GOD IS IN THE TEXT: THE DRASHAH AS A TEACHING TOOL

There are as many ways to preach as there are preachers, so what follows is not intended to be exhaustive or to suggest that it is the only way to address a congregation and to teach Torah.  This is an approach that works well for me, and may be helpful for colleagues too.

I base my approach to drashot on the premise that rabbis are irreplaceable, that we are not interchangeable with other congregants, that Jews have a psychological need for role models of holiness and for projections of their ideals.  Rabbis embody the dreams and aspirations of their congregants, serving as a source of inspiration and rededication for the people who come to us for guidance, counsel, wisdom, and insight.

Torah learning takes three forms in my synagogue on Shabbat morning, which allows me to keep the purpose and nature of the drashah distinct from classroom teaching.  An hour prior to Shaharit services, our Hevra Mikra Torah Discussion Group meets.  This group is lay led-a congregant volunteers to lead the discussion one week in advance, and I hand out a copy of the New JPS Torah Commentary and some traditional parshanut in English.  Using those as a base, the congregant summarizes the parashah and then asks questions designed to stimulate energetic discussion.  During these sessions I am present as a resource to present background information, to offer a larger perspective or to provide a larger context for an issue.

The second forum for Torah learning is just prior to each aliyah.  I announce the upcoming aliyah (Chapter, verses, and page numbers) and then offer a short (one or two minute long) comment that directs the congregation's attention to the section of the Torah they are about to read.  Often this comment is based on Midrash Rabbah or Mikra'ot Gedolot, but other traditional and contemporary commentators are used as well.  These comments are intended to be provocative or informative, my goal being to stimulate the congregants to read the Torah portion while it is chanted.

The Hevra Mikra and the aliyah comments provide the opportunity for the transmission of information and for classroom-like learning.  As I see it, the purpose of the drashah is quite different-rather than intending to transmit information; the purpose of the drashah is to inspire further involvement in Jewish growth.  To my mind, a good sermon is one that inspires the congregant to sign up for an adult education class, to acquire a new Jewish skill, to read a new Jewish book, to perform a new mitzvah, or simply to want to attend more services in the future. Unlike a lecture or a class, the drashah should make the Torah speak to us, to tell us how to live our lives today and to do so in accordance with God's will.  The sermon, in short, is an act of renewed revelation-allowing God to speak to us today through the medium of Torah and Jewish tradition.  The center of gravity of the drashah, then, is contemporary even when the texts and the quotations are ancient or medieval.

My drashot are never more than 10 minutes and make only one major point (more than that belongs in a classroom, not in a worship service).  It is almost always connected to the Parashat ha-Shavua, and is given off the bimah, so that I can stand among the people.

When Sigmund Freud initiated his exploration of the depths of human psychology, he used his own psyche as his primary measure of accuracy and insight. We rabbis must do the same with our drashot.  A drashot may be good if it moves the darshan, but it certainly is bad if it does not.  If the rabbi doesn't find the sermon inspiring the congregants certainly won't.  Our clearest picture into the human soul is our own nefashot, so we must use our own response as our primary barometer for measuring the effectiveness of worthiness of our own sermons.  Unless our drashah interests us, unless it motivates us, we cannot reasonably hope that it will interest or motivate anybody else either.  Our neshamot are our brightest mirrors into our congregants' souls.

The structure of the drashah is intrinsically connected to the Torah, although there are several different ways that this can come about:

1) The first step I undertake is to sit down with the Torah (without any commentary) and read the Parashah, asking what the Torah would say to me.  We rabbis are often in such haste to find what we can teach that we often don't take the time to first ask what we can learn from the Torah.  As a mental exercise, I personify the Torah and ask what Mr. Torah wants to say to me this year, this week.

Like any classic, there are multiple layers of meaning in the Torah, and it reveals its different faces to us based on where we are at this point in our lives.  Since we change constantly, what we will read out of the Torah will change with each passing year too.  So the first step is simply to open our neshamot to read the Torah and to hear its message.

If Mr. Torah has something to say (and he generally does), I then look to the traditional commentaries to see if he said it to someone else before me.  If so, then my sermon is largely done.  I raise the issue (why is it a dilemma or a priority now), quote the relevant pasuk, explain why it's relevant, then quote the parshan or midrash that amplifies the verse, and then close by applying it to our own lives or by offering the challenge of integrating that insight into our conduct today.

2) Sometimes, however, Mr. Torah remains silent (this is particularly prone to happen in late Va-Yikra and throughout Ba-Midbar).  When that occurs, I go first to the Midrash or the m'farshim.  If I find a comment I like, then I trace it back to the pasuk that serves, in this case, as an asmakhta.  While the Torah serves as a pretext here, the order of presentation in the drashah is the same as in #1: problem-pasuk-parshanut-conclusion.

3) A third structure is to address some overarching topic in the Torah from the perspective of advocacy.  For example, during either Parashat Va-Yikra or Tzav, I often will want to explain to my congregants the psychological power and effectiveness of the sacrificial rituals.  It is a paradox of contemporary living that people who eat dead cow for lunch while wearing the flesh of animals on their feet and to keep their pants up consider it barbaric to kill an animal for a religious purpose.  Without advocating a return to animal sacrifice in our own age, I try to present it in its historical context as a positive and effective way to instill insights about mortality, about fear, about atonement, and about awe.  Such drashot are not based on specific p'sukim, and often don't rely on rabbinic commentaries (although sometimes they do).  But their overall effect is to advocate on behalf of a Torah perspective to a skeptical, disinterested, or disapproving congregation (Sotah is another prime candidate for such a drashah).

