Sample Chapter: Using a Torah Portion's Symbols and Metaphors to Create a Dvar Torah

Why Symbols and Metaphors Are Important to Dvar Torah Creation from Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Approach to Creating a Meaningful Rite of Passage, by Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Jossey-Bass Publishing)

Words in the Torah sometimes mean far more than meets the eye; they also can serve as symbols and metaphors. This is a third dimension of Torah study, known as remez, “hint.” A symbol is an object that carries meaning beyond its everyday sense. For example, the Star of David is a symbol worn to show that one is proud to be Jewish. A candle flame is a metaphor for the soul in Judaism, so when someone dies Jews light a candle as a memorial that symbolizes the light that person’s soul brought into our lives.

     Identifying metaphors in the text can open up all sorts of new possibilities for understanding a Torah portion. A concordance is a book that lists every word in the Torah and all the places that word occurs; doing a keyword search on a Torah CD will accomplish the same thing. Objects that appear frequently are often metaphors, and their meaning in one context will enrich their meaning in another place in the Torah. For example, in Judaism water is a metaphor for God as presence, abundance, and flow. Rock is a metaphor for God as a solid, just, dependable source of life and support in both the Torah and the siddur or “prayer book.” For example:

•     In the famous biblical dream known as Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob uses a rock for his pillow.

•    Moses has a rock placed beneath him when he tires of holding his arms aloft during a key battle scene.

•    Moses hits the rock in anger when the people need water.

•    Moses sits in the cleft of the rock to receive the Ten Commandments.

•    The prayer Adon Olam calls God the “Rock that anchors me in times of distress.”

•    Psalm 92 calls God “My Rock, in which nothing appears bent.”

•    And of course, there’s the Hanukkah hymn “Rock of Ages,” “Maoz Tzur.”

So how does knowing that rock is a metaphor for God add meaning to a parsha? Here’s a brief d’var Torah that draws on this metaphor:

"In my Torah portion, Jacob is a young man. When he spends a night alone out in the wilderness on the way to finding a mate, Jacob uses a rock for a pillow.

     A rock for a pillow. This sounds similar to the fable of the pea under the princess’s mattress. Torah was originally transmitted orally and is full of sacred stories. Can you imagine sitting around listening to this story and having the image of Jacob selecting a rock and putting his head on it like a pillow? Why a rock? What could it stand for?

     On the one hand, the rock could be a metaphor for the rockiness in his life. He has just stolen his brother’s birthright and is fleeing a difficult scene. His family encourages his departure with the suggestion that this is a fitting time to journey to his mother’s side of the family in search of a mate.

     What an exciting, uncomfortable, even scary time for Jacob! The anxiety and ethical problems of teaming up with his mother to trick his father and brother were important subjects of last week’sdivrei Torah[plural]. Today we must keep that aspect in mind, along with the trauma of his needing to flee; there is the excitement of anticipating finding a mate and now the danger of sleeping out in the wilderness all alone.

     What a night for Jacob! I imagine many thoughts were churning in his head. Perhaps the recent incidents were replaying themselves; emotions like guilt and fear must have plagued him. This chapter of his life is very much like having a rock for a pillow! It must have been harder for him to sleep than it is for me on the night before school starts each year.

     Still the body can’t go on without sleep. So sleep Jacob does; and what’s more, he dreams.

     In his dream a ladder grows up all the way to heaven where angelic messengers bring Jacob a prediction that his future will be quite wonderful, complete with details. He interprets this sweet dream as a message from God. He exclaims that God was in this place, and he had not previously known it. The rock was like a seed that grew his dream and vision of a bright future. The rock symbolizes the presence of God in this story. Jacob realizes he was never really alone. He commemorates the site as sacred by setting up the rock as a monument.

     From this story of Jacob, we also can learn the importance of listening to our dreams. It may feel at times as if life has given you a rock for a pillow. Take that rock and let it be a seed for you too. It is not very helpful to keep listening to your own churning thoughts. Listening for something new is a very important idea in Judaism.

     In every mezuzah there is a prayer called the Shema, “listen.” Perhaps Jacob’s dream tells us why Jews say the Shema before going to sleep. Could it be that saying the Shema is like putting up a mezuzah on the doorpost to our dreams?

     Tonight when you go home to bed after having a great time at my Bat Mitzvah party, you might try saying the Shema and listening for the voice of God in your dreams. Listen for something new and see what comes. I bless you to have chalomot paz, as is said in Hebrew, “golden dreams.”

     Thank you.

Now, go through this d’var Torah you have just read and highlight it in relationship to the list of memorable d’var Torah points. Ask yourself how it could be improved to speak better to you and those you expect at your B-Mitzvah. Notice that this material doesn’t have to be given as a talk. The insights from this parsha could serve as the impetus to create a dramatic skit as the form of d’var Torah to be given, perhaps of a reporter doing an inside story on Jacob’s life and what happened to him out there that night.

Let's try another approach to creating a d'var Torah, Bibliodrama, also known as a form of midrash.