Shabbat meals offer a unique opportunity for parents to share their deepest values with their children. For many people struggling with busy schedules, Shabbat is the best time for important conversations. The forced closeness of the Shabbat table allows for a free flow of thoughts. However, time is not the only resource many of today’s parents lack.
How do you convey values? How do you start those important conversations in a way that is not awkward or alienating? The traditional method is the devar Torah, an insight into the weekly Torah portion. A well-structured devar Torah captures the imagination of listeners and sparks thoughts and discussion about our religious lives. Many people have difficulty creating a high-quality devar Torah, but there is a ready solution for this challenge.
For many people struggling with busy schedules, Shabbat is the best time for important conversations.
The literature of Torah commentaries contains some of the most important theological teachings in Jewish history. Thanks to the relatively recent publishing revolution, many books in this genre are widely available, including a good deal translated into, or originally written in, English. Even parents who are not experienced Torah scholars can access divrei Torah in books, repeating them at the Shabbat table to express the values they find important in life. But it isn’t as easy as that.
Divrei Torah come in all shapes and sizes. Primarily, they are intended to illuminate the Biblical text, not to facilitate the transmission of values. Sometimes you have to search through dozens of divrei Torah until you find one that fits your mood and your audience. That requires serious skills and time for preparation, both of which not everyone has in abundance. Four writers in three books have tried to simplify this process. Each book, in its own way, offers easy access to usable divrei Torah with accompanying tools to facilitate the sharing of values.
Rabbi Hershel Becker’s In Pursuit of Peace: A Torah Guide to Relationships provides three divrei Torah for each weekly Torah portion, which can be read directly off the page. Each is concise, clear and carefully structured. The book’s subtitle, referring to relationships, undersells the work’s focus on religious self-improvement. This is a musar study written in a style and tone appropriate for both the newcomer and the experienced scholar. Rabbi Becker tends to use classical commentators. He mined the literature for insights that highlight ideas about proper behavior and attitudes, concepts that we can use for ourselves and to educate our children in Jewish practice. He ends each devar Torah with questions about how we can apply these concepts in our own lives, followed by a sentence or two summarizing the underlying idea.
Rabbi Ari Wasserman’s Welcome to Our Table reveals the author’s system of generating meaningful conversation at the Shabbat table. He begins with a devar Torah and then asks a related question intended to provoke thoughtful responses. This book includes two such divrei Torah for each week, generally culled from recent commentaries, including Chassidic works. Rabbi Wasserman adds questions for discussion and stories, often drawing answers from guests who have been at his Shabbat table. For example, regarding Moshe Rabbeinu’s impressive demeanor, Rabbi Wasserman quotes a devar Torah from Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, which tells a story about joggers helping each other keep up. Rabbi Wasserman then asks: “When did another person’s actions have a positive impact on you, or on someone you know?” He includes two answers consisting of stories, one in which the storyteller describes how he was moved to start Daf Yomi after passing someone running early in the morning to a beit midrash, another in which the storyteller’s interactions with a colleague moved the latter to start putting on tefillin.
Steven and Sarah Levy’s The JPS Rashi Discussion Torah Commentary analyzes three passages from Rashi on each Torah portion. Rashi’s commentary is integral to Torah study, incorporated by many into their weekly review of the Torah portion. I am sure that I am not alone in constantly being amazed by the depth and relevance of Rashi’s comments. This book serves as an introduction to Rashi, focusing on the resonance of even seemingly obscure comments. Each study is brief, consisting of an introduction or story to place the passage in conceptual context; Rashi’s text with translation; and then a brief restatement of the explanation. These are followed by three questions, often elaborate, for discussion. For example, Rashi (Bamidbar 3:38) explains that the tribes camped near Moshe in the desert grew to become Torah scholars due to their proximity to Moshe. The authors explain that people are influenced by their neighbors because living in a community strengthens positive values. They then ask: “Describe a neighbor from your childhood with whom you had a close relationship. Did that person have any impact on the person you’ve become?”
Ideally, we should all prepare diligently for our Shabbat table discussions. Realistically, sometimes we will be able to read these divrei Torah in advance and sometimes not. Each of these three books allows the reader to open it and read directly to those gathered around the table. The styles of the divrei Torah, the topics addressed and the nature of the insights will appeal differently to each person. However, even if you prefer a different style of devar Torah, you can appreciate the methods offered by these authors to spark stimulating Shabbat table conversation.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and runs Torahmusings.com. He is a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Board.