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The meaning behind d’var Torah and how to write a bar mitzvah speech

The kid’s speech

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

My daughter has to give a “d’var Torah” at her bat mitzvah. I heard it’s some kind of speech. How does she write it? What’s it supposed to be about?

—Speechless

Dear Speechless,

The d’var Torah is one of the most enduring icons of Jewish pop culture. Who can forget the old joke of the nervous, sweating bar mitzvah boy, croaking out “Today I am a fountain pen!” — a tribute to the once common bar mitzvah gift. Nowadays it would make more sense if a kid started their speech with “Today I am an iPad!” but humbly (and humorously) thanking your guests for fancy gadgets and Amazon gift cards isn’t really what this bar or bat mitzvah speech is really about.

A d’var Torah is an explanation or interpretation of that week’s Torah portion or haftarah. The philosophy behind it is that the student will learn how to lead services and gain a basic understanding of what she’s actually saying. Remember that b’nei mitzvah training should be less about memorizing a bunch of pages by rote, and more about furthering one’s Jewish education — so figuring out what to say in the d’var Torah is actually really important. But it’s not impossible for your daughter to write a solid speech.

First, she should know the name of her Torah portion. She can look at the top of her haftarah, check out a Jewish calendar, or just ask.

Then she needs to do a little bit of very simple research. Usually she will receive English translations of everything along with the bat mitzvah materials. It’s also possible to go online and get the information. Regardless, it’s important that she keeps these questions in mind while doing her research:

• What’s the Torah portion for that week all about?

• Does it include a well-known story?

• Does it involve a famous character?

Once the initial legwork is done, it’s time for the challenging — but fun — part. Your daughter’s job is to find something in that story that connects to her life, means something special to her, or just sounds interesting. She might want to pretend that no one else has ever heard of what’s in the Torah, and she has to tell the story in a fascinating way. Or just like the antiquated fountain pen joke, she could find a theme and explain it in a way that modern people might understand. Be creative!

She may also get stuck with text that is about something that sounds kind of boring or weird. And that’s OK — some of the best material can be hidden away in these lesser-known Torah portions. If your daughter receives one of these less popular portions, it’s just an opportunity for her to be even more imaginative.

Remember, she’s going to have help. In most synagogues, the rabbi or cantor will be guiding and helping the b’nei mitzvah students come up with something meaningful. No one’s expecting the Gettysburg — or Goldberg — Address.

The d’var Torah is also a chance for the student to attempt something scary for the first time and public speaking is very high on the list of what most people most fear. This will be a great opportunity for your daughter to try it out in a safe, supportive environment.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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