D’var Torah Guidelines

At Kol Shalom, there are opportunities for members to provide a D’Var Torah (sermon) during Shabbat morning services when the rabbi is away. To inquire about D’var Torah opportunities, please contact the Religious Practices Committee.

An effective format for creating a D’var Torah (courtesy of Rabbi Strasko) includes the following:

1) A story, anecdote, joke, etc. Often an effective sermon does not start with a description of the Parashah, but rather a seemingly unrelated anecdote to “hook” the congregation. Not only does this get the congregation interested, it creates a sense of tension regarding how the darshan(it) (the one giving the D’var Torah) will relate the anecdote with the Torah.
2) A description of the central Torah text used for the D’var Torah. This should never be a summary or description of the entire Parashah, rather a description of the verses, verse or even single word that is the focus the D’var Torah.
3) Question. A problem or question with the text should be identified clearly and specifically. The question should be able to be stated in one sentence, and should be a question that can lead to discussion from Jewish sources and an attempt at an answer.
4) Answers from Jewish voices. Two or three authoritative Jewish voices or opinions regarding the question should then be laid out. The more varied the opinions the better, as it shows the great variety of dialogue in Jewish tradition.
5) Your answer. This doesn’t have to be new, but can be an combination  of the above sources or a different take on one or more of the sources. “I agree with Ramban, but I think Rabbi Kook has a valid point for our community today when he says …” and so forth.
6) Why should you/we care. It is not enough to give an answer, we must know why the answer is relevant. This is often accomplished by transporting the Torah text into terms that are understandable today. “We may not understand why Moses was punished so severely for striking the rock, but it is easy for most of us to relate to the damage that anger can do.” Or, “We may not have animal sacrifice today but we can ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice from our lives for the sake of making peace with our neighbors.”
7) If possible, a “charge.” “Therefore, go forth and …” This section has the danger of sounding preachy, but if there is a take-away that we can leave the listeners, the relevance will be reinforced.
A few general tips:
– Avoid universal language: “All of us here know/agree that …” Chances are someone in the room actually doesn’t.
– Be aware and respectful of political differences. It is easy when discussing relevance to present an issue in terms of current political problems or challenges. Be aware that even the most homogeneous congregations have diversity, which should always be respected.
– Avoid lots of “I” statements. Using yourself as an example or the focus of a sermon may be done, but always with a risk.
– Avoid “you” statements or “they/them” statements. Anything that places the darshan(it) in a position of superiority or any group in a position of being the “other” should be handled delicately or left out altogether.
– Attempt to use gender neutral language if possible, such as “humankind” instead of “mankind” unless there is a specific need to choose gendered language. Likewise, it is minhag in American Reform and much of Conservative tradition to not refer to the Eternal by gender. Using instead “the Eternal” or God works much better than “he” (or even “she.”) “HaShem” is also possible but will be understood by many to sound Orthodox whether or not that is the intention.
– BE AWARE OF LENGTH. Absolute maximum time for a sermon is ten minutes. Seven is ideal. As a general rule, one hundred written words will lead to one minute of speaking.
– Ironically, we often write the sermons that we, ourselves, need to hear. If we write something that we think someone else needs to hear, it will sound judgmental and preachy. When we put ourselves in the position of student and write to help ourselves to grow, the congregation will often respond positively and feel that the sermon spoke directly to them. 
– Unless you are a seasoned or regular public speaker, write out your D’var Torah. Practice your sermon out loud at normal speaking speed multiple times before it is read. Print out the D’var Torah with large font. Make sure that there are no page turns in the middle of a sentence. Make sure there are page numbers.
– Have fun!