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  1. What Is a Dvar Torah? - 9 Steps to Crafting the Ultimate Dvar Torah - Questions & Answers
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  3. What Is a Dvar Torah?
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What do I mean? When George Washington was little child, he got a shiny new axe. To try out his axe, he went to the backyard where he saw a cherry tree, and he cut down that cherry tree. His father came home, and, seeing the tree, asked young George what he had done. I chopped down the cherry tree. Is that story true? After George Washington died in , biographer and Protestant minister Mason Weems included the mythical story in a biography of Washington, written in But is it True, with a capital t?

For the orthodox, for something to be capital T true, it must be lowercase t true as well. The earth is not 4. And Moses did all those things because the Torah says so. The Torah is true because God gave it to us, and we know God gave it to us because the Israelites were there to witness the exchange. How do we know the Israelites witnessed the exchange?

Because the Torah says so. You all laughed because you see the problem. For Orthodoxy, the every word in the book must be literally true in order for the truths to be true, for the morals to be true, for the principles to be true. And that, I would argue, is incorrect. The stories of the Torah are true in a deeper than literal sense. They have resonance and meaning that makes it totally irrelevant whether they actually happened in exactly the way to Torah tells us. And at the last moment, God halts the sacrifice.

What Is a Dvar Torah? - 9 Steps to Crafting the Ultimate Dvar Torah - Questions & Answers

The story is jarring, for modern ears. The truth in this story is not in the factual existence of a guy named Abraham and his son Isaac. What I can know is that our Torah wants us to understand that Abraham is a righteous man of faith, and that on Rosh Hashanah, we should see ourselves in relation to Abraham - are we true?

Are we faithful? Do we place our trust in things that are eternal, and meaningful, like God? Do we put enough faith in ourselves because we were created by God? The story is True, Capital T, because it teaches eternal truths. It is not true because those animals all got on that boat. With all that being said, the stories in the Torah are not lies. A lie, as I am defining it, is a deliberately told mistruth meant to lead an individual to believe something other than what the facts clearly demonstrate. It would be a lie if she said she had an artificial leg from when she stepped on a landmine during the Revolutionary War.

It is a lie to say that our country pays the highest taxes in the world. Depending on how you count it, American taxes are somewhere between the 10th highest in the world and 37th highest in the world. If something is real and compelling, the truth speaks for itself. That we invest so much belief in it, and that we push and pull and tweak its each and every word with such effort - is further evidence that we as a people believe that the Torah is true.

That act of discerning truth in order to be fair and righteous - we humans call it justice. Aleph, you probably know, is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Tav is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And mem is the middle letter. As Rabbi Louis Jacobs taught, The God of truth is found wherever there is truth and His absence is felt wherever there is falsehood. As Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger would teach, that means that truth is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Torah. It both stands as a document that reveals deep truths, but also demands that we be honest with others, and ourselves.

That is no small feat. When I was 16, I got into a car accident. I rear-ended two cars making a left, pushing one of the cars into the opposite lanes of traffic. No body was killed, thank God, but my car and several others were totalled. But when my parents asked me what happened, I told tham a white van had blocked my view, and swung out of the lanes, leaving the two stopped cars in front of me with no time to stop.

Simply put, I lied. That day, I was dishonest. I was responsible. But I was afraid of that truth. It took me a lot longer to come to grips with that truth, but I did. I learned that lesson every day for the next two years, as I pulled the bus pass out of my wallet and took the much longer and more inconvenient way home from school everyday. But eventually, we all must face the truth of our actions. The High holidays are a time to be honest with ourselves and our actions.

Can we all drop the pretense of who we think we are, and be honest and true, capital T, with ourselves? As I said yesterday, will we really confront our flaws and consider who we truly wish to be? How will we go about this?


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Are we going to go to therapy? Are we going to apologize to a friend? Are we going to ask someone for their honest feedback? If the Torah is Truth and we are commanded to live in the Torah, then how can we not be honest with ourselves?

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For us, that means we understand Torah as True, and we seek to understand the complicated moral dilemmas and complex allegories of Torah with open hearts and honest minds. For us, it also means that we as Jews strive to seek truth and justice in every place and every time. We investigate the truth, and we never settle for alternate facts. For ourselves in our personal deeds, it means taking seriously the refrains in the prayerbook that we say during these ten days of repentance, when we consider our past actions and strive to do better.

