, God tells Moses to remove his shoes because the ground is holy.

What does this mean?

Is holy ground synonymous to freshly cleaned carpets in your mother's house. Maybe God just cleaned the desert, so to speak, and Moses, who has been tending the sheep (with all that it entails), approaches. Maybe God doesn't want him messing up the rock arrangement?

Surely I jest some more. Yes.

Hebrew is a spiritual language. If you want to express your soul, you have to know Hebrew. In English, the word "holy" really doesn't mean anything. It is simply a way of saying "more." More committed, more violent.

In Hebrew the word for holy is kadosh. Kadosh means "meaningful." Something is holy/Kadosh, if when using it, or when in it's proximity, it gives you a clearer idea of what life and your purpose is all about. A holy experience makes you more meaningful and directs you to your true purpose in life.

God runs the world. There are no accidents. Everything that happens to you, from the largest to the smallest, is directed by God. Nothing is too difficult and nothing too small for God to organize. There is only one God and everything that happens is done with ultimate thought. There is a reason for everything.

Living with this idea can be daunting. Even big events are sometimes beyond our understanding. That doesn't take away from their meaning, it just means we are not thinking hard enough about them, or it isn't necessary for us to know what it means. Nevertheless, if we are pursuing a life of meaning and holiness, we should try to understand why what happens to us, happens to us.

Where to start?

With the biggest things that happen to you, then work your way down. Be careful though. There is a point where, if you ponder the meaning of everything that happens to you, you will not get anything done. God is talking to us all the time through all the little and big things that are happening to us, but there comes a point where you just have to move on.

Where is that point?


Shoes perform a different function than our other clothes. Clothes keep us warm and modest. Shoes protect us from the stones and sharp objects on the ground. Without them, we would have to pay very close attention to where we walked and we would constantly be stubbing our toes.

A stubbed toe is a message that we should listen to. And even though we should not try to evade the messages, we wear shoes to protect us from getting them. The reason being, there is a certain point where the message is not as important as the job we have to do.

"And He said (God to Moses), Do not come any closer, remove your shoes from off your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground." (Exodus 3:5)

This ground in meaningful (Kadosh/holy). Remove your shoes so that we (God and Moses) can talk. Similarly, on the holy day of Yom Kippur, we remove our leather shoes, since this day is especially holy. Whatever happens that day has a real message in it for you - even the smallest things. Take the time to listen more than you usually would; it's God talking.

But even when it's not Yom Kippur, God is still talking. You don't have to take your shoes off to get the message, you just have to pay attention to the messages you get.

* * *


Question 1: God is talking to us every single day. What was the most significant event of the day. What is the message?

Question 2: Ask a good friend if they agree with your answer.

Question 3: List the significant events that occurred to you this week, from the smallest to the largest: is there a theme to all these messages?

Question 4: Ask three people to help you understand a significant event that occurred in your life.

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