At a friend’s house for a Friday night dinner, I learned of a game of stories of the week. It was a game not because of its playfulness so much as its rules. One of the rules, formulated by and for the sake of a five-year-old, was that questions on the story were allowed only after the storyteller was done. Here a problem arose: are comments equal to questions? The five-year-old very shrewdly decided against comments, noting that comments were about the commentator’s own ideas, not the storyteller’s. This is very true, of course, for biblical commentators throughout the ages, although the finest comment, to my mind, will choose the middle path, tying closer the speaker and the addressee, or the text and the exegete.
Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on the Pentateuch has plenty of Hirsch in it (and early Modern Judentum in general), but his attentiveness to the biblical text and his ability to genuinely apply the ancient text to his times is an exemplar of hermeneutics.
Commenting on the first verses of Gn 40, he notes the shift between שר המשקים and שר האופים (Alter: “chief cupbearer” and “chief baker”) and משקה and אופה (Alter: “cupbearer” and “baker”). For Hirsch this is an astute observation on power and hierarchy: while the public may view these chiefs as a שר (prince), to the king they are servants as any other, lowlier than the street sweeper.
In his commentary on Gn 41:14, he draws lessons of diplomacy from the preparation of Joseph before being presented in court. Whereas the profuse continuum of verbs was explained by others to convey urgency, Hirsch reads moderation:
“We should notice the traits characteristic of Joseph. The courtiers sought to hasten him to the king. For they had a duty to appease the king, and he was nothing but a servant and a denigrated prisoner. But he was not hastened, but first shaved and changed his clothing… he did not “rush” to Pharaoh, but “came” to him. Fully aware of his personality and calling, and thus, as we saw, he became a sage: in his penetrating gaze, he grasped the particulars of every thing, and every circumstance and relationship.”
[Neither the German nor the English were available to me, and I offer here a translation based on Breuer’s Hebrew translation. Far from ideal for scholarly purposes]
For the peshat it is possible to read those actions as being ordered by the servants. It would be plausible that no person would be presented to the king without prior inspection by courtiers of his appearance. Hirsch’s reading is still valid, based on the verbs and how they are applied, but he could suffice in noting this shift. Instead, he digresses to a brief sermon on the correct behavior, self-respect and self-assurance that should direct an individual’s conduct.
For further insights on Hirsch’s commentary in its German setting (with an intriguing parallel to Mendelssohn’s influence on him), see Alan Levenson’s book, The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 45-63 [on Amazon].