Take Off Your Shoes

by Dev Noily, SVARA Fellow

A group of SVARA-niks in the distance sit at a wooden table. Because they are so far away, it is hard to see them. They are sitting in front of a large tree which takes up most of the image, with green leaves and pink flowers.

Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. –Ex. 3:5

These are the first words YHVH says to Moses after calling to him from the burning bush. Moses is a wanderer then, a refugee. He doesn’t live in the homeland of his ancestors, or in the land where he was born. This holy place where he finds himself, and finds YHVH, is in the wilderness,

 where Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro: [Moses] drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to the mountain of G-d, to Khorev. – Ex. 3:1

I also live in a place that isn’t the homeland of my ancestors, and that isn’t where I was born. I live in Huichin, the territory of the Lisjan Ohlone people. They have lived here for over 5,000 years – about the span that we count in Jewish mythic time from the moment of Creation to the present. For the last 250 or so of those years, they’ve experienced wave after wave of colonial terror, genocide, displacement, and erasure of their history, language and ceremony. 

Corrina Gould, Spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, said:

(I)f you live in the San Francisco bay area, you have to know that this place is full of magic. There’s movements that have come out of the Bay Area, like the takeover of Alcatraz, the American Indian Movement, Indians of All Tribes, the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers, all kinds of technology and ideas have come out of here. But why would this bubble place be that place? Because our ancestors for thousands of years put down prayers on this land. This land is magic.

It’s our responsibility to take care of this place in such a way. But, taking care of this place is not just for us to do. There are thousands of people that live in our lands now, and so now that you live in our lands, it is also your responsibility. Because this land also takes care of you. Those prayers that our ancestors put down for thousands of years also take care of you and your family. [speaking at Landless in the Bay Area, October, 2019] 

A woman, Corina, standing in front of a black background. She is wearing a red sash and a silver pendant.

A group from the Confederated Villages of Lisyan, standing outside in front of trees.

Corrina Gould, Spokesperson for the Corrina with members of the Lisjan Ohlone tribe; Confederated Villages of Lisjan

Living here, I am standing on holy ground. 

Wherever we are, we are on holy ground. Sometimes covered with asphalt and concrete, and crusted over with histories and current realities of violence and cruelty. What if this weekend, we went outside, and took off our shoes and let our bare feet feel the land where we live? Or let our eyes rest on the sky above our heads? What if we closed our eyes, and felt the ancestors of this place? What if we asked those ancestors what they want from us, what they need from us, to feel peace, to feel whole? What repair is needed? What are our obligations to them, and to their descendants? What if we listened for their voices with the same longing and attunement that we bring to the Beit Midrash, when we strain to hear the voices of our beloved rabbis whispering in our ears those glittery teachings that see our souls so clearly and blow our hearts wide open?

As Jews living in diaspora, we can honor our sacred relationships both with the traditions of our ancestors and with the lands where we live. Our Jewish spiritual homeland may be a traveling one, a transmission of texts and teachings and practices that we can carry with us wherever we go. But we are also embodied folx, living in particular places. So we also need to be in spiritual relationship, and in right relationship, with the places where we live, with the holy ground we put our feet on every day.

We are blessed in the Bay Area to have Indigenous leaders and organizations who guide us, and who invite us to be good guests on this land where they still strive, after everything, to be good hosts. In many places on Turtle Island, it can be much harder to find relationships with Indigenous people. Forced migrations, boarding schools, and violent disruption of balanced ecosystems all contributed to the fracturing of Indigenous communities, and displacement of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands. So for non-Indigenous people, building healing relationships with Indigenous people can sometimes call on us to be patient and to slow down, and to let things unfold in their own time. We’re called into the delicate dance of doing teshuvah, of making reparations for the horrific violence of the past and present, while not letting our need for teshuvah manifest as more demands on those who have been harmed.

Here are some things to help us move toward healing, this weekend, and beyond:

Mount Khorev/Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai. Moses and all of the people will return to this holy place to receive the Torah. The root chet-resh-bet means to be desolate, depopulated, laid waste; and also to be amazed or astonished. The location of the holy mountain has been lost to us. 

The midrash teaches: The Torah was given openly, in a public place (b’makom hefker). For if it were given in Eretz Yisrael, they could say to the nations of the world: You have no portion in it. But it was given openly, in a public place, and all who want to take it may come and take it. [Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, 19:2, 7]. 

Our Torah may have no identifiable place, but wherever we are, our place has Torah. May our bare feet touch the holy ground of the place where we are, so that we can be part of the healing that is needed.

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