I feel the need to preface this week by stating that I do not comprehend the entirety of this episode in the Parsha. The Brothers were Tzaddikim of the highest order and would not act in narrow minded, childish manner. The Torah nevertheless made their story available in its entirety, showing us there are many lessons to be learned along the way.
Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (circa 1565 – 1630) in his classic encyclopedia “Shelah” analyzes the purpose of not wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur. He explains that we do not want to show our superiority over the animal by standing on its hide. On the day of judgement we wish to display humility. Shoes are worn beneath ones feet, showing this is below the erect human.
Similarly shoes are sign of servitude and subjugation. One of the definitions of “Avodas Perach” – demeaning labor, is being forced to tie a master’s shoes. The master is showing his command over the servant by ordering the servant to tie his shoes, which he then steps on. It is in fact forbidden for one to require such service of his Jewish Slave.
With this idea we can understand why the Brothers sold Yosef and particulary bought shoes with the proceeds of their sale. They were effectively showing themselves to be above him, making it clear that not only will he not rule them. They also indicated that they judged Yosef deserving of being sold into slavery. The Navi in his rebuke does not overlook this aspect and takes them to task for this detail.
Even our shoes can remind us to be human.
Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor (1817 -1896) grew up in abject poverty. Things were so bad that he had to resort to begging to afford a pair of boots to weather the harsh European winter. In the course of his search, he visited the home of a rich philanthropist. On seeing that the beggar was a Yeshiva Bochur – a student of Torah – the wealthy man refused him alms. “I do not give charity to the likes of you – you’re a strong healthy young man, you can go out and get a real job. You can buy boots with your earnings.” And slam went the door. Young YItzchok Elchonon was not deterred from his pursuit of Torah life and learning. In the fullness of time he grew up and grew in greatness. In fact he became the Chief Rabbi of Kovno and its environs, and author of celebrated works of scholarship.
When Reb Yitzchok Elcohonon came to Vilna to publish his manuscript a multitude of Jews came to greet him. The crowds were estimated at a staggering 20,000 people.The Mayor saw this as an affront to the Czar who garnered a poorer turnout. Reb Yitchok Elchonon was thereafter banned from visiting Vilna. Whilst in Vilna, a wealthy personage approached him and offered to underwrite the entire cost of publication. Reb Yitzchok Elchonon turned him down telling him he was too late.
Reb Yitchok Elchonon’s sons observed that this was out of character and questioned him about it. Reb Yitzchok explained “I grew up a destitute orphan without a decent pair of shoes for my feet. I approached this same person to assist me. He critically refused to help me. If he can’t prop me up with a pair of shoes, he doesn’t deserve to support this sefer.”
One may not shape “silly putty” on Shabbos.