Author Archives: Rabbi Richard J. Israel

Rabbi Richard J. Israel

About Rabbi Richard J. Israel

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.

Dvar Torah: Seven Approaches

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.

Your d’var Torah will almost inevitably fall into some rather specific categories or combinations of a couple of them.

The Microscopepreparing a dvar torah

From close up you look at very small fragments of a text in great detail and hope that as you magnify the specks you will discover whole worlds within them. You have to be sure to pick up your specks with care, but you will know that you have some nice ones if the commentators are as interested in them as you are. If they aren’t, chances are you should forget it, too.

Example: Take the first word of Genesis or, better yet, the first word of Leviticus (which you’ll need more because the story line is not as interesting), and describe how a series of biblical commentators have treated that word, what problem it represented for them, and what generalizations can be made about their resolutions.

The Airplane

Observe the text from a distance, survey the panorama, take note of interesting details, and then as you descend make observations on why the trip was worthwhile in the first place and how to appropriate what you have just observed for your more earthbound existence. The Airplane is especially suitable for those Torah readings that deal with ritual details at great length.

Example: After describing the architecture of the Mishkan [the Tabernacle that served as the Israelite’s place of worship during their wandering in the wilderness] and its role in the lives of people, you might want to discuss the role of minutiae in the building of a religious life. As the French say, God is to be found in the details.

Or: A discussion of the Mishkan often suggests an evaluation of the difference between a Judaism that is fixed in one place, Jerusalem and the Temple, and the portable Judaism of the Mishkan that can be carried about wherever we go.

Dvar Torah: Dos and Don’ts

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.