A good devar Torah contains a message that people will remember and discuss. I’m not talking about a vort or a clever interpretation, but something listeners can take home with them. In order to come up with an effective takeaway, it’s important to find content that makes your point come alive in human terms. Today there is a wealth of resources to assist you in finding meaningful material—even if you don’t know Hebrew.
The best way to identify a good topic is to select something you would want to hear about. Simply ask yourself, “What topic would I like to hear discussed and how would I want to hear it presented?” Don’t limit yourself to themes found in the week’s parashah. If there’s another Torah concept or theme that speaks to you, go with that instead.
Once you have a guiding theme, it’s absolutely critical to prepare well in advance. Start by researching how your message is exemplified in Torah sources. Try to obtain an anthology of Talmud, for example, which will help give a lot of context to your topic. Try to include personal stories and to relay your own relationship to the idea in a way that’s not exaggerated; audiences really appreciate the personal dimension.
That said, substance is still important. We live in a generation of stories, some of which are true, some of which are not. While anecdotes are definitely important, using too many of them may have a negative effect, as they often portray a world that’s not real, much like hagiography. You are better off sticking to “stories” that have aged well—ideas from Talmud, Midrash, Pirkei Avot, et cetera. If you run into difficulty finding material, don’t forget to consider the resources that are readily available: for example, a teacher, a school principal or the local rabbi. Explain your message and ask if they can help you identify relevant content.
I prefer using an outline rather than a speech written out word for word. An outline allows for more spontaneity. Having someone up front reading off a sheet of paper is absolutely deadening to an audience. Irrespective of how you choose to deliver your speech, just remember to stick to one theme around which you build your entire talk. The goal should never be to show how much you know. When it comes to public speaking, as in life in general, more is really less. Many times a good speech is ruined simply by being too long.
How much you need to practice and how to do so is a personal decision. In general, though, it’s a good idea to run the speech by someone close to you—someone who will give an honest assessment of your message and delivery without being unduly harsh. One way to feel confident about your delivery is to become as comfortable as possible with the material. If you have self-worth, that communicates itself to your audience as well. You might also add in a touch of humor, so long as it’s self-deprecating; you can be funny as long as it’s only at your own expense!
One tip for making public speaking less intimidating: try not to look at the whole audience—focus on one or two people in the crowd. Many of us have never been trained to speak publicly. We can go from our bar or bat mitzvah to our wedding to our child’s bar or bat mitzvah without delivering a single public devar Torah. We should take advantage of more opportunities to speak and to teach others, and we may realize that we have capabilities we never knew we had lehagdil Torah uleha’adirah [to raise up Torah and glorify it].
Rabbi Berel Wein is the founder and director of the Destiny Foundation and has been a pulpit rabbi for over fifty years in Florida, New York and Jerusalem. Rabbi Wein is a former executive vice president of the OU, as well as a former rabbinic administrator of OU Kosher. He lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as mara d’atra of the Beit Knesset Hanassi Yisrael Hatza’ir in Rechavia.
Binyamin Ehrenkranz is a member of Jewish Action’s Editorial Board.