Dvar Torah on “How to Write a Dvar Torah”
Tuesday December 02nd 2008, 2:43 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Yet another sermon. Delivered on Shabbat Toldot, 28 Nov 2008

//Introduce special guests attending this morning//

So. Today I am a guest too. I’m the guest sermonizer. I am the guest giver of the D’var Torah.

Can I ask you all a question? I just did. I have a question to ask you all. Have you ever in your life been asked to deliver a Dvar Torah? Raise your hand. Don’t forget, if you had a bar or bat mitzvah, then you might have given a Dvar Torah then, even if that was your only time.

Ever been on a board or maybe even just a member of a Jewish organization, and then one day you get a call from the president, and he or she says, “Hey listen! this week we have a board meeting or a general meeting. And I’d like to ask you to deliver a brief Dvar Torah. Can you do that?” And you think, “Oh oh!!!” Most people would rather swim across a river of dog poop than get up in front of a group and deliver that brief Dvar Torah. Am I right?

With the exception of our guests here today, just about all of you know that I am a rabbi in this synagogue, but I’ve never been the rabbi of this synagogue. I was the rabbi of a synagogue 20-some years ago. But since then, I’ve done other things. You know, I never left the active rabbinate in anger or failure or frustration; I left it to do other things. To follow my bliss. To dive more deeply into some other things.

And every once in a while, someone asks me, “Do you miss not being the rabbi of a synagogue?”; and I usually respond: Well, I don’t miss the politics. I don’t miss living in a fishbowl. I don’t miss people treating me in that weird fashion that we Jews treat our rabbis. (‘oh damn! pardon my French, rabbi’). I don’t miss having to work on Jewish holidays. But do miss have the regular opportunity to deliver a D’var Torah. So I treasure these occasional opportunities when they arise.

Now you all know what a “D’var Torah” is, don’t you? A Dvar Torah is a particular kind of Jewish teaching. It is the most common form of Jewish teaching that most of us ever encounter. A Dvar Torah is when you start with a traditional Jewish text. Usually the text of the Torah itself. Usually from the text of the specific reading from the Torah for the current week. You know, we have this annual cycle of readings from the Torah. And each week’s Torah provides the themes and flavors and teachings and lessons for that week each year for every synagogue around the world.

What do the words Dvar Torah mean? Davar is a word or a thing; word & thing are the same; in Jewish psychology, you say it and it’s real. Interesting psychology. So a Dvar Torah is a word of Torah or a small piece of Torah. I like, “morsel of Torah”; like chocolate chips; on the package it doesn’t say “chocolate chips”, it says “chocolate morsels”. Morsels are small. Rich. Special treat. Is there anyone who doesn’t like cookies made with chocolate morsels?

That’s Davar; what is Torah? And Torah certainly refers to the 5 books of Moshe, the written Torah on our large scrolls that we read from a few moments ago. But Torah is much more. Torah is a process; a dynamic; an ongoing power that begins with The Torah, but flows like a river thru every Jew who ever was. From our most distant ancestors up until today. Through every one of us.

Torah is what makes us who we are. We might not think about Torah for weeks or even months at a time as our busy lives unfold. But in those deeply introspective moments when we think about “Who am I?” or “Why am I here on this planet in this body?” or “Why is my life unfolding in the way that it is?” When we hit those moments of deep introspection, that’s when we become reminded of Torah. Torah is the process that began 4000 years ago. That has animated, motivated our ancestors, through all their wandering and trials and glorious experiences up to the present day. Torah is our record of our encounter with God, and how that encounter has formed us as we are.

Most Divrei Torah (– the plural of Dvar Torah is Divrei Torah, not Dvar Torahs–), Most Divrei Torah are given by rabbis on Shabbat morning. But they can be given by anyone, at any time. That’s why some of our Jewish organizations start out their meeting with a Dvar Torah from one of its members.

The thing I miss the most about not being in the active rabbinate is the frequent opportunity to give Dvar Torah. I miss regular the opportunity to teach Torah, to share it with my people. Here’ my point: Giving a Dvar Torah is a very intense Jewish spiritual experience. In fact, it is one of the most intense Jewish spiritual experiences that there is.

Sometimes people complain: Jewish life as most of us experience it is very dry, very much done by rote. There’s no depth of feeling it, there’s no intense spiritual experience offered in regular synagogue life

When you deliver a Dvar Torah you get to talk to the people about spiritual matters. You get the privilege of having Torah flow through you to the people. There is nothing like it. On one hand, it is humbling when you’re asked to do it. To be recognized that maybe you have something to share that’s worth sharing. And at the same time it’s your chance to open up and say who you really are. Like publishing your web site: “Here I am world! I’ve got something to say! I’m part of this unfolding of Torah. Here’s my experience!!”

Occasionally I get to give one. Like now. Rabbi Taff has another commitment, and I get to fill in.

Most Divrei Torah that most of us hear are given by rabbis. Most of us on one level equate being a rabbi w/ giving Divrei Torah. That’s where we see our rabbis. That’s where rabbis see us; or don’t.

Being a rabbi requires diverse skills. Some at odds with one another. No one can be good at them all. Some rabbis are great counselors; others are great leaders and organizers of people; some are great writers. Almost all rabbis feel the call to do Dvar Torah every week. The irony of it all is that I don’t know many people that have that much to say. Myself very much included. My Divrei Torah are usually well received because I don’t have to give them very often. So I get to save up my insights over months and then when I get the opportunity, I’ve got tons of material.

When you think about it, What makes rabbis different than everyone else? We need 10 Jews for a minion for a prayer quorum. 9 rabbis won’t do. But the person who is designated as the rabbi of a congregation has the right and opportunity and obligation to do a Dvar Torah every week.

