Towards the end of Shir Hashirim (7:2), the man – symbolizing God – exclaims to his lover – symbolizing Benei Yisrael, “Ma yafu fe’amayikh ba-ne’alim bat nadiv” – “How beautiful are your steps in shoes, o daughter of nobles!” He marvels at the grace and beauty of his beloved as she walks “with shoes.”
The Gemara in Masekhet Chagiga (3a) interprets this verse as a reference to the mitzva of aliya le-regel – making a pilgrimage to the Beit Ha-mikdash on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. According to the Gemara’s reading, God here praises the Jewish Nation for making the journey to the Temple to celebrate these occasions, exclaiming, “How beautiful are the feet of Israel at the time they make the pilgrimage.” Am Yisrael are called here “bat nadiv” (literally, “the daughter of nobles”), the Gemara explains, as a reference to their descending from Avraham. (The Gemara notes the verse in Tehillim (47:10) which refers to Am Yisrael as “nedivei amim…am Elokei Avraham,” indicating an association between Avraham and the title “nadiv.”)
Rav Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam of Shinova, in Divrei Yechezkel, suggests that the Gemara here draws upon the symbolic significance of “shoes,” which are emphasized in this verse. When God first appeared to Moshe at the burning bush at Choreiv, He instructed him to remove his shoes out of deference to the sanctity of the site (Shemot 3:5). Rav Moshe Alshikh explains that as the shoes separate between one’s body and the ground, they symbolically represent all that obstructs a person from sanctity. The removal of one’s shoes at a sacred site alludes to the effort we must make to rid ourselves of the vanity and distractions which hinder us from achieving spiritual greatness. Accordingly, the Divrei Yechezkel suggests, the Gemara here teaches us that God finds it “beautiful” when we ascend to the “Beit Ha-mikdash” – when we devote ourselves to His service – even when we still wear “shoes,” when we are submerged in the pursuit of vain worldly pleasures. God expects us to achieve to the best of our ability under our current conditions, whatever they may be, and He cherishes every “step” we make even in our “shoes,” even if we are very far from perfecting our character.
Shir Hashirim depicts God’s relationship with Benei Yisrael by way of an allegory to the passionate relationship between two lovers. We might have assumed that in order to earn this level of love, we must perfect ourselves, and succeed in eliminating all our human vices to the point where we have achieved complete purity and innocence. The Divrei Yechezkel teaches us that God loves us and marvels at our “beauty” when He sees our “steps,” our efforts to advance and move forward. Even when we are still in our “shoes,” mired in our base desires and negative tendencies, He cherishes each and every “step” we take towards the “Mikdash,” in the direction of holiness. What matters most to our relationship with the Almighty is our “steps” forward, the work and effort we are making to grow and improve. No “step” is unimportant or too small to celebrate, because each and every one earns us God’s special love and affection, no matter how far we still need to go to reach our maximum spiritual potential.