June 10, 2022

Yevamot 94

In response to the interpretation given by Rabbi Elazar ben Matya in Mishna Yevamot (10:3, 92a) to Vayikra 21:7, our daf (Yevamot 94a) records the critical words of Rav – as quoted by Rav Yehuda – that while Rabbi Elazar could have למדרש ביה מרגניתא ודרש בה חספא – ‘expounded a [beautiful and rare] pearl from this verse, instead, he expounded a [mundane and somewhat unremarkable] earthenware shard from the verse.’
Reflecting on this statement, and speaking more specifically about the early 20th century darshan and drasha, Rabbi Shimon Glicksberg (1870-1950) explains that: ‘The primary purpose of the drasha is about giving guidance to the people about how to live as a Jew, and as such, the darshan should not sway from their primary responsibility, but rather, they should focus all their attention in doing so and towards the fundamental purpose of a drasha. Sadly, in most instances we find that the darshan limits themselves to sharing creative interpretations and, in doing so, they totally ignore their primary responsibility. They deliver what they say without appreciating the exquisite process of [drawing practical life lessons from the Torah], and they get distracted through seeking to explain some minor textual inference or repetition which they belabor [rather than giving the people concrete guidance]. So while they could have expounded a beautiful and rare pearl from this verse, instead, they expound a mundane and somewhat unremarkable earthenware shard from the verse.’ (Torat HaDrasha p. 60)
Significantly, we find an even more comprehensive critique of poor darshanim and lacklustre drashot in the more modern period in Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s (1986) ‘Notes of an Unrepentant Darshan’ (see https://bit.ly/3tpNazF) where he writes: ‘I recall talking to a newly minted musmakh of RIETS three or four years ago. I was interviewing him for entry into one of our Kollelim, and after a period of “talking in learning” (a less threatening form of behinah), I asked him about his career plans. He professed interest in a congregation— but was careful to inform me that he intended to give she’urim in place of sermons. This piece of good news was accompanied by a triumphant smile of self-satisfaction. I reminded him that Tannaim such as R. Meir and R. Akiva and R. Judah ha-Nasi gave derashot; that his “rebbe” and mine, the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) [was] one of the most gifted and distinguished homileticians of our generation; and that his future congregants may seek instruction not only in the practical aspects of melihah or the construction of an eruv, but also in problems of morals and questions of destiny and death and how to react to current issues—matters that do not always lend themselves to solutions readily available in Mishnah Berurah or lggerot Mosheh. He was not impressed.’ Still, as Rabbi Lamm continues, ‘I feel most strongly that derush is an integral part of the authentic Jewish experience, that it remains and will indeed become even more significant as a medium of religious communication with our Jews in the years to come, and that rabbis ignore it at their own peril.’
Today I believe that there is still a general lack of appreciation among many Rabbis for the impact that a heartfelt and thoughtful drasha can achieve – notwithstanding the fact that history attests to the impact that drashot can have in shaping lives and changing communities (eg. think of how Sarah Schenirer was inspired to establish her Beis Yaakov school system in response to the stirring drashot that she heard from Rabbi Dr. Moshe Flesch).
There remain those, like the student that Rabbi Lamm met with, who erroneously feel that they can only educate from the shiur shtender rather than from the sermon pulpit. In so doing, they disenfranchise the many who do not attend shiurim and who are undernourished by their poorly and quickly planned drashot which, like Rabbi Glicksberg explains, primarily focus on a minor textual inference or repetition – often from the opening verses of the parsha – which they belabor, rather than giving the people concrete guidance about how to live as a Jew.
Then there are those whose delivery is polished, but who do not -or who are lacking in the knowledge or skills to – connect their concrete message to the words of the Torah. In so doing, the pulpit becomes just a place where current events or trends are discussed. True, such drashot are relevant. But they are neither pearls nor earthenware shards because they omit the exquisite and core process of a drasha – namely of drawing practical life lessons from the Torah.
Around the world, Rabbis are trying to figure out ways to bring people back to shul. Yes, beautiful and uplifting tefillah should be the priority. And yes, dynamic shiurim are to be praised. And yes, sumptuous kiddushim are always appreciated. But while many of us may not have heard a drasha that might be comparable to beautiful pearl for a while, the pulpit can be – and should be – the location from where real issues are thoughtfully addressed while, at the same time, showing that those issues can be – and should be – engaged with, and understood through, the prism of Torah words and Torah values.
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