Sample Chapter: Interpreting Your Torah Portion

Sample Chapter: Interpreting Your Torah Portion (From Reclaiming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a Spiritual Rite of Passage by Rabbi Goldie Milgram)

On your Bar/Bat Mitzvah (B-Mitzvah) day, the power of the pulpit will be handed over to you. You will have the responsibility of helping your community to find meaning for living from within the parsha, the Torah portion for the week.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.

     Although a Torah teaching is often an oral presentation, yours can take many forms. Whether you can offer a self-crafted talk, play, satire, ballad, dance, visual art, poetry, or other format will depend upon local norms, the flexibility of your setting, and your own talents. This is a precious opportunity that is meant to reflect who you are as a member of the minyan of your life and to relate those ideals, concerns, and ideas that you believe will be meaningful to those in attendance.

     You are not meant to be alone in the task of crafting your Torah teaching. Nor is someone else to create it for you. Some will believe it is a gift to do this for you, so thank them for caring so deeply. You will find interesting examples of divrei Torah in this book and on the internet, but think of these as springboards for finding your own unique approach. Every person has the ability to accomplish this phase of the initiation process with integrity. Let those who seek to help you know that you want yours to be an original work, so that you will experience the full benefit of the B-Mitzvah as a ritual of initiation.

WHY GIVE A D’VAR TORAH?

First, you might rightfully ask: Why is such a major task being asked of you? Surely enough insightful commentary has already been written in every generation! Nevertheless, to each generation passes the opportunity to make something more of this world—your visions, views, values, and voices matter. Your people want to hear your voice, to know you are learning our sacred texts and traditions and that you are able to bring us important and new ideas based on your studies and perspective. Your presence in the process is very important, because into your hands is being given the opportunity to shape the future by passing the light of Torah through  lens of changing times.

     Is it surprising to learn that Judaism values change? Although our tradition can look formidable and permanent, this has never been the case. In the Talmud, BT Bava Batra175b, Torah is compared to water, as an “ever flowing stream.” The nature of a stream is to change according to the terrain it encounters: the more rocks—the more rapids, like life. Jewish people do not relate to the Torah as fundamentalists who expect rock solid, immutable answers. We understand it to be a stream, a living source of inspiration for all the times in which we will live.

     Strategies for understanding and practicing our faith were often different in times past and have evolved dramatically over time. When we look back in Jewish time, many examples of major change become visible. Notice that “current” is a water metaphor: when you’re busy coping with a strong current in your life, it’s hard to remember that strategies were often different in times past and may need to change in times to come. Here are some examples of major changes in Jewish practices over time.

     •    According to the literal meaning of Torah, a rebellious teenager is supposed to be stoned to death; you don’t see anyone doing that these days!

     •    Moses, Jacob the patriarch, and kings such as David long engaged in having multiple simultaneous wives, polygamy, a practice that Ashkenazi Jews officially discontinued only about a thousand years ago.

     •    Abraham and Sarah served milk and meat together to their guests; those who keep kosher today don’t.

     •    We used to sacrifice animals and burn their fat and entrails to communicate with God; when the temple was destroyed, we were able to discover the greater power of words and deeds to make a better world.

     There are a great many more examples of change in Judaism. For centuries it’s been our responsibility to read and reread our sacred documents, to understand what they mean, and to reinterpret how they can apply to our lives today. For example, B-Mitzvah students will often chant and interpret the prophetic writings known as Haftorah. This body of sacred literature is filled with depictions of urgent ethical problems in Jewish life that led the prophets to call passionately for change–in the community, in leaders, and sometimes in the way people of their time were practicing Judaism.

     You are a precious member of our people. Your life is the lens you will bring to Torah. We need to hear your vision of what is important for us to pay attention to in the Torah and Haftorah portions. You are invited to step up to the plate as a leader and teacher for the Jewish and human future.

     That said, the service is not about the B-Mitzvah student; it is about ensuring a meaningful experience of prayer, receiving Torah, and the celebration of Shabbat. Taking on a role of leadership in a service involves shiflut, “humility”; one serves without requiring a spotlight. Gratitude to teachers and family and the family and community’s nachas, “pride,” at the accomplishment of a B-Mitzvah initiate are important and must receive serious air time. But these are often best expressed at the reception or after the religious ceremonies have concluded and before announcements. Many communities have one or more B’nei Mitzvah (the plural of the term) on every weekend, and the experience of Shabbat and the special traditions of the congregation can get lost if the B’nei Mitzvah and their many visiting family members are allowed to predominate.

     We will discuss matters of expressing pride and appreciation, including the giving and receiving of gifts, in our final chapter. What follows in this chapter are some ideas and guidelines on how to make your Torah teaching original, meaningful, and expressive of your unique identity and concerns.

FINDING YOUR TORAH PORTION

The Torah, also known in book form as the Chumash, (pronouncedkhuh-mashmeaning “Five,” as in the Five Books of Moses. The Torah is studied and chanted aloud in weekly segments known as the parsha, or “portion.” This annual process ends and starts all over again on the holy day known as Simchat Torah, which is a day of “rejoicing in the Torah.” Because Judaism follows a lunar cycle, with certain years containing leap months, one year’s Jewish calendar does not often help with the next. For the same reason, in some years a single date will have two portions. On festivals and holidays, special portions are read that go out of order with the sequence of the year.

