Best Practices: I’ve been loving the ‘best practices’ section that is now included in the RCA’s emails. For example, an anonymous (?) member of the RCA posted as follows:
“When I prepare a derasha or a shiur, I often think of four target audience members. remembering that not all of my congregants are married with children, or are male, I think of how my comments and examples will resonate with each of them. For example, I may consider a middle-aged married father, a widow/er, a divorced single-parent mother, and twenty-something single. This helps to sensitize me to how my presentation is being received and helps to diversify my examples and applications.”
What I love about these is that they are almost always in response to something that happened. I imagine that, for the above anonymously submitted best practice, that person got burned because they gave a teaching that assumed everyone was married, or Torah-educated, or gender-binary, or could afford food, or the like. Hopefully someone pushed back, and this teacher realized just how diverse our communities are - and how we create painful in-group out-group dynamics by giving divrei Torah for specific groups of people, who then get to chat loudly about them at kiddush, while people who were excluded are not afforded such a pleasure.
I would assume that many of us have developed our own Best Practices and are not even aware of them. We have simply hacked the situations we are in to the best of our abilities because we have had to, and now here we are. Someone observing might be mystified by what we have set in place, while we are simply satisfied that we are able to continue to accomplish whatever goal it was we set out to accomplish, despite the limitations presented by the world we actually live in, or because of the “bugs” (read: features) of our own personalities.
So I am sure I have developed my own best practices, but I would be hard-pressed to name them until they come up. If I notice them and I think they are worthwhile, I will be presenting them here.
Ah! Got one! It’s called “who cares?” It looks something like this: Whenever you read or are exposed to something in Torah or Jewish literature, it is wise to conclude your reading or exposure with the simple phrase, “Who cares?” Meaning, why does this matter? How does this change anything?
I simply do not think that most of us can afford to subject ourselves and others to divrei Torah that are not relevant. Each time an inapplicable homily is delivered, somewhere in the listener/reader’s mind a synapse is created that says, “The Torah is abstract. It is not about real life. It doesn’t address my problems or teach me how to live.” When that synapse is reinforced enough times, that person will come to assume that Torah is something you do for giggles, as an exercise, when you have nothing better to do, but if you need to be exposed to something that will actually change your life, you look elsewhere.
Pema Chodron is an example that comes up often in our family as someone whose writing is always directly applicable, as opposed to many Torah books we may read, which require one or more additional steps to get to relevance. My wife often asks why Torah books don’t go directly to the question that matters. It seems like we always have to start with a mahloket between Rashi and the Ramban about some minutia in the parsha and maybe at the last stage is something applicable.
Granted, one of the completely legitimate responses to “who cares?” is “I am glad that the Torah remains cohesive. One could think that there are so many different voices in Torah that at some point it becomes a long series of distinct religious paths, so I am glad to see that many of them dovetail together and represent different options of action or interpretation within a common pool.” I just wouldn’t assume, in light of the anonymous “best practice” I brought above, that everyone also has the same taste for “Torah as Resolution of Itself” as opposed to “Torah as actionable in the life I live.”
So, now that I’ve said all that, who cares??!?? I’d answer that as follows: I want people to always come away from my writings with the perspective that Torah matters, and that it should matter, and if it doesn’t matter, something is wrong. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Knowledge.
I have to admit I once asked this out loud when I was at someone’s Shabbes table, when someone gave a devar Torah that was somewhat erudite but, it seemed to me, inapplicable to a real-life situation. I remember the giver of the devar Torah being somewhat put off by the question (making him the first and last person I have ever offended). And I also remember that, once we all calmed down and re-holstered our pistols, we had a very interesting conversation about this very topic of Torah mattering, and also that the giver was able to express why that particular devar Torah mattered to him.
The moral of the story is, don’t be nice all the time. Ask - tactfully - “So, how does this apply to my life?” and see where it goes.