Giving over meaningful guidance on the Torah portion during a religious service is not so much a speech as it is a mitzvah, a sacred act called “giving a d’var Torah.” A d’var, “a word” of Torah, is a brief teaching where you connect your Torah portion with the heart, mind and spirit of those present. Israelis often refer to this practice as a derasha, or drash, an “explanation” of the Torah portion. There are 54 Torah portions read over the course of one year, and returned to with fresh eyes and the lens of expanded life experience every year.
While often given as an oral presentation, a Torah teaching can take many forms. Whether you can offer a self-crafted talk, play, satire, ballad, dance, visual art, poetry or other formats will depend upon local norms, the flexibility of your setting and your own talents. This is a precious opportunity which is meant to reflect who you are as a member of your community and to relate those ideals, concerns and ideas that you believe will be meaningful to those in attendance.
Here are steps I find helpful when preparing a d'var Torah, aka Drash or Torah teaching, these can't all be undertaken in one day. Take your time, a dvar Torah is rarely a spiritual emergency. If you accept a date to give one, make sure it's well in advance so you can enjoy the process, it's a beautiful and usually powerful experience:
1. Find the Torah portion that you will be studying. Be sure to have a couple of different translations available, because Hebrew is wonderfully nuanced and each word can yield slightly or greatly different interpretations depending upon the individual or team who are providing the text in the language(s) you understand.
2. Don't forget the prayer for Torah study if that is your practice.
3. Read through your Torah portion once quickly to get the gist of the whole thing.
4. Outline the portion. Just like in school find the major sections, then the points inside of those sections.
5. highlight points that bring out a reaction in you.
6. Journal about one of the sections where you find your own wisdom or passions being impacted upon. Write your thoughts and feelings.
7. Ideally find a partner to study with whom to study this section, see what new emerges. (See our article on Hevruta please)
8. Is a theme emerging for you? Is one area of the portion becoming a focus of your interest and attention? Maybe only a few verses, one sub-story or even a single fascinating word?
9. Look up what sages throughout Jewish history have had to say about the section or verse(s) you are reacting/relating to. You can juxtapose their ideas with yours...there's unlikely to be a wrong way to interpret. Every life is a new lens that illuminates the infinite possible meanings of Torah. That's part of why you were born, to contribute your own vision, views and values to the Jewish people's ever evolving meanings for the text. A list of the traditional commentators can be found in the Torah chapter of our Meaning & Mitzvah book.
An easy on-line way to find the sages is to type in the book of Torah and number of the verse you want to find commentary on in a search engine along with the word "midrash," which is a major way the sages provide commentary, by creating stories that reflect their views about that section.
For example, if your are reacting to the first verse of Genesis, you can search on: Genesis 1:1 midrash
You can also type in the names of scholars, sages and Jewish leaders you admire, past or present, who might have written on that section. You will almost always find the sages Rashi and Rambam have something to say, also try Aviva Zornberg, Elyse Goldstein, Nehama Liebovitz, z'l, Shefa Gold and Neil Gillman to suggest a few of the hundreds of wondrous commentators.
10. Are there poems, songs, vignettes, stories or quotes from others that relate to the theme that might connect to the wisdom you are emerging from within about this portion?
11. Look for symbols and metaphors in the Torah portion. Water, for example, symbolizes the attribute of G*d and humans known as chessed - abundance, flow, and lovingkindness. Knowing to look for metaphor means you don't have to be stuck in the apparent, literal meaning of the text. Literal isn't often the Jewish way of understanding Torah. (See our article on Torah as Metaphor)
12. Now that you've moved on since your first theme, impulse, what theme remains compelling for your d'var Torah? Let's say you want to say that Dinah was not raped by Shechem, but rather they fell in love and Dinah's brother's couldn't tolerate that she found someone on her own and made love before marriage, so they held the husband accountable and his family for how they raised him, and slaughtered them. How would you make this relevant today? The Saudi Government has increased the penalty to the female victim of rape to be that she receives 200 lashes. You might talk about the importance of Jews using Dinah's story and how Judaism has evolved to not punish the victim and to find and help the perpetrators evolve. You could speak with pride about the evolution of your tradition, and encourage those present to speak out. You might share a story of courage of someone who spoke out on the subject.
13. Jot down each point you need to make for your d'var Torah to be coherent, sequence them, insert illustrations such as stories or articles or such that you feel important to briefly include.
14. Create a flowing to narrative, get to the point where you really like the dvar that's emerging.
15. Give the teaching to yourself in a mirror, or tape and listen or webcam yourself and watch (ideal).
16. Practice on a friend, have them tell you what they loved and what would help them feel even more engaged with the dvar, potential constructive tweaks, not criticisms.
17. Revise and revisit points 11-13 until you feel fully ready to roll! Mazel tov, congratulations on all your effort and this precious achievement. If you find you want some mentoring for your d'var and don't have someone local to help, email us and we will make a staff member available to assist.