Your palms are sweaty.
Knees weak, arms are heavy.
No, you’re not Eminem; you’re a nervous 13-year-old about to give your speech at your bar or bat mitzvah.
Going in front of an audience and giving a speech can be daunting. But with the right guidance, you can deliver a d’var Torah that is thought-provoking and personalized.
When it came time for the October 2017 bar mitzvah of her son, Josh Krain Sasson, Abbey Krain helped him write his speech, as she had for her two other children. For her, it was important that it not only included nuggets of wisdom he gleaned from his Torah portion that he could impart on his audience, but also included bits of himself.
His bar mitzvah fell during Sukkot — a fitting holiday for Josh, as he is an avid gardener. In his speech, he tied in his Torah portion not only to his mitzvah project, but also to an ancient Jewish fable in which two brothers secretly deposited bits of their harvests to the other’s bounty to ensure they were well-fed.
Josh, however, changed the story in his speech to a brother and sister to allow the story to apply more broadly. And he has a sister, so it made it more personal.
“He spent really the bulk of it making it personal and talking about the agricultural tie-in of Sukkot and his hobby of gardening,” Krain said, “and how important it is, in this day and age, to realize there are actually people in our own backyard that don’t have enough food.”
His two older siblings also incorporated stories in their speeches, which Krain said was a cool way to integrate ancient Jewish storytelling into today’s world.
For Krain, who does bar and bat mitzvah tutoring, the importance of the speech lies in the skills and lessons it teaches.
“One is the opportunity for the child to have a chance to both practice and to do public speaking,” she said. “At that age, it helps with maturity level and it gives the child — whatever level they’re at — a little confidence their peers who don’t have a bar mitzvah don’t get the opportunity to have because there are very little chances for public speaking like that when you’re a 13-year-old.”
Another is the chance to connect more deeply with the text. While each Torah portion is “chock-full” of information, the student has a chance to take the bits they connect to and build on it in his or her speech.
“Something else that’s important about the speech is actually the learning opportunity,” Krain said. “Sitting down with Mom and Dad or your teacher or your rabbi, whoever it may be, and actually looking at the part and reading it and understanding it.”
It’s also a chance for the student to see what they can understand from the ancient viewpoint and if they can bring it into today’s world, she added.
There are many lessons to be learned from the process of writing the speech — namely, that once you write it, it isn’t quite done. They learn the editing process and how to tweak their ideas into the finished product.
And of course, the biggest hurdle of all: delivering the speech.
Josh worked with his rabbi to learn delivery techniques and bring animation into his speech. At home, he would practice these tools — often pontificating on their Ping-Pong table, Krain said.
But in the end, it teaches the students “when you put your mind to something, you can do it.”
Senior Rabbi Lance J. Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, says there are elements to a good d’var Torah.
“The speech demonstrates to the student, their family and the congregation they’ve invited that they understand what they’re reading, that they’re able to explain it and interpret it, that it means something to them,” he said. “I find that people do listen. It’s one of the only parts of a service where the student is reading that’s not in the book, so to speak, so people pay attention.”
And he coaches the students to be “loud, slow and clear” so they don’t speed through it at “200 miles per hour.”
The synagogue clergy divvies up duties when working with students for their bar or bat mitzvahs. Sussman helps them write their speeches. So far, he has helped write more than 1,000. But for him, it’s fun because “every kid is different and every family is different.”
He broke down d’var Torah elements:
He helps the students explore where their sections of the parshat are found in the Torah, which books they appear in, what’s special about that week’s parshat and other similar questions.
The student summarizes the material he is reading and the context in which it appears in the parshat. Is it during Exodus? Is it during Abraham’s journey in the Land of Canaan? Sussman likened this part to a “mini-book review” in which the student gives an overall idea of the content.
“I ask the kids, ‘What do you think the Torah is teaching you?’ And this is interpretive; there’s no right or wrong,” Sussman explained. “There’s interesting and very interesting. And this is where they might do a little research into commentaries and Midrash and things like that.”
Sussman asks students to think about, “What does it mean to me?”
“I then ask them to think of situations in their own young lives or in their family or something they’re deeply aware of and to make an application of the Torah’s teaching to their own life and why that’s important.”
Then there is a report on the youngsters’ mitzvah projects.
The d’var Torah is one of three speeches students give where they lead the whole service for their bar or bat mitzvah. The first is a welcome statement. Another is a statement of thanks given during the section in which prayers of thanks are recited. The third is the d’var Torah.
And even though they aren’t leading the service, parents aren’t off the hook. They give a short speech, too.
For the students, the d’var Torah is an obstacle to overcome — and they want to do it well.
“At the end of the day, they are putting themselves on display before their entire world,” Sussman said, “and even if takes a little work to get to it, at the end of the day, all the kids want to do a good job on d’var Torah, and that helps them connect to the tradition, so it’s a win.” JN
This article originally appeared in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.