During the summer of 1991, I was a camper in the intermediate division of Camp Dora Golding. One day, I got off my bed and began walking across my bunkhouse when I stepped on something that became lodged in my foot. I gave it a few firm tugs, but it wouldn’t budge. When I looked at the thing in my foot, I assumed it was an awkward shaped nail. But when I called over my counselor, he took one look at it and told me that I had a fishhook wedged in my foot. The boy who slept in the bed next to mine wasn’t too careful with his fishing equipment, and that time he made the worst catch of his fishing career – me!
My counselor helped me hop across the camp, all the way to the infirmary. After I got the “didn’t I tell you not to walk around your bunk without shoes” speech from the nurse, she sent me off to the Emergency Room at the local Pocono Medical Hospital. It took some time before they were able to extricate the hook from my foot. Thankfully, after they did, they didn’t toss me into the lake, like campers usually do after they extricate fish from their fishhooks.
On Tisha B’Av, as on Yom Kippur, halacha dictates that we do not wear leather shoes. On Tisha B’Av afternoon we go about our business, including food shopping (because we all feel the need to go food shopping during a fast day) wearing crocs and flip flops. Truthfully, these days it is not even unusual to go shopping in such attire. But it is more striking when we wear such footwear with our suits, kittels, and tallesim throughout Yom Kippur.
This year I had a novel thought regarding our change of footwear during these two unique days:
Every morning we bless and thank Hashem “who prepares the footsteps of man.” The bracha is based on a pasuk in Tehillim, in which Dovid HaMelech states: “By Hashem, the footsteps of man are made firm.” Throughout our lives, we make plans and try to chart the direction of our lives. This is in fact how it should be, because without anticipation and direction it’s very difficult to accomplish anything. However, we must remember that ultimately, we are not in charge of our fate. “Many are the thoughts in the hearts of man, but the counsel of Hashem, that is what lasts” (37:23).
In thanking Hashem for preparing the steps of man, we are essentially admitting and thanking G-d for running our lives according to His Master Plan. We set out each day to fulfill our needs as we see them, but we need to remember that our fate is not wholly in our hands.
That idea has been painfully engrained in us throughout the millennia in exile. How often has our national destiny been altered and have we been forced upon journeys and to destinations we had never planned on going to. This is no less true in our daily lives when we do not always end up where we thought we would on so many levels.
On Tisha B’Av we remove our normal footwear to symbolize that the direction of our steps in exile is not totally in our hands. We are part of a divine plan, and our mission is that we try to live as Heaven dictates, even, and especially, when it counters our own plans.
There are times, however, when we fail to live up to that mission, often because our ego and fears get the better of us. For that there is a second day when we remove our shoes – Yom Kippur. It is a day of repentance and rectification when we have the unnatural ability to alter our culpability for our past deeds.
In a sense, on Yom Kippur we can retrace our steps. It is a second chance to commit ourselves to ensuring that our footsteps follow the divinely chartered course of our lives.
We don’t always catch what we were looking for in life. The question is what we do when we reel in the unexpected.