At 17-years-old, Joseph is one of the only identified teenagers in the Torah. Joseph is a complicated teen with a fierce rivalry with his brothers and a love of clothing. Joseph’s dreams, which tradition believes came from God, lack any mention of the divine and have no connection to sacred text. That Joseph’s story was taking place in the 37th chapter of the 1st book of that sacred text might have been a reason.
If only instead of recounting his dream, Joseph had offered a d’var Torah. A d’var Torah, or “word of Torah,” is a talk based on the Torah, usually the weekly Torah portion. It allows a person to reflect on our holy scriptures and connect it to their own life and modern events. It is a powerful opportunity to share in the most Jewish of models. And our teens need to share more of them in our congregation and community.
Most Jewish teenagers offer a d’var Torah at their bar/bat mitzvah. Often working with their rabbis, teenagers speak about how that Torah portion is relevant in their lives. Instead of a simple speech, a d’var Torah gives authority to their words as their text comes from the Torah and the commentaries are the backbone of our tradition.
After a b’nai mitzvah service, teenagers rarely offer up a d’var Torah. We might ask them to speak at a congregational setting, talk at a youth group event, or help us with our social media. But we need them to share Torah and they need to do it.
Why we need teens to give a d’var Torah
In 2007, the URJ published The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary. This masterful text allowed female scholars, rabbis, cantors, and others to share a perspective that had almost always been lacking in Torah commentary “giving dimension to women’s voice in our tradition.”
The voice of our teens is not represented in any of our commentaries. Yet we know they find amazing insights and understandings when they explore Jewish text. Encouraging teenagers to share a d’var Torah creates the opportunity for them to analyze, reflect, and teach Torah.
It also cements our words from their b’nai mitzvah. We called them Jewish adults and full members of our community. Offering a d’var Torah gives them the platform to be a Jewish adult teacher.
Why teens need to give a d’var Torah
Getting teenagers to study the weekly Torah portion and find meaning for our day lets them embrace their Jewish soul that is in transformation. It connects them to the sacred text. If they work with their rabbi, cantor, educator, youth group advisor, or another congregant on the d’var Torah, it creates a study opportunity of an emerging adult with a synagogue leader.
Writing and speaking in public in the safe confines of a synagogue or a school are great skills builders for our teens. Many teens are active in debate, speech, drama, and school politics. This uses their talents and gives them opportunities to grow them. A d’var Torah pushes them to ask deep questions, explore our text, and develop their own Jewish answers in a way that a speech doesn’t.
How do I write a d’var Torah?
Clergy, educators, and synagogue leaders can be a guide, but the internet also provides many resources on writing a d’var Torah. As divrei Torah come in many forms, every teenager can craft something that fits their personality and interests.
- Get ready to explore: A brief over of writing divrei torah (NFTY.org)
- How I Create a D’var Torah – in Ten Easy Steps (NFTY Blog)
- How to write D’vrei Torah (ReformJudaism.org)
When can teens give a d’var Torah?
There are no shortage of opportunities. And once you start having your teenagers share so beautifully on Torah, you’ll start looking for new occasions. Here’s a few ideas.
- B’nai Mitzvah – They are almost certainly doing this already
- Confirmation – Having them share their interpretation of a commandment if on Shavuot
- As part of a Hebrew High, Confirmation, or Youth Group program
- Reflections on returning from Camp
- Thoughts on a social justice project they worked on
- Youth group installation
- Summer divrei Torah
- Opening a Board Meeting – Temple Board or Youth Group
- Any time you think, “Let’s have a teen a speak”
This list mostly works for adults too. Having Jews of all ages share enriches the synagogue.
It is amazing to hear our teenagers speak. Joseph spoke of his dreams at a teen, but lacked the context and connection that Torah provides. It is better – for teens and for us – to hear them share their interpretations of text and be our Torah teachers.
Rabbi Mark Kaiserman is the rabbi of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Queens, New York. He grew up in Brooklyn, was active in NFTY, and as a teen gave a d’var Torah in his synagogue that his best friend’s mom thought was the best she heard all year.
NFTY’s Blickstein D’var Torah Competition is an annual call for teen writers in grades 9 to 11 to share their words of Torah with our community. The winner receives a $4000 scholarship which can be applied to a URJ camp or youth program. Deadline to enter is September 25.