Religion & Beliefs

So You Want To Write A Dvar Torah That Doesn’t Suck

Tomorrow morning I’m giving the dvar Torah at my minyan. It won’t be about this week’s parsha, and among other things, it includes a brief excerpt from Merchant of Venice. Seriously. Divrei Torah don’t have to be boring and obvious … Read More

By / August 17, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Tomorrow morning I’m giving the dvar Torah at my minyan. It won’t be about this week’s parsha, and among other things, it includes a brief excerpt from Merchant of Venice. Seriously. Divrei Torah don’t have to be boring and obvious (‘Hey everybody, war is bad! The Torah says so! Shabbat Shalom. Adon Olam is on page 512’). If you’re into boring and obvious that’s cool, but if not, there are other ways to look at the weekly drash. Here’s my method for writing a rocking dvar: Read through the parsha and wait for something that strikes you. If nothing does (and let’s face it, things get pretty slow for a while in Leviticus), try the haftarah portion. If there’s still nothing of interest, feel free to choose something from the siddur, or really any other place in the Torah that you want to talk about. Most people don’t actually care if the dvar Torah is on the weekly parsha, so if you’re dying to talk about Joseph but it’s July, don’t worry about it. Identify at least one or two questions or ambiguities that you see in the text. If you have the means to read the commentaries yourself, it’s a good idea to see how classical commentators like Rashi, Abarbanel and Rambam have resolved the problem, if they see it all. If your Hebrew isn’t good enough to look at the commentators in the original and if you don’t have a translation available, try googling the chapter and verse using the Hebrew name for the book (“Bereshit 27:28”) or just try googling your question (Why are the people Joseph is sold to referred to as Midianites and then Ishmaelites?). More than likely you’ll be directed to some frum dvar Torah website that will give some traditional views on the problem. So now you’ve got your starting off point. But keep going. Think about how well the traditional commentaries satisfy your problem. Do you believe them? Do you think the problem maybe indicates something else was happening? Now’s the fun part. Think back to other non-Judaic sources that might be relevant to the idea at hand. Maybe it reminds you of a newspaper article you once read, or a short story, poem, painting, piece of music, historical figure, or movie you’re familiar with. Try to narrow down the specific part of your new source that is relevant to the Judaic text. Maybe it’s agreeing with the original text, but more likely it’s providing a different take on the same idea. How does this new source make you think differently about what you read in the Torah? If possible, I think it’s best to give people a source sheet with everything you’re referencing on it so they can follow along as you explain your new interpretation. At the end you don’t have to conclude with a pithy little lesson, but I do recommend at least reviwing what your original question or problem was, and then summarizing all sides of the dicussion. Fun, right? You get to introduce people to ideas and sources that they might never have seen before, and that they might never have connected to Torah before. I’ve written divrei Torah that included pieces of John Donne’s Christian sermons, short shorts by Lydia Davis, and lyrics from a blues song by Son House. Sometimes I even read something so amazing that I think to myself, “Man, this should be in a dvar Torah!” And then I craft a dvar around it. Kind of sneaky, I know, but it usually comes out pretty well. So give it a shot. You know how you’re always trying to get your girlfriend to listen to that Clash album, and she won’t because she says it’s loud and strange? If you can connect it to the splitting of the Red Sea, she might reconsider…