HMS 5765-16: Teaching Torah: Writing a D’var Torah

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

January 17, 2005 – Number 5765-16

Teaching Torah: Writing a D’var Torah

If the Torah is the most important book in Judaism, than teaching Torah to others is one of the greatest Mitzvot. When other societies venerated statesmen and soldiers, Judaism saves its highest respect for Teachers. A Rabbi acts in many different capacities in Judaism, but fundamentally, at heart, the position is one of master teacher. But while Rabbis have a certain certification for teaching Torah, in fact, everyone in Judaism has the ability and religious permission to teach Torah to others. One who gives a D’var Torah is called a Darshan (when the teacher is male) or Darshanit (for a female teacher)
What makes Torah so important is that when we read it, it is never the same book twice. While the words always stay the same, they mean different things in our life as we grow and change. What we ignore early in our life, becomes more important as we grow older. What is important in the Torah when we are young, has less significance as we age. The vast range of experiences that make up our life will all color how we read the Torah. Not only is Torah different each time we read it, but no two people will read it exactly the same way. It is therefore important that we share our understanding of Torah, the way we read its words, with others so that they may share our experiences and Torah will continue to help them grow.
To create a D’var Torah, we first need to read the section of the Torah that we feel speaks to our topic. Sometimes we use the weekly Parsha as a springboard to finding meaning. Passages relating to holidays or other important events may also be used. What do we see when we read the text? What part seems to speak to something going on in our life? What verses seem to call us to make a comment about what they are saying or how they are saying it? A D’var Torah starts with a “problem” that we see in the text. The teaching will be how we resolve that “problem.”
Because it is so easy to twist the words of Torah and warp them beyond recognition, the next step to teaching Torah is to see if the classical commentators have anything to say about the verses that have caught your attention. Rashi, ibn Ezra, Rambam and Ramban are a good first place to look. These sometimes appear in translation and can be found in bookstores and libraries. There are also some more modern commentators that can be checked. Aviva Zornberg, Nehama Leibowitz, Kerry Olitzkey are just a few. If you sample their writing, you may find one that speaks more to your way of understanding and will become a favorite. There are also some collections of commentary. Etz Hayyim, The Hertz Humash, and the Plaut Commentary (by UAHC) are all good. For information on Modern Scholarship the best collection is the JPS Torah Commentary but the Jewish Publication Society (it is the foundation of the Etz Hayyim commentary but has more information and important notes at the end of each book). Everett Fox’s commentary for Shocken Books or Richard Elliot Freeman’s commentary are also good. If we see how these passages have been understood in the past, we can better recognize what they have to say to us today.
The third part of a D’var Torah is to build on the past our own understanding of the text. To bring in all the parts of our life that point to the teaching of the Torah. It is not enough in a D’var Torah to just give a survey of what was said in the past. It is far more important to make it relevant to our life by using personal stories and anecdotes to illustrate and punctuate the story. How do these verses change your life? How do they speak to the way you live each day? Does it change the way you see the world? Does it affirm something you have always suspected? What is it about these verses or this story in the Torah that you personally find interesting? This is the most important part of the D’var Torah and the reason people come to listen to the lesson. We learn best from each other.
I always say that writing and delivering a D’var Torah is more than just giving a speech. To be a Darshan or Darshanit means to be actively participating in the longest running classroom discussion in the world. It is a discussion that began with Ezra the Scribe in ancient times, and continues to teach us and guide us today. The best of the best of these Divray Torah, are added to the Aggadic Literature and preserved for all time. As long as we are creating new ways to look at the Torah, Judaism, as a religion remains alive and growing. Teaching Torah is what keeps our faith from getting stagnant and keeps our minds fresh and alive. It is no small matter and it is open to any Jew who wishes to enter into the conversation. “Now, go and study!”

Next week: Jewish Mystical Literature

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