Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, apocryphally said: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” For those who sought to explain all of human behavior in sexual terms, cigars – especially in dreams – symbolized the penis. But sometimes even the most Freudian of psychologist must acknowledge that the plain meaning of things can be correct. A similar observation plays out through the opening words of the third book of the Torah.
The Midrash famously explained that God “called to Moses” (Leviticus 1:1) was a matter of proper etiquette. Before talking to someone directly, one first needs to get his or her attention. That is precisely what God did: He called to Moses and then He spoke to him. But to the classical medieval commentator Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orleans, one need not impose the rabbinic value of propriety into the biblical text. Rather, the text should fit its context. Bekhor Shor shows how.
Before Moses could ascend Mount Sinai yet another time, God calls to him since the glory of God covered the mountain making it inaccessible (Exodus 24:16). By calling to Moses God was signaling that the impediment of His glory would be removed in order for Moses to make his way up. Similarly, near the end of the book of Exodus (Exodus 40:35) the text reports that the glory of God filled up the tent of meeting. Here, too, the glory of God prevented Moses from entering. Hence, God had to call to Moses as reported in the beginning of the book of Leviticus to signal that his entry would now be possible. In both cases, God’s calling was not intended to teach an ethical value – as important as it may be – but served as a practical necessity given the circumstance. To sum up, sometimes a call is just a call.
Bekhor Shor’s refreshing analysis is a reminder that the process of interpretation should not stray too far from the contextual meaning. Or, to put it differently, the contextual meaning will often lead to the correct understanding of the text itself.