May it be your blessing, Adonai, our God, that this year be a year for truth. That we see you, that we see Torah, that we see the world, that we see each other, that we see ourselves, in the light of truth. And let us all say, amen. Shana Tova.

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We read a text from Abraham Joshua Heschel on the path of the righteous and penitent, and how they hold up the world. Jason was clearly a bright guy, maybe smarter than me. I mean, he had understood an advanced Jewish philosophical concept in about 3 minutes, without a ton of background or even a smidgeon of Hebrew. So it was impressive because Jason was clearly smart and capable and well-adjusted. But lots of people are smart and capable and well-adjusted. So it was, like I said, nothing special. Other than the fact that Jason was a drug addict.

They bill themselves as the only program in the world that combines 12 step recovery, psychotherapy, and Jewish text learning. Drug addicts, drunks, white-collar criminals, strong-arm robbers, ex-cons, the homeless, prostitutes, gambling addicts, people with sexual compulsion, and various permutations and combinations of any and all of the above.

I was there to learn how the spiritual counseling team - the five rabbis and rabbinic students on staff - does what they do. To be a rabbi, I know how to do that. To work with someone in pain or in need, I can do that too. But it takes a special kind of person to work at Beit Teshuvah. For one, the rabbinic staff there tend to swear.

A lot. You never heard a rabbi say the f-word so many times as you heard Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Rabbi and Spiritual Leader of Beit Teshuvah, say the f-word, as well as the various and sundry permutations of the f-word that might facilitate the delivery of his message to someone who was in his care.

Truly, this is a gift in a place full of people who have become extremely good at lying to themselves and to everyone around them. So back to Jason. It was the second time I learned with Jason that changed my understanding of teshuvah, and of addiction, and of my own relationship to the High Holidays. We were learning another philosophic text that Rabbi Borowitz had selected for us, and at some point, as often does in chevruta study, our conversation veered into our own lives. Jason was raised and went to a well-to-do school in the valley in Los Angeles in the eighties and nineties. So did I.

His parents struggled in their marriage and divorced when he was eleven. So did mine.

The best Dvar Torah ever - by a Goy!

Jason felt tremendous pressure from a society that expects material and personal success from its educated and affluent sons and daughters. The big difference between Jason and I was that when his father was stressed out and overwhelmed by life, he smoked methamphetamine, often leaving the pipe and the drugs out on his bed. So when Jason felt overwhelmed by life at the age of 15, it seemed logical and acceptable to him to smoke meth. And it took the pain and stress away. But of course, it is also highly addictive and completely destructive. And thus began a catastrophic and life-long battle for Jason against substance abuse that landed him back at Beit Teshuvah, at the age of 37, for the seventh time.

Seven times. Stop for a second and reflect on how you feel about that. Addiction is, in the words of one of the rabbis at Beit Teshuvah, a relapsing, remitting, chronic, and fatal disease. It requires ongoing treatment, and in lieu of treatment, it progresses rapidly and even suddenly, until the patient is dead. Because you came back.

The failures are the ones that are still out on the street, pipe in hand or bottle in bag, hurtling towards death. The other thing that had come up in my mind when I thought of addiction before Beit Teshuvah is weakness - the sense that an addict fell prey to a force and lost. And that because they need help they are weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are strong, because they can stand in a place of honesty and truth about themselves after eons of self-delusion and finally be real.

And our tradition agrees! In a place where a baal teshuvah - the penitent, apologetic person - stands, even the most perfectly righteous individual cannot stand. Think about that - the person that errs and admits it and repents and comes back! That person is holier and more exalted that a flawless, blameless, perfectly righteous man or woman. And you know this! We are the addicts and the screw ups. We are back for our seventh, or our 40th, or our 87th time. This is our rehab. Because hurting others, and hurting ourselves, through sin and lying and self-delusion and materialism and anger and hopelessness are all diseases of being human.

They too are a relapsing, remitting, chronic, and fatal condition.


