Monday, November 4, 2013

The last-minute dvar torah

I am asked, from time to time, to fill in with last-minute divrei torah; it happens on a weeknight between minchah and maariv, or at a minyan on Shabbos, or for a group of students in school. And I generally decline.

Certainly, I have delivered far too many last-minute divrei torah over the years to claim inexperience. But I believe that in general, the last-minute dvar torah is not a good idea.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 139:1) rules that one is not permitted to lein from the Torah unless he has reviewed the reading multiple times, out of respect for the Torah.

The mishnah teaches that Chasidim haRishonim [early pious people] waited for a time before davening shemoneh esreih, and we have psukei d'zimra for similar preparation, out of respect for Gd. How much more so when we are talking about teaching Torah!

Tefillah is about my personal relationship with HaShem, and perhaps the needs of those for whom I daven, and it requires preparation; giving a dvar torah is about the spiritual life and Torah knowledge of the entire tzibbur [community] - even if said tzibbur doesn't see it that way - how much more so is preparation required.

And it's not only about the stakes, it's also about the odds of success with a last-minute effort:
HaShem understands our heartfelt intent, other human beings tend to grasp only our words and expressions, if that.
HaShem is merciful, other people, often, are not.
HaShem wants our prayers; human beings are often subjected to divrei torah against their will and choice.
If I have a poor prayer, I blew an opportunity, but I have another chance later that day; if I give a poor dvar torah, they may never pay attention to me again.

Therefore, I want to spend time first thinking about what I will say, to whom I am speaking, how it will be received, where I should stand, whether the door should be open or closed, whether I should be formal or casual, and so on.

To me, and I know it's not everyone's view, I'd rather skip a dvar torah than deliver one without significant forethought.

That's my thinking, anyway. Make sense?


  1. a rebbi once said, a ben torah should always have a dvar torah in his pocket. the between mincha/maariv thing is classic - imho better 5 minutes of a simple dvar torah on whatever you are learning rather than 5 minutes of .......
    Joel Rich

  2. I think a short unprepared d'var Torah is good and appropriate in the right context. for the following reasons:
    1. Torah is supposed to be the subject that we are preoccupied with thinking about and talking about, not just in a formal or technical sense, but as a natural part of our lives. If so, it is perfectly natural that some of these conversations or the sharing of ideas will be without formal preparation beforehand.
    2. Given that we view the Torah as having supreme value, there should be value to even raising an issue or pointing out an insight even if it is not fully developed.
    3. I think that anyone who pays attention to shnayim mikra v'echad targum will have plenty to share with others for a few minutes (I choose this because it is the lowest common denominator of people's ongoing learning --of course many people will have much more to share and from other sources). There is enough in each of Rashi's commentary on Chumash and Targum Onkelos for a lifetime of study, so one ought to be able to choose one thing to speak about for five minutes. People don't (or shouldn't) expect a quick dvar Torah to have been a s fully thought out and structured as a formal shiur anyway.

    1. Shmuel-
      I definitely agree re: a sharing of Torah, even a thinking aloud. I would distinguish between that and the formal address, though.