     Every parsha has a particular name derived from an early word or phrase in its verses. For example the first portion is named after its first word, Bereshit “In the beginning.”

Your Haftorah portion will be drawn from the post-Biblical period Jewish sacred texts known as Neviim, Prophets. These are found in the TaNaKh, the full canon of the Jewish bible. The TaNaKh contains three sections: the Torah (Five Books of Moses); the Neviim (Joshua, Judges, Kings, and prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and Malachi); and the Ketuvim (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nechemiah, and Chronicles).

TIP: Advice for the Torah Portion

Always check carefully for what Torah portion is assigned to a given date.

     Hebcal.com is an easy place to look up which Torah and Haftorah (prophetic) portions are matched with any given Shabbat in the year.

     On occasion two Torah portions will be assigned to one Shabbat in order to fit the full sequence of readings into a given year.

     Holidays have special portions assigned, not simply the next portion in the sequence.

     Traditionally, there are certain blackout dates during which Jewish life-cycle events are prohibited due to their proximity to other sacred occasions. Check Bmitzvah.org for these specifics.

FORMATTING YOUR D’VAR TORAH

The possibilities for creativity in giving a d’var Torah are virtually limitless and must be guided by a student’s talents, interests, life experience, and personal challenges. Just as we saw in an earlier chapter how Ben crafted a ballad about the experience of the brothers as the d’var Torah for his parsha; his twin sister, Sara, ultimately composed, choreographed, and performed an  interpretive dance other approaches might include the following:

•    Composing a play and organizing friends to help perform it.

•    Composing and playing a piece of music

•    Shooting and editing a short film to express your d’var

•    Sculpting, weaving, or painting or making a collage about a powerful moment in the text

If you make a film, this could be shown after Shabbat during the reception in communities that don’t use media on Shabbat.

     Creative expressions are not  also important interpretive options for B-Mitzvah students with disabilities. A deaf person can sign and have an interpreter. An autistic B-Mitzvah student created a handmade doll for each character in the story of Joseph and the many colored coat. His older sister chanted his d’var Torah while he enacted the story with the dolls, without talking, through movement. Because leading prayer was unrealistic for him, he also created a siddur, aprayer book with his own original drawings for each of the major prayers in the Shabbat morning service.

     Are there limits to the applications of creativity in giving a d’var Torah? Yes, matters of good taste, ethical speech, and sensitivity to the diversity of those who will be learning with you are very important. This is not a time to express prejudice toward any group, nor is it time to cause dissention in your community by taking a political position. You are teaching at a service; your task is to alert, educate, enliven, inspire.

     Can you point out injustices? Absolutely, it is incumbent upon a student of Torah to do so. The fine line you walk is in how to point out the injustice without humiliating anyone or advocating a particular political party or partisan perspective. Shabbat is for peace, not politics. It will be up to people of conscience who learn from you to take action in all places where justice can be advanced.

GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH YOUR TORAH PORTION

Regardless of the format you will use to teach about the parsha at your B-Mitzvah, you will need methods to extract meaning from your Torah portion. The sequence that follows will help with your empowerment, to ensure that your vision, voice, views, and values are able to enter the dialogue of the generations that creates an ever-living Torah for our people.

First Reading

Begin by reading through your portion in one to three sittings to get a quick overview of plot, characters, scenes, and themes. Reading out loud tends to help because the Torah often contains a great deal of dialogue, action, and emotion.

     A parsha can contain many elements, such as

•     Dramatic stories

•    Guidelines, commandments, and laws

•    Architectural and decorative instructions

•    Military battles

•    Songs

•    Scenes of the sacrificial system

•    Encounters with God

The Five Books of Moses, the Torah, cover different periods of time in the development of the Jewish people as a civilization.

Approximate Time Covered  Book of Bible  Book of Bible in Hebrew

2300 years     Genesis   Bereshit

210 years       Exodus    Shemot

30 years         Leviticus  Vayikra

38 years         Numbers   Bamidbar

27 days          Deuteronomy    Devarim

Your Next Step

Reread your portion, gradually, over several sessions. Read it in Hebrew if you can readily understand it,or else in a translation in the language in which you are most comfortable.

     A d’var Torah, means a word or matter of Torah. So fear not, you do not have to teach on every aspect of your Torah portion on the day of your B-Mitzvah. At the beginning of your B-Mitzvah preparation process, your task is to study the entire parsha for your own sake. You will need resources and mentors to help you explore the portion from intellectual, emotional, and spiritual vantage points. Lots of interesting ideas will begin to emerge during this process.

     Then at your B-Mitzvah, through your d’var you will show your depth of study, skill at verbal and intellectual analysis of the text, and growing emotional maturity. It is your task to go beyond what the portion means to you, into the realm of empathy for those in attendance. This means your task will be to highlight opportunities for others to experience meaning for living through this portion. This will require that you become selective and focus on specific points in the portion.

Continue to How to Outline your Torah Portion and D'var Torah Examples