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  • And this is our treatment. Nobody wants to be in rehab. You lose your freedom. It sucks to be in rehab. The goal of Beit Teshuvah is to give you the skills to be clean and sober of your debilitating addictions in the outside world. We are here to work on ourselves for the next 10 days. To apologize for the mistake we made in hopes of avoiding them for the next time. To keep our tempers. To not spread hurtful gossip. To respect our parents, and our children, a little more. Mostly so that we will get catharsis and come back, renewed. The Mishnah in Yoma 8 states: One who says, "I will sin, and then repent, I will sin [again], and then repent," will not receive an opportunity to repent; [for one who says] "I will sin, and Yom Kippur will atone," Yom Kippur will not atone.

    Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one's neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor. The work done in prayer at synagogue is to say and hear words that go to our hearts, so that we can put them to work when we are not praying at synagogue. We are here to become mindful of our errors, not so that we can nod at them silently and go right back to committing them again, but instead so that we might truly change our behavior.

    This is really hard. Being young, or old, or rich, or poor, or married, or single, or going through good times, or bad times, does not change this reality in anyway. There are no excuses. Why did I still spend so much time at work, and so little time with my family? Why do I spend money on things that make me temporarily happy, instead of giving generously to others? How much so? Maimonides in Hilchot Teshuvah says it in the strongest possible language. I met a lot of people at Beit Teshuvah in the week I was there. I met people who only get to see their kids once a month under court ordered supervision.

    Like Chino, and San Quentin, and Lompoc. For Jason, the great fear was in the failure to internalize it. The sense that his attempt to keep up his image - of a stable, handsome, successful, likeable guy - was inevitably going to mean that his own commitment to sobriety was also equally only skin deep. Everyday when I left Beit Teshuvah, I was emotionally exhausted from all of the intense conversations I had taken part in - about both the residents and about myself. I was confronting my own emotional issues and my own mistakes and feelings all week too. I thought about how much I liked them and how hard it seemed they were working on themselves.

    Usually, I felt a little afraid for them, and what would happen to them when they left, enough that it made me cry on the way home each night. Some of them succeed, and stay clean on the outside while living healthy, productive lives. Others fail, and fail, and come back again after a relapse. And others relapse, and don't make it back. I want him to put aside the toxic bad habits that suck him back down into a cycle of disaster. I want him to be happy enough with the positive things in life that give long-term meaning, and ditch the things that fill the hole temporarily, but ultimately corrode who he is and who he can be.

    Jason might be in a situation of substance abuse that we might not personally be familiar with.

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    But they are there. Now is the time to address them. Rehab starts today. Be the baal teshuvah - the penitent person, the master of return. These fights are always hard, and long, and come with a dozen defeats before they yield but a single victory. But, in the end, they are worth it. But, writ large, it contains pearls of wisdom for activists to remember as they gather, and plan, and struggle, and debate the course ahead. Be detail-oriented. Many activists woke up on November 9 in mourning and panic. All of it was natural.

    But all of it was also reactive. For movements of change to be effective and successful, they need a plan. Coordinating an action requires careful planning and thought. Who has the power to effect change, and what message are they receptive to? Who is being invited into the coalition to make change? What will connect and engage participants to stay in the fight after the signs have been tucked away? Each action needs a plan, and each plan needs to be strategically linked to something coming up next. And each local action must be connected to something larger and nationwide.

    Place the law at the center. We are Jews. And that means that the center of every fight and every cause is Torah. And not in some tacked-on, by-the-way, let-me-throw-a- pasuk -in-to-grant-this-argument-authenticity kind of way. Our moral authority must emanate from the Torah in an authentic manner. The method and means to creating and maintaining a just nation comes from the text, the law, its commentaries, and its ethics. Twice in parshat Terumah , in Exodus and again in , we are told that the ark and the tablets lie at the center of all of the drapes, poles, pillars, and finery.

    The tabernacle, with all its detail, is just window dressing for the core of our religion: the Torah. The commandments are our candle; the Torah is our guiding light. Be collaborative -- share the responsibility, and the accolades. Planning and organizing requires a difficult balance of pure chutzpah -- the belief, beyond any evidence, that something can be done -- and great humility, letting others take credit. This makes them sustainable for the long haul, since the departure of individuals can be offset with new leaders emerging from within the organization.

    In Exodus , we see that constructing the Tabernacle requires that every person give Terumah, their own offering. Be beautiful and creative. The tabernacle was beautiful; the work of artisans and craftspeople. We are told it was made of gold, silver, copper, and draped in blues and reds and crimsons and fine linen. Our work at supporting justice and raising awareness of important social issues should be creative and bold and beautiful, too.

