Not all of the time, but much of the time, when I hear a dvar torah, my reaction is disappointment. That seems wrong. Here are some practical suggestions for both amateurs and professionals.
#1 Torah Torah Torah
Put the Torah back in your dvar torah. Seriously, give us some significant sources, biblical, talmudic, historical. Leave out something you once heard someone say in the name of the Whatsamahoozitzer Rebbe.
#2 Midrashim are nice stories
Midrashim have value and can be fascinating if you try to explain why they were said, or have a scholarly insight into their provenance. But some of them were written in the same spirit as those stories you used to be told at youth shabbatonim, so it might be a better idea not to base your whole dvar torah on one of those. And if you get all worked up about a contradiction between two midrashim, you’ve flipped your lid.
It’s like this story I once heard about two rabbis in the Three Towns (Oak Park, Southfield, and Huntington Woods, Michigan). The first rabbi, let’s call him Rabbi Cohen, said something from the pulpit, and the second rabbi, whom we’ll also call Rabbi Cohen to keep things simple, said something slightly different. Who cares? That’s your contradicting midrashim.
# 3 The moral of the story is
Unless you’re an amazing scholar and leader, don’t feel you have to teach us a lesson, especially one that we learned in grade school. These lessons always start with “from this we learn that…” and continue with something like:
- …we should respect our parents
- …it’s nice to be good
- …it’s good to be nice
- …always do what your rabbi tells you to do (my personal favorite!)
- …cookies are delicious
#4 An interesting thing
Give us something interesting to think about. This could be a different way to read a text, a puzzle to keep us awake at night, an insight based on your true area of expertise, or a comparison between a great work of Chinese literature and the Book of Job.
#5 May we all merit
So, so, so many of these things end with “May we all merit (“be zocheh“) to see the temple rebuilt/see the destruction of Amalek/wipe chumus with mashiach/find our car keys… speedily in our days. This is the worst, most trite, most cookie-cutter-ish sign-off there is. It’s worse than ending a song by fading out. Your presentation should have an entrance, a study, and an exit. If you can’t find the exit, don’t blow a hole in the wall with “May we all be zocheh….”
Also, we never seem to be zocheh. Maybe it’s because you keep saying that. Stop saying that.
#6 Just say no
I know, I said “five ways.” I like you, so here’s a bonus.
Maybe, just maybe, we aren’t all able to give a good dvar torah, just like we’re not all able to make a good hollandaise. For those who are able, perhaps you don’t have the time to prepare properly. In that case, when asked to give the D.T., just say no. It’s so easy. Also, not every pause in every service or event has to be plagued by the D.T.s, especially lousy ones.
Many years ago, someone asked me to give a talk to a group of teens in a youth movement. Let’s call it Bnei Akiva, just for convenience. I thought for a moment, and then told him, “I’ve got nothing to say, and no time to prepare it.” That line is my gift to you. Use it well.