You, there--give a Dvar Torah, lead a discussion!!

by David P. Stern


Written in June1998 for members of congregation Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt, Maryland.


      Every religious service at Mishkan Torah has one part (at the very least) which is not prescribed, which must be created anew every time. Sometimes it is a commentary on the Torah reading of the week--a "Dvar Torah", word of the Torah. Sometimes it illuminates an issue of Jewish or moral significance, and is then often followed by an open discussion. No service should lack this part. Prayers and readings may inspire, joint singing may enhance feelings of togetherness--but those parts are familiar and predictable, and every service needs some parts which are neither.

      Unfortunately, on occasions when the rabbi is absent, this is often the first part to go. Some members of Mishkan Torah have stepped into the gap (I among them, for about 25 years) but more are needed and the way things stand, perhaps many more. I was asked for some thoughts on what it takes to present a successful Dvar Torah or discussion, and they are presented below. It is a somewhat personal view, how one person goes about it, and your style may differ. So pick and choose, but please--don't hold back.

      As a physicist I often have to give 12 minute talks about my work at conventions. The time limit is enforced by a chairman and a timer, and when the light goes red and the chairman stands up, you better finish quickly. Because a lot must be crammed into a short time, the talk is always typed up ahead of time. When I stand up those typed notes are always in front of me. But it's interesting, once you have written them down, you know what to say (no, never read them!) and the most you need is a quick glance.

      The same works with a Dvar Torah. Word processors are wonderful tools, they allow you to edit and revise, to underline, bold face and mark your text in other ways, even to convert it to a big font which makes those quick glances much easier. And 12 minutes is a good length: cut it even shorter if you expect a long discussion.

      So rule one is--write it down, ahead of time, then edit and improve. Rule two --the audience should always take home from your presentation at least one new thing--a new idea, a new midrash, a new piece of Jewish trivia, a new insight, a new name or place. At least one--if more, even better. Rule three is somewhat related--whatever you say or discuss, should have some central pivot, some central idea around which it revolves. You begin your preparation by defining that idea to yourself.

      What sort of idea? The church-type sermon exhorts listeners to some specific good behavior--charity, kindness, tolerance, love, dedication, diligence--without becoming too specific, so that each listener can interpret the words in his or her personal way. However, Mishkan Torah members don't go for this style, and you do not hear it often.

      So what else is there? A whole world of worth-while subjects. First of all, books of biblical commentary exist, even the Hertz Chumash has some, and there also exist big collections of midrashim. Use all these with care--some such printed material is interesting, but many come across as dull. Ask yourself, how does the subject you have selected strike you?

      And this leads to rule number four: whatever you talk about should be something you hold significant. It should never be "this is the best I could find"--it should be a topic you care about, or something you found fascinating and expect others will, too. The way you relate to your subject colors your entire presentation.

      Thus if you have any personal thoughts about the weekly reading or haftarah, they may be quite appropriate. Even if it is a minor point, not enough for a full discussion, bring it up before the scroll is read, to set the tone, and then have a completely different discussion at the end of the service.

      Look at the daily paper (or a Jewish publication): what is happening in the Jewish community, or in Israel? In connection with the appointment of a new head to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, George Will on the op-ed page, last Thursday, discussed how

    "...the Holocaust is being exploited by academic entrepreneurs and factions with political agendas, all working to blur what the museum exists to insist upon--the distinctiveness of the calamity that befell European Jewry."

Wow. You will probably have to stop the discussion because too many people will want to express their opinions!

      A recent "Washington Post" profiled the military officer who founded "Peace Now": another good topic, you may even invite a speaker from the organization, now that it has a Washington office. The Sheinbaum case--should Israel extradite a murderer? Will it? And just a small item in yesterday's paper: "Israeli Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai ordered the dismantling of a shrine at the grave of a Jewish settler who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the 1994 Hebron mosque massacre." Yes, a shrine--with benches, lamps and a cabinet containing religious books, which "... has become a pilgrimage site for Jewish extremists."

      Or maybe discuss a Judaic book you have read, as I once did with a book about Chassidim and another time with the memoirs of Glückel of Hameln; some day I may cover Yig'al Allon's "My Father's House"(or let someone else do it). You could discuss a little-known book of the Bible, or some of the Apocrypha (Isaac Asimov's "Guide to the Bible" is a wonderful source book!). Or even the ancient writings of Josephus: one Tish'ah Be'Av a member read from his "Jewish War" an eyewitness account of the burning of the Second Temple, a strong, gruesome description which drove home the significance of the day. The book has other noteworthy parts, e.g. on Metzadah and on the Essenes.

      Or an anniversary, e.g. of November 2 1898, when Herzl met the German emperor in Jerusalem--an anniversary which may serve as pivot for telling the story of Herzl. We are also in the 50th year to the independence of Israel, with many interesting anniversaries. Fifty years ago last week, Jerusalem was besieged (has anyone discussed the book "O Jerusalem" recently?); fifty years ago this week, the Irgun arms ship "Altalena" was run up on the Tel Aviv beach, and was shelled and burned on the orders of Ben Gurion.

      One can go on and on--holidays, observances, prayers, songs, remarkable Jewish sites you have visited--but you already have the idea.

      Let me therefore end with rule five: the longer you prepare ahead of time, the better the result. It takes a while for inspiration to come, for your mind to distill the ideas into the right words. You may want a spouse or friend look over what you have written. The process cannot be rushed.

      But you already knew that, too.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 9 June 2002