Dvar Torah: Seven Approaches

Thinking of your d'var Torah as an example of a standard form can help you plan what to say.

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Example: Light was created on the first day of creation, while the sun and the moon were not created until the fourth. Where did the original light come from? Rashi has an answer; in fact, he has several answers. So does contemporary physics. Can one derive an authentic Jewish response to the creationism controversy from these texts?

Or: Why is the story of the mission to find Isaac a wife repeated four times, each time with slight differences?

Or: The Torah tells us that we are not permitted to eat leaven on Passover because the people of Israel did not have enough time to allow their bread to rise as they hurried out of Egypt. But they did have leaven in their bread. Why should we not have been told simply to bake our leavened Passover bread quickly before it has time to rise? That would have been a closer approximation to this important incident in our history.

Or: Consider the riddle of the red heifer (Numbers 19), whose ashes are used to purify the people who are impure but make impure the pure who do the purifying. Attempts to solve this one or just shed some light on it have been the subject of innumerable divrei Torah throughout the ages.

Nehama Leibowitz, in her volumes compiled as "Studies in the Weekly Sidra," is particularly skillful in the creation and resolution of such puzzles. She never lets her readers off easily, so they still have quite a bit of work to do even after reading her material. But she brings a great deal of interesting rabbinic literature, that is otherwise not available in English, to bear on the questions she considers.

Classical Jewish literature loved the "Puzzle" technique, which in its more elaborate form is known as pi1pul (literally pepper--i.e., a sharp performance). These days, except in very specialized communities, one has to be careful not to get as carried away by it as our forefathers sometimes were. The number of contradictory facts that a contemporary Jew--even a smart one--can carry is rather limited. Don't build too clever a structure or it will fall apart and you will lose everyone.

The Historian

Historical insights can sometimes open up a text in an exciting way. Even if you don't draw any deep morals, people are frequently delighted and enriched when they see a text in its historical setting.

Example: Verse 1:9 in Song of Songs says, "My love, you are like a mare among Pharaoh's chariots." Buckets of ink have been used to describe the literary significance of that particular image, but Marvin Pope's commentary in the Anchor Bible deciphers this verse with case. In the ancient Middle East a particularly effective way to disrupt your enemy's chariot charge was to release a mare in heat to run among the stallions pulling the chariots. This would throw the horses into pandemonium. The verse thus says simply that his beloved is profoundly exciting to him. Such an explanation may not carry a lot of spiritual weight, but people do like to learn such tidbits.

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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.