Doing a D’var: Scary and Satisfying at the Same Time
By Ann Green
Clutching my sheets of paper, I rise onto the bima, smooth the papers out on the amud and gaze out at my congregation. I’m nervous, so I take a deep breath. Then I begin my d’var torah. I’m not a rabbi, and I don’t play one on TV!, but every year I participate in Temple Israel of Natick’s Summer D’var Series.
For eight to ten Shabbat mornings every summer, members of our congregation deliver a d’var Torah, literally a “word of Torah.” Usually given as a sermon, most d’vrei Torah interpret the weekly parasha, the Torah portion. The d’var can be delivered by a lay person or a member of the clergy. The idea of the d’var reflects a fundamental Jewish belief in the unlimited potential for the study and interpretation of Torah.
The fact that temple members eagerly participate is remarkable, considering that public speaking is among people’s greatest fears, surpassing fear of illness, flying and terrorism, according to various studies.
The program was instituted by Rabbi Daniel Liben in 1992, the second summer after his arrival in Natick. He brought the custom from Temple Emanuel in Providence, where he had served as associate rabbi.
“I love the series,” says Rabbi Liben. “It’s interesting not only to hear what others have to say, but to enjoy the diversity of voices. We have many people from different fields and with different types of expertise in our congregation. It’s interesting to see how often when someone speaks to their own experiences it resonates with others. It’s also great for those who might not have been sure that they could do it or who felt that they had something to teach others.”
As a long-time member of Temple Israel, I’ve participated in the program since its beginning. I confess that it is indeed intimidating to get up and speak in front of so many people, many of whom are very learned. In our congregation we have a few professors of religion, as well as Jewish educators. Except for the very rewarding Me’ah program of adult study (thank you CJP and Hebrew College!), I did not have much of a Jewish education. It certainly helps that both clergy and congregation are gracious and encouraging.
Why participate in the series? As nerve-wracking as it sometimes is, I wouldn’t miss it. Writing d’vrei Torah has been like taking a great class. In preparation I read the parasha very carefully. I look into what some of the commentators have said over the years. Most importantly, I get a feel for what part of the parasha speaks to me or seems to cry out for exploration.
Sometimes the text speaks to me on a very personal level. Last year I spoke on parashat Shoftim, which contains the famous exhortation, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” This parasha outlines much of the system of Jewish justice, including limits on the powers of kings, priests, judges and prophets. Shoftim also contains the Torah’s equivalent of the Geneva Convention, the laws of war. After I read the last chapter, I had a flashback. These verses describe a ritual which was performed when a murder victim was discovered but the perpetrator was unknown. Thinking back a few decades, I could hear the rabbi I grew up with referencing this ritual at the funeral of a family friend who was murdered. Her killer was never found. Then I remembered another funeral I had attended for the child of a friend and colleague whose murder was never solved. Both took place in the 1980s; I hadn’t thought about them for a long time.
The ritual, the egla arufa, (“broken-necked calf”) involves the killing of a heifer. The commentators whom I had read described the ritual as “mysterious,” “strange” and “unique,” but I felt that there were indeed antecedents. I was a little nervous about disagreeing with the authorities on these subjects, but, as I said, my congregation is encouraging, not to mention forgiving. I noted the similarities between this practice and ritual sacrifice as well as the ritual of the red heifer and of the scapegoat. I also pointed out that the Torah sometimes makes us confront situations we might not want to acknowledge, but which are a part of life. Even though the subject matter was disturbing, it was a reminder that the Torah helps us to deal with all aspects of life.
“The Torah text is the common ground between you and your listeners,” wrote the late Rabbi Richard Israel. “They assume that you will find something in that text that will be worth their while to hear. They are not expecting to learn about the political situation in Israel or what was in the New York Review of Books last week… They anticipate hearing some old ideas or familiar verses in a new way that will invigorate their Jewish lives.”
“I’ve very much enjoyed the opportunity to present a d’var Torah, because it gives me an excuse to dig deeply into the text and find a new reading of familiar material,” says Adele Wolfson of Holliston, who participates in Temple Israel’s program. “I search out others’ interpretations, both current and classic, but I am most interested in what the Torah tells us about the modern world. I find Temple Israel a wonderful place to present my ideas since the congregation is learned but open. Sometimes my thoughts resonate with their ideas and sometimes not, but they don’t reject them out of hand and are a very friendly audience.”
“It’s quite a challenge to come up with something new and interesting,” adds David Ellis of Natick, a long-time participant in the series. “I try to focus on a question about the weekly reading that I haven’t yet been able to answer, something that strikes me as odd or puzzling. One thing I found rather surprising when reviewing my d’vrei Torah is that there is a common thread through all of them that I wasn’t aware of when I wrote them. Somehow they all touch on the idea that our tradition is intended to make us stop and think in order to observe the various commandments, and that’s a good thing.”
“The program has helped me to look at the congregation in new ways as they reveal abilities to mine Torah in ways that touch me deeply,” says Rabbi Liben. “It makes people feel closer to the community and to one another.”
Rabbi Liben has some advice for anyone considering doing a d’var. “Don’t always talk about yourself; this is not an experiment in ego. But you can show a personal point of interest which leads to understanding for others.” While there is a temptation to look at many sources, made more accessible by the internet, Rabbi Liben suggests starting with your own reaction to the text. “Consider the immediate intersection between you and the text and see where it leads.” He offers similar advice to young people as they prepare their bar and bat mitzvah speeches.
“Giving a d’var…should be an attempt to perform a holy act, and it is within that context that you should make your preparations,” wrote Rabbi Israel, “… you may find personal pleasure and growth among the by-products of your efforts. You may even become a great Torah teacher.”
For anyone considering doing a d’var, Rabbi Liben recommends the book Stringing the Pearls by Rabbi James Diamond.
As summer approaches I’m anticipating another trip to the bima with both happiness and humility.
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