There is a 2002 dramedy film called Adaptation, which chronicles the story of anxiety ridden screenwriter Charlie Kauffman desperately trying to adapt the nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay. It is based on the real life struggles of the actual screenwriter, of the same name, struggling to adapt that very same book into a film script. The real life Kauffman had been hired to adapt the book, but, after suffering from writer’s block, decided to use that story for his script instead of actually adapting the book. What resulted was a bold meta story about the anxiety of being a writer.
I share this not because I’m advocating for you to watch the movie, which by the way is very good, but because it reminds of me of the anxieties I feel whenever being asked to write a D’var Torah. So this holiday, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, is, I think, an appropriate opportunity to reflect on what it means to write a D’var Torah.
To write a D’var Torah is like walking a balance beam. On the one hand, you want to come up with something interesting, something that, despite what the Megillah of a different holiday would say, your readers have never heard before. Something that will excite them and spark conversation. But you also want to it be liked by the audience, which means limiting yourself sometimes in order to tailor your ideas to the particular readership.
Which, for our community, also demands remaining tethered to our tradition. While my own reading of the Torah’s text might speak to me in one way, there are quite literally thousands of pages of interpretation written over thousands of years by scholars far wiser and more learned than I ever will be, that have already interpreted and reinterpreted the text many times over. A D’var Torah can’t intentionally deviate from that, too much at least, without alienating the very people it is trying to speak to.
And then there’s a more philosophical problem. The Torah was written, word for word, by none other than G-d. So it takes a certain hubris to “come up” with some new interpretation of a Torah passage. Is that what really G-d intended with those words?
So you can start to see why writing a D’var Torah can produce a lot of anxiety for me. I dare not bore readers with something they’ve already heard, which I’m sure by now you’re wishing I had, but I also don’t want to get too bold and stray away with some outlandish idea.
The safe route is to find some obscure D’var Torah that has likely not been heard by the readership, but was constructed by an individual of reputable status. It would satisfy both demands of a D’var Torah for our community. The problem for me though is that Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. To whom though? To me individually? Our community? To Rabbinic leadership to interpret for me? What is the Torah anyway? A lawbook? A chronology?
I know what you’re thinking. These questions have all been answered already, and if you just opened up a sefer every once in a while, Aharon, instead of watching Adaptation you’d know this already. Mea culpa. You’re right.
Only intellectually though. Because none of that is going to answer the nagging feeling that the Torah was given to me in some way. Personally. After all, if we’re supposed to see ourselves on Pesach as if each one of us, personally, left Egypt, then on Shavuot do we see ourselves as if each one of us, personally, were given the Torah?
I’m not deconstructing what a D’var Torah is purely for the intellectual amusement of doing so. I do it because Judaism is a religion that is deeply ritualized and structured. Structured by an immediate community, a worldwide network of Rabbinic authority, and thousands years of tradition.
But if all that’s stripped away, and you’re left alone in your home for weeks on end, what’s left? A Book and a G-d. What a gift that is.