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    We should write new songs and use poetry and dance and drama and art and street theater to capture the imagination and inspire people to act. We need to think out of the box to create totally unique forms of protest and expression, to shine light on the darkness in our world and make justice roll like the waters. And when we build it, it will serve to redeem and elevate us all.

    Yom Kippur - How does a Jew vote? This year is the kind of exceptional year in which a rabbis sermon is virtually dictated by circumstance. Every rabbi in America is either giving this sermon, or willfully and intentionally not giving this sermon. Believe me, I know. And secondly, because, as dramatic as this election is, it is but one election in a lifetime of elections. If the average American lives The question is bigger than one election. The question is this: When a Jew steps into a voting booth to pull a level, or, as is more likely the case here in Colorado, sits down at their dining room with a pen and our mail-in ballot, what does it mean?

    What values and principles does Judaism mandate they carry with them into their vote? What expectations or obligations does Judaism place upon a American Jewish voter, if any? What are the core issues a Jew should turn their attention to in this election? I need to begin, again, like on Rosh Hashanah, with a disclaimer. The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches and synagogues, from intervening in political campaigns and elections. I will do no such thing in this Dvar Torah.

    However, Judaism is a religion of beliefs put into action, of morals made real by the things that we do. The Torah tells us what we should value and what is expected of us by our God. I will, however, tell you what the Torah thinks you should be looking for in a presidential candidate. I will add an additional thought. This is true. And yet, we must face it.

    We must talk about it. It needs to be said very carefully and very clearly, regardless of your politics, where Judaism draws the line between moral and immoral, between capable leadership and dangerous demagoguery. Jewish values can and should factor into the vote of an American Jew.

    There are a myriad of issues in which Christian voters use their religious tradition to dictate in which direction their moral compass should point. Abortion, capital punishment, torture, war and diplomacy, end-of-life directives, religious freedom, care for the poor, homelessness, universal health care; these are all issues that the Jewish tradition has strong opinions of what we as individuals and society as a whole.

    One vote, or ten or a thousand, can mean the difference between funding for the homeless that can affect thousands of lives. Voting, then, is like a moral multiplier; it takes the good deeds that an individual is capable of and expands them exponentially. Jews have known this for generations; our strong moral grounding, coupled with a strong tradition of literacy, civic engagement, and family tradition of voting, means we turn out to vote like no other minority group.

    Jewish donors have an outsized impact on both parties in the US. And the nine states with the largest populations of Jews in the US represent of the electoral votes need to win an election. Jews matter in elections because Jews know voting matters. So then. How does a Jew vote? While not an exhaustive list, here are three good questions our tradition wants us to ask when we sit down to vote: How does the candidate view the weakest individuals in our society? Is the candidate a moral person? I think, in terms of our presidential election this year, we have the unprecedented occurrence that a fairly clear choice has presented itself, over and over again, throughout the past year.

    Several candidates on the ballot seem to be able to fulfill basic Jewish expectations for someone to lead the country. One candidate, however, is clearly unfit by Jewish standards to be president. The Hebrew Bible regards three categories of individual as the weakest; those that require special regard and compassion by Israelite society.

    They are: the Ger, the Yetom, and the Almanah; The immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. In Israelite society, the immigrant was a person not of Israelite birth that came into the land, seeking protection. They lacked the regular citizenship rights of a normal Israelite, and were clearly fleeing conditions that were less than ideal, otherwise they would never have deemed to have left their home society.

    The Mishnah and the Talmud set forth halakhic guidelines for teaching Torah to children. The Zilberman method has children focus exclusively on Tanakh and Mishnah in their younger years, ensuring that they know large portions of both areas by heart before they begin learning Gemara. Indeed, graduates of such schools tend to have impressive fluency in these areas. Two key elements in Zilberman's methodology, however, must be singled out: chazarah review and student participation. In the Zilberman-styled school, a new text of Chumash is introduced in the following manner obviously adjustments are made for each grade level.

    This is repeated several times until the students are able to read the text independently. New words typically need to be translated only once; subsequently, students are encouraged to call out the translation on their own. All translations are strictly literal.

