Recently, an excellent Jewish web site called “My Jewish Learning” published a brief article called “How to Prepare a D’var Torah.” It is a good guide to how to select material and to structure this kind of brief exposition of an idea from the Bible or another piece of Jewish literature. I would like to suggest two elements that were left out, aspects of preparation that are often omitted even in training rabbis to deliver sermons and other public discourses.
These are the questions that the guide suggests in deciding on a topic, and they are important:
Absent from the list are the considerations that are the difference between an intellectual exercise and a teaching that can make a difference in the lives of listeners and speakers alike. They both begin with the same word.
Without considering these two questions, intertwined with each other, a d’var torah becomes either a display of dispassionate text manipulation – clever, but inconsequential – or a paternalistic scold.
This insight, I think, is far from original. I believe it begins with an almost elementary teaching that shapes the student’s engagement with the first (and perhaps greatest) commentator on the Bible, Rashi. (Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Solomon, son of Isaac, and he lived in France at the end of the 11th century.) When encountering his prolific observations, the student is supposed to consider this question: mah kasheh l’Rashi. You may translate that simply as “what’s Rashi’s question” or more contextually as “what difficulty concerns Rashi.” The student then delves into the kasheh, the question or difficulty.
But equally important, in my opinion, is l’Rashi, the part of the challenge that identifies the teaching with the teacher. We have a long and explicit tradition of crediting the author with his or her words, designed to maintain the integrity of original thought and “bring redemption to the world.” But considering the source of an insight keeps alive not just the teaching but the teacher by bringing the wholeness of the person to the words that express a thought. Our common interest in this particular interpretation is, in no small way, because of our common humanity. Words that come from the heart enter the heart. (Ironically, this profound aphorism is reported anonymously in the Talmud!)
There are many communities in which the answer to the question of why this should matter to the listener is “because Torah.” Yes, there is inherent worth in broadening and deepening an understanding of the sacred text for its own sake. Sometimes (in fact, maybe often), Torah for its own sake is the beginning and end of the conversation.
However, I suggest that for most listeners outside of the very rarified atmosphere of people involved in immersive study, the questions of why the speaker is motivated to speak and why the listener is motivated to listen are essential if the words are to be more than an intellectual exercise.
It is correct to say that if the only motivation to present a d’var torah is to impress an audience with how well the speaker can manipulate text and commentary, then the lesson is nothing more than an indulgence of ego. Similarly, if the speaker is focused entirely on his or her internal landscape, then the words serve the self, not the Spirit. One without the other is incomplete.
The guidance that the brief article offered on how to prepare a d’var torah is one hundred percent accurate, but incomplete. Words of Torah, as the prayer reminds us each evening, are our life and the length of our days, meaning that they must be integrated into more than our imaginations. They are not for amusement or entertainment, mental gymnastics or labyrinthine thought, mere oratory or competitive public speaking, or only rebuke or sycophancy. They must matter. And it is incumbent on the speaker to decide why it is that whatever narrative, linguistic or ethical entry-point becomes the focus of remarks is important enough to consider in the preparation and in the reception.
The speaker, rabbi or not, who does not address those two questions of “why” has only done half the job.