Sample Chapter: Make Your Own Midrash for a Great Dvar Torah

Make Your Own Midrash for a Great Dvar Torah from Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Approach to Creating a Meaningful Rite of Passage, by Rabbi Goldie Milgram (Jossey-Bass Publishing)

Midrash is a d’var Torah form in which you imagine possible scenarios out of unspoken moments on the part of characters in your Torah portion. This is not at all a heretical thing to do–making midrash is an ancient Jewish practice of sages and Torah students of all ages. Our sages have written multiple midrashim on every Torah portion, and they reveal Jewish life and values viewed through the eyes of Jewish men. Volumes of commentary and midrashim [plural of the term] by Jewish women began being published for the first time in Jewish history in the twentieth century.

Although you will likely often be inspired (and sometimes even troubled by the midrashim of others -- even those by sages), making your own is powerful, perfectly legitimate, and lots of fun. Your own midrash can become a d’var Torah in the form of a story, a play, dance, painting and much more.

Here is an example of a midrash-style d’var Torah:

"In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayeitzei, Rachel and Leah leave their ancestral home with their husband, Jacob, to set up an independent household. The biblical tales of these sisters are troubling to me. Rachel and Jacob fell in love; he works seven years to marry her; her father substitutes her older sister during the wedding ceremony, and it takes another seven years for him to add his beloved Rachel as his wife.

     There must be so much going on between the lines in this Torah portion. In the process called making midrash, one looks for missing dialogue opportunities in the Torah. This portion has so many missing scenarios that we could make a whole movie!

     •    Where was Rachel and Leah’s mother when all this was going on? Didn’t she have something to say about this situation? Or is she deceased?

     •    Or did Rachel and Leah each have different mothers? Just like the twelve tribes will have different mothers, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah.

     •    Why is there not one mother-daughter dialogue in the whole Torah?

     •    How did Rachel feel when she was cheated of being a bride and had to wait seven years for the touch of her beloved? Who did she talk to about it?

     •    What was it like for Rachel to have to wait seven years for the chance to have children in a culture where this defined your worth to the tribe? Wasn’t she an old maid by biblical standards by the time she was able to marry?

     •    This was before antibiotics, when women often died from infection after childbirth and when plagues could decimate populations. Rachel couldn’t assume she’d survive to become a bride. What was it like to be her?

     •    Leah had many children with Jacob before Rachel and he married or conceived. What kind of aunt did Rachel prove to be?

     •    How did Jacob repress his feelings toward Laban?

     •    How did he manage to be with Leah and yet see Rachel around every day?

     •    Was Laban an abusive father? Why didn’t his daughters demand a different outcome? There is a Torah portion about the daughters of Zelophehad where they stand up for their inheritance rights and are granted them. Why didn’t Rachel rebel, run away, or confront her father? Why did Leah agree to stand in and marry Jacob first?

     We already know through a back door how Leah and Jacob felt. When Leah names her sons, she incorporates her feelings into their naming ritual:

     Leah calls her firstborn Reuben because “the Lord has seen (Hebrew: ra’ah) my affliction” and “now my husband will love me (ye’ehabani)”(Genesis 29:32). Her second son she names Shimon because “G-d heard that I was hated, and so gave me also this [one]” (Shim-on literally means “He hears–affliction,” Genesis 29:33). Her third she hopefully calls Levi, saying “this time my husband will become attached (yillaweh) to me” (Genesis 29:34).

     What a sad situation. Imagine being the child of such a household. And indeed, Reuben goes on to make a major ethical mistake in his life by sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilhah, the mother of two of the tribes, Dan and Naftali. Jacob’s sons will later kill their sister Dina’s husband, Shechem, who converted to be with her. She gets no voice of her own in the Torah either. We have to find women’s words in the Torah through back doors and in the white space between the letters.

     It is actually a wonder that I am standing here before you as a Bat Mitzvah! This is such a new phenomenon for our people, introduced in the twentieth century. Matters of gender and justice have begun to concern me greatly, and I hope they are important to you too. Can you imagine: a key rabbinical council of the state of Israel disbanded last year rather than allow women rabbis to sit on it! I hope you will speak up when you see these forms of injustice.

     In some movements women still can’t lead services or sign religious documents or sit on councils to make rabbinic decisions. In some parts of the spectrum, women who are abandoned by their husbands or who leave abusive husbands that won’t give them a religious divorce can never remarry in a religious Jewish context. They are called agunot, “chained women.” How can any kind of Jew perpetuate this? Why would any rabbi want to do so? Sometimes these women are blackmailed by their husbands to get a religious divorce. Why have religious courts not struck down this practice? I know that Judaism can be changed. We don’t have polygamy any more, nor do we stone rebellious children. What is going on here?

     Let’s look closer to home. Attending this service are Jews who sit on community boards and who vote on allocations for major Jewish organizations. Are there criteria about justice for women that influence the funding patterns of these organizations? And where such criteria exist, are they followed? I saw in the Jewish newspaper a headline that few heads of major Jewish organizations are women; such posts are most often given to males. Women in executive jobs in the Jewish community have been widely found to be receiving less pay. Do you act to create job parity and equity for Jewish women wherever and whenever you can?

     This is the first century in which Jewish women have access to high-level study of sacred texts in yeshivot and universities everywhere. We are being trained to join our brothers in leadership. When will Jewish women in all denominations be desired for all leadership roles and be treated fairly in them?

