Dvar Torah: Dos and Don'ts

Factor your audience's expectations and the limits of their patience into your presentation.

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Not everyone accepts that proposition. There is a kind of person, often inexperienced, for whom making other Jews angry is a source of joy. They usually declare how pleased they are to be making others think. Instead of calling attention to Torah, which is the appropriate task, what they really do is call attention to themselves. Those who must listen to such speakers will always feel shortchanged.

Try not to get carried away by your conclusions, clever though they may be. You will generally be better served if you are modest about your claims. Ours is a very long and complex tradition, and there are very few propositions that can be stated flat-out without lots of qualifications. Any sentence that starts by saying "Judaism teaches that..." probably ought to make your listeners a little nervous. It is less pretentious and more honest to note that "Rabbi X teaches that... " or, "It is possible to interpret the text in the following manner."

If you can speak from notes, rather than a text, your d'var Torah will have freshness about it that cannot come from a read text. One option is an index card with no more than five separate entries of one line each.

In Praise of Brevity

But far better a read text than sloppiness or talking too long. Verbosity and bluffing are usually part of the same package. Inadequate preparation is one of the most frequent reasons people talk too long. It is usually more work to be brief. But even if your brevity is not the product of thoroughness or wisdom, a brief bad talk is always appreciated more than a long one. Also, the more dubious the methodology, the briefer your comments should be. That you are bluffing with a Snuff Box [see accompanying article, "Seven Approaches to Giving a D'var Torah"] may be perfectly apparent to everyone, but people will be more forgiving if your talk is short.

There is almost no such thing as too short a d'var Torah. Don't even be afraid of one liners or quick insights into two or three verses of the parashah [weekly Torah portion]. If you can hang them all together, so much the better, but if you can't it is not serious. For some reason, groups of three often work well and provide a certain reassuring symmetry. If you can make three points or give three examples, your d'var Torah will feel complete regardless of how brief it is.

If the material you have been presenting is sufficiently suggestive, there is nothing wrong with letting people finish what you are saying inside their heads. More plants have died of over-watering than from thirst, and more Jews have been turned off by talks that are too long than by those that have been too short or too evocative.

In my view, it is not necessary for a d'var Torah to be excessively earnest. You should not be a stand-up comedian, but a jigger of wry is rarely out of place. Gentle humor, if it is not overdone, helps put your listeners on your side. It makes them more ready to listen to the other things you have to say.

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Rabbi Richard J. Israel

Rabbi Richard J. Israel (1929-2000), a Hillel rabbi for most of his professional life, was also an author, marathon runner, beekeeper, and teacher and mentor to many.