    If the translation does not automatically yield a comprehensible meaning, the students are invited to try to find one. The class spends the rest of the week reviewing the material. Each pasuk is reviewed with the tropp at least twenty-four times. Apart from full-time Torah study as engaged in at schools and yeshivot or for the purpose of rabbinic training, there is also held to be an obligation on individuals to set aside a regular study period to review their knowledge.

    Examples of programmes of study are as follows. In respect to its place in synagogues, rabbis will often give their D'var Torah after the Torah reading. Divrei Torah can range in length, depending on the rabbi and the depth of the talk. In most congregations, it will not last much longer than fifteen minutes, but in the case of Rebbes or special occasions, a Dvar Torah can last all afternoon.

    It is extremely likely that a D'var Torah will carry a life lesson, backed up by passages from certain Jewish texts like the Talmud or Mishnah. Like Orthodox Jews, other Jewish denominations may use any or all of the traditional areas and modes of Torah study. They study the Parsha , the Talmud, ethical works, and more. They may study simply the peshat of the text, or they may also study, to a limited extent, the remez , derash and sod , which is found in Etz Hayyim: A Torah Commentary Rabbinical Assembly , used in many Conservative congregations.

    It is common in Torah study among Jews involved in Jewish Renewal. Some level of PaRDeS study can even be found in forms of Judaism that otherwise are strictly rationalist, such as Reconstructionist Judaism. However, non-Orthodox Jews generally spend less time in detailed study of the classical Torah commentators, and spend more time studying modern Torah commentaries that draw on and include the classical commentators, but which are written from more modern perspectives.

    Furthermore, works of rabbinic literature such as the Talmud typically receive less attention than the Tanakh. In time the documentary hypothesis emerged from these studies. The documentary hypothesis holds that the Torah was not written by Moses, but was simply written by different people who lived during different periods of Israelite history.

    Some Jews adapted the findings of these disciplines. Consequently, biblical study primarily focused on the intentions of these people, and the circumstances in which they lived. This type of study depends on evidence external to the text, especially archeological evidence and comparative literature.

    Today, Reform , Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis draw on the lessons of modern critical Bible scholarship as well as the traditional forms of Biblical exegesis. Orthodox, Sephardim , a majority of Israeli Jews [37] and other Jews, including many whom are not observant, reject critical Bible scholarship and the documentary hypothesis, holding to the opinion that it is contradicted by the Torah [38] and the Talmud, [39] which state that Moses wrote the Torah, as well as by the Mishnah, [35] which asserts the divine origin of the Torah as one of the essential Jewish principles of faith.

    Humanistic Jews value the Torah as a historical, political, and sociological text written by their ancestors. They do not believe 'that every word of the Torah is true, or even morally correct, just because the Torah is old. Humanistic Jews believe that the entire Jewish experience, and not only the Torah, should be studied as a source for Jewish behavior and ethical values.

    The recommended way to study the Torah is by reading the original text written in Hebrew. This allows the reader to understand language-specific information. For example, the Hebrew word for earth is 'adama' and the name of the first man is 'Adam' meaning 'of the earth'. Jewish denominations vary in the importance placed on the usage of the original Hebrew text. Most denominations strongly recommend it, but also allow studying the Torah in other languages, and using Rashi and other commentary to learn language-specific information. According to Ruth Calderon , there are currently almost one hundred non-halakhic Torah study centers in Israel.

    While influenced by methods used in the yeshiva and in the university, non—religious Torah study includes the use of new tools that are not part of the accepted hermeneutic tradition of the exegetic literature. These include Feminist , and post-modernist criticism, historic, sociological and psychological analyses, and literary analysis. Young adults spend a year studying Torah in the Land of Israel.

    Regardless of when during the year a king was appointed, on the first of Nissan, his second year began. The practical import of this convention is that in the ancient world, documents were dated according the year of the rule of monarch. Failure to date a document properly rendered it invalid, and one could not collect payment on a loan if the document had the wrong Year of the King as its date. Without resolving not to sin again, our fasting on Yom Kippur is little more than empty ritual.

    Further, although they are generally neglected today, our tradition suggests special prayers be said on the last day of every month, which is known as Yom Kippur katan. One of the rituals performed as the old year comes to an end is a retrospective of the year gone by and predictions for the future. The common practice of newspapers listing notables that have departed this world in the past year is a beautiful idea.

    Recalling their lives is meant to inspire us to live up to our potential.