One of the reasons I started the “Opening the Book” blog series was my belief that the plethora of dvrei torah (plural of dvar [word] of Torah]) on the internet, as well as in print, doesn’t necessarily help anyone who is trying to prepare a dvar torah of their own, at least at the outset.

The mere quantity can seem daunting: With search engines returning over 19,000 hits on “Vayikra dvar torah,” it might seem there is simply nothing more to say (“Vayikra” alone draws over 100,000 hits). Those 19,000 hits, in turn, point to a raft of sources, which can seem overwhelming instead of encouraging.

There are terrific resources — text, hypertext, audio and video — on the web (see, e.g., On-Line Learning). But a strategy more contained than Googling or Binging the Torah portion can be helpful.

Book Surfing

Fully aware of the irony, I suggest using a book search instead of a general search engine. Google Books is the only such service I know about — if there are others, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, I recommend using Google Books, while being aware of the potential privacy issues (see note on ACLU concerns in On-Line Learning).

This type of search returns far fewer hits than a full internet search. Moreover, it returns material that has been through an editing process and that someone deemed worthy of the time/money investment required for publication.

For the portion Vayikra, for example, one might wonder what the publishing world has to offer on the topics of “olah” [the all-consumed burnt sacrifice] and “shelamim” [the peace offering] from this week’s reading. And Google Books offers some useful directions.

Example Surf

Putting these terms into the search box at Google Books returned 431 items. Too many to read through entirely, but enough to allow fruitful browsing.

You’ll find hits straight from the Mishnah and Talmud, a 1896 book meant as a “reply to Wellhausen,” and a variety of more contemporary books with material on the sacrificial system. Some results are on the academic side, a fine path for those so inclined, and worth a peek from others. More to the point for most folks preparing a dvar Torah might be the following:

Sidrah Reflections: a Guide to Sidrot and Haftarot by Ronald H. Isaacs. This book presents important Hebrew vocabulary, “notable mitzvot” and “notable quotations,” as well as comments about the haftarah’s relationship to the portion. It’s a good one to own and/or consult in “preview” format.* Alone, it doesn’t provide the deeper connections that make for interesting study or a dvar Torah, but it’s a terrific reference on the basics.

Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred — a source more focused on individual spirituality; not necessarily the best overall source for Torah study, but useful for some dvar Torah directions, in this particular case.*

The Women’s Torah Commentary. I recommend both this volume and the newer The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, both from Jewish Lights.*

The Women’s Torah Commentary provided one of the sources presented in
Vayikra: Something to Notice). (Truth in advertising: Google Books is not how I found this source [I bought a used copy some time ago], but it is there for the finding.)*

Someone Else’s Ideas

A few comments from previous authors does not yield a new dvar Torah, of course. There might be times — when asked to present a brief word of Torah to begin a meeting or launch a short study session, for example — when simply sharing what someone else wrote is sufficient unto the day.

There are other times when it might be appropriate to say, “this is just the most moving and wonderful idea I’ve ever seen on this portion, so here it is.” To come up with something new, however — or something that has always been there but is waiting for someone to articulate it — requires, I believe, two or more sources:

Could be one written source and your own experience or something from literature/film (as discussed in post about Derekh Eretz). In the case of some group discussions, presenting a provocative source and asking others to share their thoughts and experiences related to it can prompt valuable words of Torah.

Could be two views one might expect to differ widely: the women’s commentary with the men’s commentary mentioned above; the historical and literary approach of Alter** with the more practice-based view of the Stone Chumash;** a source focused on internal spirituality with one focused on communal responsibility; etc. (Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet, present their unusual, differing views together in one volume.

Could be two verses of Torah, a verse from Torah and one from elsewhere in the Tanakh, something from the portion and words in the prayerbook.

Richard Israel suggested Seven Approaches to preparing or a dvar Torah, which I think cover the bases beautifully. But they all involve, at their foundation, using other people’s ideas to prompt your own. In my view, all it takes is two to spark something new.

What’s Yours to Give

Please notice that the goal is “new” — or newly articulated — not “definitive” or “world-shattering.”

In his lovely essay on Dos and Don’ts of dvrei Torah, Richard Israel notes the following:

You Have Cast Your Bread Upon the Water
You should know about an important aspect of giving a d’var Torah that is quite unsettling. You can work very hard on a talk only to find that it falls on deaf ears. On the other hand, you can whip up a little something that morning and discover that it saves someone’s soul.

Aiming for the latter is bound to fail, and there isn’t any fool-proof way to avoid the former. However, to paraphrase Pirkei Avot (2:21): You are not obligated to offer a definitive, world-shattering word of Torah, but neither should you consider yourself free to desist from offering your the Torah which is yours alone to give.

Beyond the Book

Returning to the Vayikra book-search, let’s settle on the entry in The Women’s Commentary in the “olah” and “shelamim” search.

For the note on Vayikra: Something to Notice, I chose to highlight the concept, from Shoshana Gelfand’s essay, of “womb” as a metaphor for intimacy. Burnt offering, womb and intimacy are not concepts that I automatically connect, so I thought this was worth considering. But other readers might be struck by other aspects of the same essay.

In addition, I thought Gelfand’s ideas about “womb” and “sacrifice” posed an interesting contrast with Lawrence Kushner’s meditation on wombs and the “dollar over the cash register.” I’m sure there’s a dvar Torah in there somewhere.

But there’s also a dvar Torah in connecting Gelfand’s ideas with whatever is on your shelf or your mind this week, too.


* These are comments based on my own poking around in these resources; you can use my recommendations as a short-cut to begin, but eventually you have to poke around yourself. For considerations in buying versus previewing, please see note on financial matters.

** For more detailed citations on Torah translations and other sources, see Source Materials.

(c) V. Spatz, 2010
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This post is offered in conjunction with the Jewish Study Center‘s course on “Giving a Dvar Torah” and in gratitude to Fabrangen Havurah, which encourages every participant to share and develop their Torah thoughts.

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