The institution of the d’var Torah–literally a “word of Torah,” a lesson or sermon interpreting a text, which can be delivered by anyone, lay or clergy–reflects a fundamental Jewish belief in the infinite interpretive possibilities of Torah. This concept is best articulated in Mishnah Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it; for everything is in it,” and in the rabbinic assertion that each person who stood at Sinai saw a different face of Torah.
While the concept of the d’var Torah may be empowering, the prospect of preparing one can be intimidating. However, preparing and presenting a d’var Torah doesn’t necessarily demand vast Jewish knowledge or extensive rhetorical skills. It requires only a willingness to explore a text and to share your exploration with others.
First, choose the text that will serve as the basis of your d’var Torah. It is common for divrei torah (the plural form) to focus on the weekly Torah portion. You can locate the name of the portion for a given week in a Jewish calendar. The text of the portion can be found in a humash (a printed Torah for synagogue use which usually also contains haftarot, corresponding prophetic readings), available in any synagogue sanctuary. A d’var Torah may also focus on another Jewish text, such as a selection from the Talmud, a midrash, or a contemporary poem.
Once you have selected a text, read it carefully, paying attention to any questions that arise. Some examples:
§ the actions of a particular character
§ the unexpected use of a word or phrase
§ the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated words or themes
§ a strange or unfamiliar concept or practice
§ a difficult theological claim.
After identifying some potential questions, choose the one you find most interesting. Brainstorm other questions that arise from this initial question; e.g., if you have chosen to explore the actions of a particular character, you may wonder about this character’s actions elsewhere in the Torah, or about the ways that other characters behave in similar situations. If you are interested in the use of a certain word, you might consider the precise meaning of this word and think of alternative word possibilities.
Once you have identified a major question and a few sub-questions, you can begin looking for potential answers to these questions. No question has a single answer. Be prepared to explore several possibilities.
You can first look for answers within the text itself. If you are exploring a theological idea, look for other theological statements within the body of the text. To understand the juxtaposition of two concepts, check whether similar concepts appear elsewhere in the text.
After you have exhausted intra-textual clues, you may want to read other writers’ commentaries on the text. For insights into biblical texts, you might look at an assortment of medieval and contemporary biblical commentary. The works of some of the major medieval commentators have been translated into English.
As none of these writers will comment on every verse, you may have to hunt around before you find someone who directly addresses your question. (These commentators can also be helpful in guiding you towards the identification of an interesting question to start with.) Nechama Leibowitz’s series of biblical commentaries summarizes the comments of many medieval writers and also suggests provocative questions about the text.
Many contemporary Bible commentaries and reference books offer a historical, academic approach to the biblical text. These resources can be particularly helpful in explaining words and concepts, and in shedding light on historical details.
Based on your exploration of textual clues, the writings of others, and your own insights, formulate a thesis statement in which you suggest a possible resolution of your question.
You now have created the basis for the beginning and end of your d’var Torah. Begin by explaining your question, and summarize the text sufficiently to allow your audience to understand your discussion. At the end, offer your resolution of the issue. The body of the d’var Torah should guide the audience step-by-step from the question to your thesis statement. You may explore other possible resolutions, explain the steps through which you reached your conclusion, or discuss elements of the question you have chosen. Most importantly, the d’var Torah should be clear and concise and should lead your audience clearly from question to resolution.
Pronounced: ah-VOTE, Origin: Hebrew, fathers or parents, usually refering to the biblical Patriarchs.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.