Dvar Torah: Seven Approaches

Thinking of your d'var Torah as an example of a standard form can help you plan what to say.

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If the text contains long lists of names, you can present a history of the origins of some characteristic Jewish names, including the names of some of the people who will be present when you speak.

If you are new at giving divrei Torah, the thematic approaches represented by the Airplane and the Diving Board may be the easiest for you to handle. Unless you are basing yourself on a traditional commentator, stay away from forms like Microscope or Puzzle (see below) until you know enough Hebrew to be able to distinguish between a real nuance in the text and a mere idiosyncrasy of translation.

The Snuff Box

This is a less respectable version of the Diving Board. A visiting maggid, or preacher, used to go from one community to the next. Just before he began his only sermon, his snuff box would drop out of sight. "Where is it?" he would ask loudly. "It has vanished, swallowed up the way the earth swallowed up Korah and his company ... which reminds me of an important thought about Korah."

Inventing a non-existent relationship between the text and a talk you would like to give is a technique generated by desperation. If you have just looked at the parashah (the weekly Torah reading) for the first time the morning you have to speak and you have discovered that there isn't even any good commentary on the text, then you are in deep trouble and may have to bail yourself out. But even then, the Snuff Box approach is definitely shabby. When you are finished speaking, your listeners have the right to expect that they will know at least some small new thing about the Torah they didn't know before. The Snuff Box rarely provides that. You may be sufficiently stuck that you have no alternative, but this is not a method of which you should be particularly proud.

Occasionally you will have an idea that can legitimately be attached to a number of texts. If, for example, you want to talk about the significance of miracles and have a talk in mind, you can probably hang it on several parashot (plural of parashah) where miracles are found. Such a d'var Torah should not be considered a Snuff Box.

The Biblical Personality

Dealing with the narrative portions of the Torah, it is possible to analyze the characters of biblical figures and the events of their lives in ways that will shed some light on our own. Some of the standard subjects in this category include Jacob and Esau or Joseph and his brothers and the problems of sibling rivalry and preferred children, or Sarah and Hagar and the jealous wife. Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews can often be of great assistance in supplementing your sense of a biblical character. Originally published in six volumes, it is also condensed into one thick paperback [called Legends of the Bible]. A Certain People of the Book by Maurice Samuel can also be helpful in this area.

The Puzzle

People love to solve puzzles. If there is classic form for the d'var Torah, this is it. You present several apparently discrepant facts or texts and then explain how the contradictions aren't contradictions at all, but instead point to a deeper meaning that was not obvious at first.

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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.