     I have discovered that this matter is in all our hands. Did you know that the principal of our Hebrew school was being paid less than her male predecessor and working longer hours with more duties? As my mitzvah project, I got all the students and parents to sign a petition of protest; and the board rapidly agreed to correct the situation.

     I bless everyone here to have the courage to speak up, to take Jewish women out of the margins and onto the heart of the page of Jewish history as it is being written every day.

     Look at the photos of world leaders and see if we are visible in any significant number. We are not. Many studies show that women have more relational, collaborative ways of thinking. I ask you: Can a peace process afford to have 50 percent of humanity be absent? I value the vision, views, and values of Jewish men no more or less than those of Jewish women.

     It is time for humanity to value daughters equally! I look forward to hearing your thoughts about effective action after services. Thank you."

Welcome Powerful Moments of Awareness

Sometimes when you are studying Torah, especially with a hevruta partner, a powerful awareness will slip out as though it was hidden in the text waiting for you to be born so that it could become known in your generation. This is the fourth level of study, known as sod (pronounced sewed)“secret.” Hidden meanings can emerge in any of the many Torah study methods. You cannot force the sod of Torah to come; it just sometimes does, and you will recognize the feeling of a sod moment immediately. It feels like awe.

     At Camp Emanuel in the Berkshires, a group of elders and B-Mitzvah students were studying Torah together using the midrash-making technique bibliodrama. In this method everyone who wants to can experiment with being the voice of the characters and symbols in the story and to interact with each other while staying in role. Earlier we spoke about the story of Sarah: God insisted that Abraham send away Sarah’s servant, Hagar, who was Abraham’s concubine, and Hagar’s son. Toward the end of Parashat Vayeira, (Genesis 18:1–22:24),  an angel calls out to Hagar as she despairs in the wilderness; and she realizes there is a well within sight of where she and her son are sitting. A question came up in the bibliodrama: Who is the angelic messenger? Here is a d’var Torah that contains the answer they found:

"At first my Torah study group intensely disliked my Bat Mitzvah Torah portion, Vayeira. Hagar has been put out of her home by Sarah, with God’s approval; and after minimal resistance, Abraham consents. These are very disappointing ways for a matriarch and a patriarch to act.

     The Torah takes us out into the desert with Hagar. She is a person who has lost everything: her home, her job, and her beloved Abraham. She loses touch with a lot of important things about her life–for example, that she knows the region well and can surely find her way,that God told her when she was pregnant that her son would father a great nation, that Abraham gave her food and drink and personally came to see her off.

     Hagar becomes so severely depressed that she doesn’t notice that a well is within view of their location. That is a sign of a very great depression. Sometimes people get so dangerously depressed that they can lose their hold on life. Hagar did. She set her son a bow-shot away from her, lifted up her voice, and cried out.

     One day, while imagining this scene, all of a sudden I became aware of a second woman coming into this scene. She is on a camel; her face is veiled; and the camel is laden with water and food; and I sense piles of gold jewelry are also in its sacks.

     Suddenly, I know who it is on that camel. It is Sarah.

     Back in the camp, the just-weaned baby, Isaac, has been inconsolable at this loss of his big brother playmate and his nursemaid, who was also like a mother to him, Hagar. His wails awaken Sarah’s heart. Sarah remembers that Hagar was her best friend, it feels like, forever. In her fears for her son and captivation with issues of power, she also has become dangerously out of touch with what is really important. She has sent her servant and longtime companion to what could be her death. She has sent Isaac’s beloved older brother off to die. What was she thinking?

     So the angel, the messenger in the text who tells Hagar to look up so that she sees the well—my vision says this messenger was Sarah. Can you see that Sarah must have slipped out of the camp to go to Hagar to do teshuvah? Doing teshuvah means going to the person who has been hurt to discuss what happened, to accept responsibility for your role in it, and to try to reverse the damage in your relationship.

     Sarah did what we all have to do when we hurt a friend: undo it. She also did a mitzvah that we have to do for anyone we know or love when they get very depressed: be with them. A severely depressed person can be a danger to herself.

     What happens next? My vision says that Hagar comes back to her senses. She accepts the extra gifts from Sarah and recalls that she had long known her son would have to strike out on his own someday. And at thirteen, Ishmael was indeed the traditional age for doing so in those times.

     Hagar now has the resources and the insight to go on. The two women beloved by Abraham now part company, each moving forward with a vision of her own son as precious and an important part of the future. After all, wouldn’t they both have become Jewish if they are in Abraham’s life and mothers of his children? And it has been said that every Jewish mother wonders at least once whether her son could be the messiah.

     Well, my tutor showed me a Hasidic commentary that takes the Hebrew word for messiah and breaks it into mae-siakh, “from dialogue.” So if my vision of Hagar and Sarah could be true, from a dialogue of sincere teshuvah, personal understanding, and inner change, they were able to resolve their situation in peace. May we all be blessed to be able to do this, to each be a little bit of a messiah ourselves, by engaging in teshuvah with our friends and neighbors day by day. Thank you."

This d’var Torah reveals an experience of“sod,”, of a mystery in the text having clarified, a portal to a new level of understanding has occurred. This deep d’var Torah also  does three other things:

•     Uses humor as a bridge to a powerful point

•    Draws on a traditional commentary to incorporate ancestral wisdom

•    Uses a sound bite of Hebrew to transform a concept that could seem very remote into something everyone can attempt.

Now let's look at the PARDES approach to Torah study and creating a great dvar Torah.