Dvar Torah: Dos and Don’ts

Factor your audience's expectations and the limits of their patience into your presentation.


Reprinted with permission from The Kosher Pig and Other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life (Torah Aura Productions). The essay from which this article was excerpted, “How to Give a D’var Torah,” originally appeared in New Traditions, published by the National Havurah Committee.

The Torah text is the common ground between you and your listeners. They assume that you will find something in that text that will be worth their while to hear. They are not expecting to learn about the political situation in Israel or what was in the New York Review of Books last week. Neither are they expecting you to explicate the Torah in a way which is not at all congruent with their sense of the tradition. They anticipate hearing some old ideas or familiar verses in a new way that will invigorate their Jewish lives.

This means that you may not turn a text on its head by teaching, for example, that Esau [Jacob’s twin brother] or Amalek [an enemy of the Israelites], for some interesting reason that you have just discovered, are splendid fellows. You may conclude that Joseph is selfish and that David has serious personal flaws; the Torah knows that and agrees with you.

But you may not announce that Goliath is a misunderstood hero or that it is unreasonable to pick on poor Pharaoh who was really a kind and gentle man–at least not unless you want to alienate your listeners. You must work, even if loosely, within the traditional understanding of the character and events of the Bible. A d’var Torah, though it involves learning and challenge for the listener, also has a ritualistic quality. At some level it must provide comfort.

Not everyone accepts that proposition. There is a kind of person, often inexperienced, for whom making other Jews angry is a source of joy. They usually declare how pleased they are to be making others think. Instead of calling attention to Torah, which is the appropriate task, what they really do is call attention to themselves. Those who must listen to such speakers will always feel shortchanged.

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Rabbi Richard J. Israel (1929-2000), a Hillel rabbi for most of his professional life, was also an author, marathon runner, beekeeper, and teacher and mentor to many.

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