Devar Torah Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana is coming, and I wanted to talk a little about shoes.  OK…a lot about shoes.

Last week, in response to a post submitted by Heshy, a discussion developed regarding the appropriate manner to put one’s shoes on according to Jewish law.  Rather than the subject being discussed in a thoughtful fashion, however, numerous falsehoods were introduced as true premises, and as a result, logically unsound arguments ensued.

I thought it prudent, therefore, to review some true premises relating to what Judaism has to say about dressing oneself — not only to reverse the sense of ridicule already dealt but also to promote a true sense of appreciation for the exquisiteness of Judaism, despite the perception that it is merely self-indulgently excessively nit-picky. (For a nearly comprehensive review of this topic, see R’ Mordechai Becher’s Why Is Judaism So Nit-picky?)

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 2:4) spells out how one is to put on one’s shoes — the left preceded by the right. The Mishnah Brurah explains that the right is accorded with greater honor for most anything that can be divided into right and left because we can see that it is favored in the Torah; when being annointed for various Temple services, participants would have oil or blood placed on the right sided appendages.

So what does this mean and who cares? Truly, Judaism maintains itself to be utterly correlated with reality — so why does God care which shoe goes on first?

Taking it as a given for the duration of this post that there is a God as He revealed himself to Moses and the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness thousands of years ago, there is a concept put forth by Judaism of two opposing forces. They take the form of various complimentary opposites: light and dark, right and left, good and evil. Why is this — is darkness bad? Darkness is essential and quite often, it is even desirable — such as in a refrigerator on Shabbos if you want to close the door! It’s also nice for sleeping. But religion is very metaphoric — I find it one of the most intellectually stimulating things to be able to express myself with an allegory. Often, I can’t talk to patients about their teeth in terms of teeth because they don’t know what teeth are all about. So I talk about teeth in terms of marriage, sports, Judaism, Harry Potter and anything else I can think of to make my patients smile and appreciate what I’m trying to tell them about their mouth. So Judaism makes metaphors for everything and out of everything, and with the proper insight, one can immediately grasp the point of the allegory that is being used to so mystically elaborate on something that may otherwise remain so abstract that it is hardly comprehensible.

But there are those — and it is quite unfortunate that the “those” I speak of hold the frightful majority — who will mock the metaphor. They mock it because it’s silly, they mock it because it’s childish and they mock it because it’s so evident to their elaborately folded cerebral cortex that such a metaphor cannot be reality. God, who existed before the Universe, created the Universe, constructed the galaxies to include such intricate and delicate things as aldosterone converting enzymes and the potential to inhibit them is interested in little me putting my right shoe on first?

And that’s just it — the strawman argument of them all: “These metaphors cannot possibly be reality.” No one said it’s reality; in fact, it’s objectively declared, by virtue of it being a metaphor, that it is meant to represent reality.  So simple, yet so overlooked.  How could we miss it?  Yet countless people laugh at the proverbial Jewish allegory, unable to understand neither the metaphor for its simplicity nor its point devoid of concrete explanation.

If we ascribe terms to God like “Master of the Universe,” it should not surprise us when we say he is the source of all ideas.  It was from R’ Becher that I heard the wondrous concept of “davar v’hipucho” — “a thing and it’s opposite.”  The word “gamel” means both to provide (as in “gemilas chasadim” [giving kindness]) as well as to cease providing (as in “vayigdal hayeled v’yigamal” [the child grew and was weaned] Gen. 21:8).  How can the same word refer to two opposites — it sounds like fodder for Peggy Parish!

So Judaism, in line with its stance of being completely consistent with reality, uses this concept of davar v’hipucho to reveal that what appear to be opposites are really from the same source — Zeus does not advertise good while Hades endorses evil.  Our God is all encompassing, and it is from him that everything emanates.  Yin yang — yeah, that’s just Asian fusion-style Jewish theology.

So back to the shoes — we are meant to understand that while the source of everything is God, we compartmentalize and even personify personal, communal and global properties to make them easier to deal with.  So we have the fight of good vs. evil, even though they really share the same mascot.  There’s no shoulder-riding microangels and demons in Judaism — it’s all in our head.  But rather than engaging in a psychological version of The Body Politic whenever we’d like to engage our evil inclination, we anthropomorphize it into a “him” (or “her”) so as to better beat it.  We then draw as many parallels as we can so as to metaphorize our entire life into a similar struggle of good and evil — check this out if you don’t believe me.

Did God command Moses to instruct the Israelites to kiss the mezuzah, or is kissing it just an exhilarating way of endearing God to oneself on a constant basis?  It is obviously the latter, much in the same way that putting on one’s right shoe first represents one’s constant endeavor to do good and be good.

So when I get dressed this Rosh Hashana, and I put my right shoe on first, I expect it to serve as a reminder of how I’m supposed to perceive the world while I’m alive on this planet for the next 70-some-odd Rosh Hashanas — and it’s certainly not to mock the metaphor.

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