How to Write a D'var Torah

Larry Kaufman, z"l

A d’var Torah (a word of Torah) is a talk or essay based on the parashah (the weekly Torah portion). 

As most frequently encountered, a d’var Torah (a word of Torah) is a talk or essay based on the parashah (the weekly Torah portion).  Divrei Torah (plural of d’var Torah) may be offered in lieu of a sermon during a worship service, to set a tone and a context at the opening of a synagogue board or committee meeting, or to place personal reflection within a Jewish context.  Especially at times of loneliness, distress, indecision or other personal difficulties, you may find it helpful to read and interpret the Torah portion with a particular focus on how the thoughts and actions of our foremothers and forefathers—intensely human characters—might help you deal with your own challenges.

Many of the same principles apply to preparing and delivering a d’var Torah as to other presentations before a group

  • Adhere to the allotted time frame;
  • Make your comments appropriate to the audience;
  • Know what message you want to leave with the audience;

Many people are reluctant to accept an invitation to write or give a d’var Torah for the first time. They shouldn’t be, not only because all kinds of help is available, as described below, but also because they will be fulfilling numerous mitzvot:  the mitzvah of learning Torah, the mitzvah of teaching Torah, and, perhaps most important, the mitzvah of reminding the community that talmud Torah, the serious study of Torah, is not an activity limited to rabbis but is available to and incumbent upon all of us.

The person who delivers a d’var Torah is called the darshan (interpreter or explainer), and the interpretation offered is known as the drash.  As darshan, you have the option of discussing the parashah, the weekly Torah portion, as a whole, or of zeroing in on certain words or verses.  Often, your time allotment will make that choice for you.  If time permits, you may want to start with an overview of the entire parashah, and then segue to the verses that will be your focus, explaining why you find those verses particularly compelling or worthy of attention. 

As you prepare your drash, you are not alone.  You are just the latest in a chain of darshanim that goes back two millennia.  In fact, you are well advised to approach the text as your predecessors would have, using the PaRDeS* method, the historic approach to studying Jewish text, which focuses on these questions:

  • What’s the simple meaning or literal translation?
  • What did that signify in the context of its time?
  • How has it been explained by the rabbis over the centuries?
  • What should it convey to us today? 

However, you have an advantage over those countless generations of Torah explicators who have gone before you.  You have access to numerous Torah translations and commentaries, including these from a Reform perspective:

  • The Torah:  A Modern Commentary (Plaut, URJ Books and Music)
  • The Torah:  A Woman’s Commentary (Eskenazi and Weiss, URJ Books and Music)
  • A Torah Commentary for Our Times (Fields, URJ Books and Music)
  • The Torah commentaries on this site

I personally like to compare translations and commentaries from other perspectives, and typically consult alternate translations–especially the “old” JPS translation as found in the classic Hertz Torah commentary, plus those of Everett Fox and Robert Alter.  I also consult what is perhaps the broadest, deepest resource of all by typing into “Reb Google” the name of the parashah.

Although all these resources can show you what others have thought and said about the parashah, your job as darshan is to share with your listeners what you have learned from the text and the sources, and now want to teach them.  Here are some guidelines that may help:

  • If you have a problem with the text, or with the historic interpretations, share it with the group–particularly if your setting permits your presentation to be interactive. 
  • If you are struck by a particular insight, rather than presenting it as your original thought, cite your source–let Rabbi Gamaliel’s authority enhance your credibility, and show that you have done your homework. 
  • Show respect for your audience.  Chances are that many of them know as much about the material as you do.  But don’t be intimidated by that either, because chances are even greater that most of them don’t. 
  • Be sure to translate any Hebrew word you use.  Even as common a word as mitzvah is likely to be heard as “good deed” if you don’t clarify it as “sacred obligation.” 
  • If, like me, you prefer to present from a written text, use your manuscript as a guide, but talk it, rather than reading what you have written. 
  • Make regular eye contact with your listeners–be there for them and with them.  (It’s okay to read brief quotations from the attributed writings of others, but keep them brief!) 
  • Don’t try to wing it from the text alone.  Because we construe the Torah as a living document, its words can only be understood in the context of the generations.
  • Just because a d’var Torah primarily is designed to teach does not mean it may not entertain.  A touch of humor is in order, as long as it is germane to the lesson.  No jokes for joke’s sake.   As darshan, you have a responsibility to take the material you are presenting seriously, which doesn’t mean you can’t find the humor in it.  What could be funnier than Adam passing the buck—“The woman whom You gave me,  gave me the fruit, so I ate,”—or Abraham’s negotiation with Ephron the Hittite:  “What’s 400 shekels between you and me?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

The approach you take with your d’var Torah is dependent on the hand you were dealt.  Character analysis is an obvious possibility if you’re in Genesis, but won’t work if your parashah is in Leviticus, where major themes like purity and sacrifice come to the fore.  Even when the text doesn’t direct you to your message, the commentators will.  And where you find dueling commentators, you might want to resolve their argument to your own satisfaction.  As we read in Pirke Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”  As a darshan, you are in charge, and have the privilege of turning it until you find a topic or an issue that resonates with you.

Giving a d’var Torah is serious business, and you should feel seriously honored that you were invited to do so.  As you go about preparing your d’var, remember to take the task seriously, but try not to take yourself too seriously.  A gentle touch will go far in shedding light on the text, and in earning you the respect of your colleagues, from whom you likely will hear the words “Yasher koach.”May your strength remain, so you can teach us Torah again.

*PaRDeS is an acronym for the four levels of understanding:  P’shat, the simple meaning of the words, Remez, hint, construed as the context of what lay behind those words at the time they were first uttered, Drash, explanation, or how the text has been interpreted or enhanced by the rabbis over the centuries in the Midrash and other commentaries, and Sod, secret, the hidden meaning that we should extract from the words to make them relevant in our lives today.