But giving a Dvar Torah is very difficult for most people as it’s a skill that needs a lot of development. So on one hand you’ve got a few people (rabbis) that give way too many Divrei Torah and on the other, you’ve got a lot of people that could give a good one with a bit of encouragement and a few hints on how the process goes.

Creating, delivering a Dvar Torah allows you to exercise your inner teacher function. And that’s a very high level of being. When I was younger, I always wanted to be a teacher; even before I knew enough to teach most anybody. Before you can teach you have to experience.
I want to tell you, I am never so alive, so energized as when I prepare for a Dvar Torah. It can be agony. But it’s an agony that I love. I am rarely so excited as when I’m scheduled to give a Dvar Torah. It requires your whole body, your whole feelings, mind and spirit. Just like dance.

So that’s what I want to share with you this Shabbat. Writing a Dvar Torah and delivering it to fellow Jews or any fellow human beings is a gift. It is a wonderful blessing. It is an opportunity to allow yourself to become just a little bit more wise, more self actualized, more of a Jew, and more whole person.

So the next time you get that phone call from the president of your organization, saying, “Hey! would you be willing to give the Dvar Torah at our meeting next Monday?” Here’s what you do. Here’s my recipe for how to write a Dvar Torah. I’ll show you.

#1. Start with your mind as a blank slate. Don’t start out by thinking you know what you want to say. First, clear your mind; take a few deep breaths; relax and meditate; maybe say a prayer or two; and go inside yourself and ask for wisdom; ask for Torah to flow thru you.

#2. Then you read parshat hashavuah, the Torah portion for the current week. That is the oracle, source of deepest wisdom. Read it slowly. Savor every word. And as you do, trust that in there somewhere, its got what you need. Only you have to find it. Look for a question. What grabs you here?

You don’t start with, “Hey! I’m a musician. I want to talk about my music; where is it in the Torah?” No no. no. You clear your mind and let Torah flow through you. If it’s music you’re inspired to speak of, Torah will sing something to you.

The Torah this week is the story of how Jacob/Yaakov cheated his twin brother Eysav/Esau out of their father Ytzkhak/Isaac’s final blessing before he died. This is Yaakov who becomes Israel, the name we are all called. And this story makes our ancestor, our beloved Jacob/Yaakov, this story makes him into a low grade crook. With his mother as his accomplice. So you read the story slowly and you see what grabs you.

You’ve heard this story a hundred times. But this time its going to have something new to teach you. Listen for it:

When Yitzkhak/Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could not see, he called his elder son Eysav and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.”

He said, “See, I am old; I do not expect to live much longer. So, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”

Now Rivka/Rebeka was listening when Yitzkhak spoke to his son Eysav. So when Eysav went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rivka said to her son Ya’akov, “I heard your father say to your brother Eysav, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the YHVH before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. Go to the flock, and get me two choice kids, so that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he likes; and you shall take it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.”

#3. What grabs you? Formulate a question.

//Call on a couple of people to share their question//

Why did Rivka say…? Why did Yaakov go along…? How did Yitzkhak not see…? What detail of what happens here determines something down the road as the story unfolds? What hint of something more going on do you perceive? What does the story leave out? Why does the tale unfold as it does?

#4. When you’ve found your question, then you ask, How have others understood this question? You might look up our great sages and Biblical commentators like Rashi or Rambam and see how they understood the verse. You might check the footnotes of our Khumash.

Or you could Google it. There is tons of Torah on the web these days.

So the other day I’m talking to my daughter Lana, and I’m telling her about how I’m figuring out a Dvar Torah about Yaakov and Eysav, and she says she read an article in her Jewish studies class that pointed out how Yaakov never apologizes for cheating his brother or for anything else that he messes up in his lifetime. So this pricked my interest, so I Googled “Torah Jacob never apologizes” and guess what? There it was. I don’t know if it was the same exact article Lana had seen, but it was pretty similar. If you haven’t looked, you’d be amazed how much Torah there is on the Internet!!

#5. So you clear your mind, you read the Torah, you open to a question, you research an answer, and then you let it coagulate within you.

Through your research, you might find that someone else offers an explanation that answers your question. If so, you might want to explain why that explanation is satisfying. Or if none of the explanations you find satisfies you, then you have to come up with something new.

It may take a day or more for this process to unfold. It can be agony. Agony is good. The inspiration comes on its own schedule.

#6. So when you’re ready, then you sit down and write. Work out the details. What question did the Torah ask you? Who else has struggled with this question? What do they offer? Is it enough? If not, here’s how I understand this now. Craft the words. Add a few examples.

And then you’ve got to convey what you’ve learned to others. Craft the gestures, the inflections; add the dance.

And then when the time comes, when you take to the bima, you can let it flow.

If you get an opportunity to deliver your Dvar Torah, whether in synagogue or at your organization meeting, you’re all focused on what you’re saying and on what you’ve learned and on the message that you’re sharing. The experience may teach something to those who hear it.

But inside, know that what you are doing is very intense Jewish spiritual experience. It is transforming you. It is bringing you more deeply into the mechanics of Torah. It is helping you to know yourself better. It is bringing you closer to God.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 Comment so far

Dear Bill,

I liked this piece, and really related to it – R’ Fisdel did, as well. So, we talked it over and are wondering if you might like to join with us to do a rotating “D’var of the Week” for folks on our combined e-mai lists – you do one week, Steve the next, etc. Would you be interested?

Hope you are well – all the best to you and Wendy and your family!

Comment by shula 01.20.09 @ 4:16 pm

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