4) Finally, there are times where I have an agenda of what I want to speak on and I work to read my preferred topic into the parashah whether or not I would otherwise have perceived it there.  In such cases, I might have to use Jewish tradition broadly, or even (rarely) abandon the attempt to link it to the weekly Torah portion.  What surprises me is how often I can connect my own topic into the Torah reading for that Shabbat.  It really is an electric, high-voltage document (the phrase is Rabbi Alan Miller's).

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During good weeks, I try to prepare my drashot on Monday morning, so that I have a week to ponder what I want to say, and so that I have sermons ready to roll regardless of any crises that might emerge.  But what about those weeks where the time simply flies, and before I have a chance to catch my breath, it's Friday noon and I have less than an hour to prepare two drashot and time is at a premium?  In those difficult times, there are a few works that I turn to for quick insights and sermon material.  The list that follows is highly idiosyncratic, reflecting my own personal preferences.  It doesn't presume to scholarly depth (we are talking about less than a half-an-hour prep time, after all!)  But I do find these useful in a pinch and thought others might as well:

Where to Look When You Have Ten Minutes to Prepare a Great Drash

THE JPS TORAH COMMENTARY-These are the finest scholarly Torah commentaries available from a Jewish perspective.  Unfortunately, the quality varies widely.  By far the finest is that of Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the volume on Numbers.  Sarna's on Genesis and Exodus don't offer much that is new or that he hasn't published elsewhere.   Baruch Levine's on Leviticus is a bit brief and should be read as a running argument with Milgrom, but it is a worthy volume.

TORAT HAYYIM, the new Mikra'ot Gedolot of Mossad haRav Kook-This all newly typeset and edited version of Mikra'ot Gedolot is itself miraculous.  They have included m'farshim that the traditional Mikra'ot Gedolot left out (like Saadya Gaon and Sefer Ha-Hinnukh).  The print is easily readable and the footnote citations (of which Midrash Rashi is quoting, for example) make these well worth regular reference.

MIDRASH RABBAH (English version by Soncino)-All right, so the English is somewhat murky.  This is still the only complete English translation of Midrash Rabbah and we are talking serious time deadlines.

Louis Ginzberg, THE LEGENDS OF THE JEWS-This remarkable compilation of midrashic stories in a single narrative stream is a wonderful source for drashot.  His notes will allow you to quote from the original Midrash too, so long as you purchase a copy of Adolph Jellinek's BEIT HA-MIDRASH and Wertheimer's BATEI MIDRASHOT (both well worth owning).
Bialik and Ravnitzky, SEFER HA-AGGADAH (printed in English by Schocken)-This collection of aggadah is organized logically by characters of the Bible and by theme, so sources are easy to find when you know what you want to say and want to back it up with rabbinics.

Loeb and Kadden, TEACHING TORAH (ARE)-This teaching book is intended for the religious schoolteacher, but rabbis can use it in a pinch.  It summarizes the Parashah, and then provides interesting gleanings from the traditional sources, as well as contemporary spins to the values and ideas in the weekly Torah portion.  Get ARE's catalogue while you're at it.
TORAH TEMIMAH-I actually don't often use this, but enough colleagues do that I put it on the list for the sake of completeness.

OTZAR HA-AGGADAH (Mossad HaRav Kook)-This encyclopedia lists aggadic topics by alphabetical order and then has a slew of rabbinic quotations on each one. It' s more helpful for more obscure topics, since entries like "Shabbat" are too long to be really helpful when there's a deadline.

MIKHLOL HA-MA'AMARIM VE-HAPITGAMIM (Mossad HaRav Kook)-This encyclopedia lists rabbinic quotations in alphabetical order.  If you know the first word or two of some pithy rabbinic line, but you don't know where to find it, this book is ideal.

ANCHOR BIBLE-These are generally boring, but useful for a quick scan of what contemporary scholarship has to say.  Like any series of mixed authorship, some are better than others.

Genesis, E.A. Speiser

Leviticus 1-16, Jacob Milgrom-Would that all were at this level.  If you read this book it will transform the way you see Leviticus, and Judaism, for the better.  His helek in Olam Ha-Ba doubled (deservedly) when he wrote this.

Numbers 1-20, Baruch A. Levine

Deuteronomy 1-11, Moshe Weinfeld

ARTSCROLL TANACH SERIES, VA-YIKRA-So long as you disinfect the ideology that ArtScroll imposes on the sources, this book is rich in nuggets from traditional writings that can create a quickie drashah worth giving (and hearing).
MEKHILTA, Lauterbach-A fine English translation of the essential rabbinic midrash to the halakhic parts of Exodus.

SIFRE TO NUMBERS 1-115, Neusner (Scholars Press)-A translation of a fraction of Sifre to Numbers (and grab any help for sermons with Numbers!)

SIFRE ON DEUTERONOMY, Reuven Hammer (Yale)-A fine translation of Finkelstein's text of the tannaitic Midrash to Deuteronomy, focusing on halakhic topics.

Eliahu Kitov, THE BOOK OF OUR HERITAGE (Feldheim)-A comprehensive collection of legends and traditions about the cycle of the Jewish year: the festivals, months, and holy days.

Shlomo Yosef Zevin, THE FESTIVALS IN HALACHAH (ArtScroll)-Rabbi Zevin has compiled a fascinating discussion about halakhic aspects of the festivals, many of which lend themselves to fine drashot.

Montefiore & Loewe, A RABBINIC ANTHOLOGY, (Schocken)-This is a collection of rabbinic quotations on a variety of theological topics.  Compiled almost a century ago, it is still unsurpassed.

Menachem Kasher, THE ISRAEL HAGGADAH, (Shengold)-The sage who brought us the encyclopedic TORAH SH'LEIMAH has done the same for the Haggadah.  There is no richer source of midrashim on the Passover experience, useful for

Pesah time, and for sermons on the Exodus from Egypt.

 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).