Our shoes say a lot about us. Are we headed to a gala or out for a run? Are we just learning to walk or do we need added support following years of toil? They can be symbols of status, indicative of our roles in life, even emblematic of our values. Archeologists will examine footwear to determine the resources an ancient community had and the type of work in which they were engaged.
Of course, at the lowest points in our history, we were denied our shoes, as we were denied so much. The Nazis took our books, our clothing, our jewelry, and very much our dignity as they sought to eliminate our people at their horrific death camps. Many of us have seen the large bins of shoes at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in our nation’s capital. The sight is harrowing and shows us clearly once more that every lost soul was an entire world of stories, ideas, prayers, and fears. We are left with the simple and tragic reminder: These were people, like you and me.
Shoes are mentioned in the Torah (as everything is). When a woman refuses to take part in the antiquated rite of Levirate Marriage, she is to remove the shoe of her intended as an act of defiance. An entire tractate of the Talmud is devoted to the issues around this curious rite.
In a few days from now, many Jews will choose not to wear leather shoes, as part of their observance of Tisha B’Av, the day on which we commemorate our fallen Temple in Jerusalem and the many chapters of tragedy in our collective history. It is a day of mourning, of modesty, and of reflection.
As I begin at KI, I am fielding questions everyday: Where did I grow up? What are my interests? How old are my children? Where have I traveled? When did I know I wanted to become a rabbi? How did I meet my wife? Where are we living? I am even asked where I got my shoes! (It’s true).
All of the questions – which I love – point to the fact that we are new to each other. We are getting to know each other, a process that will take time. Everything about me is new to you, from the shoes I wear to the places I’ve been to the battles I’ve fought, and vice versa. And so much of your story is new to me; we haven’t yet stood in each other’s shoes.
Our Torah portion this week, Matot, opens with a description of the vows we might make in life. These lines reiterate that our words are important and carry meaning and weight. Indeed, if the world can be created with words, then our words likewise have the power to create, build, and mend. Of course, the opposite is also true; we know well that words have the power to hurt, belittle, and upset. I cannot thank you enough for all of the kind words of welcome my family and I are receiving from the community.
As we navigate these initial weeks together my vow to you and your family is that I am here for you and here to help KI move into the next phase of its remarkable story. We are, indeed, in this together, walking side by side, no matter the shoes we wear.