D’var Torah translates into English as “a little bit of Torah.” Take this definition to heart, as you are not expected to be the next Maimonides or Rashi – two of the most famous Torah commentators. Your job is to sift through the text, looking between the lines and behind the words to the hidden meaning that speaks to you and to us. However, the danger in sharing “a little bit of Torah” comes when we speak to an audience of one – ourselves.
Do NOT worry about your writing ability or public speaking style – you are not being graded. In fact, you are giving us all the gift…of you and your heart. Public speaking is the number one thing people fear most – we are so concerned about what others will think about us. Guess what – they are probably thinking exactly what you fear, so why worry ?! Seriously, your sharing and your view of the text is a connection to others that far outweighs how good your D’var Torah is, or how well you are doing – no matter what, your writing and speaking is good enough.
Here are some guidelines that I picked up from Dr. Ken Ehrlich, professor of homiletics at Hebrew Union college:
1. Know Before Whom You Stand — The sharing is not about you, yet it can include you. In fact, sharing personal experiences, revelation, faults and even our pain to support what we are saying connects us with those with whom we are speaking in an amazing way. However, the main focus of the sharing should be how the text speaks to us all. One of the best ways to glean from text meaning that is relevant to the congregation is to simply check the pulse to see what issues or challenges are prevalent to the congregation. New births? Deaths? Job losses? Good/bad current events? Has leshon hara, literally “the evil tongue,” or gossip been getting out of hand? Local happenings for the good or for the not so good? Being humans, we can always be reminded of the ways we should treat each other.
Also, do not use the pulpit to be “right” about Jewish observance. Your observance of Judaism and your views and practice of Jewish Law are yours. The best way to alienate listeners is to make them feel “wrong” about their beliefs. If you use Hebrew words or phrases, define them in English. If you quote Midrash (allegories related to Torah) or Talmud (Mishneh and Gemarah – codifed legal interpretations of Torah [as in the 39 things defined as prohibited work on Shabbat]), state that it came from Midrash or Talmud. It is said that there is no such thing as a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Orthodox Rabbi….there are only Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox congregations. Know before whom you stand, and know where the majority of the congregation stands on their beliefs and practice.
2. Use resources — I use Torat Hayim, from the adult learning link of the www.UAHC.org website. I also use the Rabbi Zauderer’s Kollel Torah Scholars weekly Orthodox commentary. Torah.org and Aish HaTorah are other more traditional weekly commentaries. Just do a Google search of Torah Commentary and see the myriad of sites that show up. A warning: Stay away from the Messianic sites. Messianics are not Jews, rather they are Christians who follow Jewish liturgy. They embed teachings of the Christian bible into the Torah, which is disingenuous to both Jews and Christians.
You will also need a good English Torah Commentary, or Chumash to see what the scholars say about the text. I use Gunther Plaut’s, Torah: A Modern Commentary. Art Scroll offers an Orthodox commentary, and the Conservative has the Etz Chaim chumash. I also recommend a Tanach. Tanach is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, or Torah, Prophets, and Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ruth, and other books). I use the Jewish Publishing Society (JPS) Tanach. The Haftorah portions comes from the Book of Prophets, and each weekly Torah portion has a corresponding Haftorah that is tied to the teaching of the Torah portion. There are always some cool insights in the Haftorah portions.
I use any other resources that work: such as Sparks Beneath the Surface, by Kushner and Olitzky; and Jewish Literacy, by Telushkin
3. “Anything more than 12 minutes is like drilling for oil….it is just BORING..” —Dr. Ken Ehrlich, July 2001.
I like to keep my sermons and d’vrei Torah to no more than 5-7 minutes, except for the High Holidays. To gage how many pages of your writing is 5-7 minutes of speaking time, use 14 font, double spaced for about, gee… 5-7 pages. That’s a useful gage.
4. You might follow a simple recipe: It’s good to start with an opening line tied to the text, an anecdote, a current event, congregational happening – good or bad, or a personal story related to what you want to share. Develop your supporting discussion by citing examples / verses from the text that ties in the text to your opening line, anecdote, current event, story, etc. Finish by honing on the main teaching of the text related to your opening story, now much more clear because of the supporting context already developed and reach either a conclusion about what the text is teaching, or make a request for us all to consider taking on the teaching in our lives.
Rabbi Mitch Cohen