Most pulpit rabbis have to worry about only one d’var Torah each week. That, of course, is the sermon they will deliver on Shabbat, generally based on the weekly Bible reading.
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn has double that responsibility. Not only does he speak from the bimah of the shul he has led since 1969, Congregation Shomrei Torah, every Shabbat morning, but every Friday morning at 8:15 he also gives another 15-minute d’var Torah from his electronic bimah, 91.9 FM, during the radio show called JM in the AM.
And he’s been doing it for 35 years – he has missed only five weeks during that time.
|Rabbi Benjamin Yudin signs a copy of his book for Milton Frank.|
Now, Mosaica Press has gathered 52 of those broadcasts – a year’s worth of parashiot -into a book, “Rabbi Yudin on the Parsha.”
Although of course he talks about the same parashah in shul and on the air, Yudin does not give the same talk in both places. The text is the same, but the audience is not.
“Over the years, the listening audience has become very diverse,” Yudin said. “It’s not like going into a classroom, where more often than not your students are going to be homogenous. This audience is not.”
He has some idea of who this audience is because listeners often approach him. “People stop me, and they’ll say thank you,” he said.
The range of Jewish background and education spanned by Yudin’s listeners is both an intellectual challenge and a reward for him, he said. “I hate stereotypes, but the truth is that there are many Jews, listeners, in Pompton Lakes and Franklin Lakes who do not have a sophisticated Jewish education. At the same time, there is Lakewood. Many residents there do have a sophisticated Jewish education. And I also reach Brooklyn, and Monsey, and each has a completely different mix.
“It’s an incredible challenge to find something that will not be so basic that the more educated community will turn it off, or too advanced that the others will.”
There is also the question of vocabulary. “Sometimes I must translate words for those who don’t understand – but I can’t translate too much.”
Another difference between his in-person d’var Torah and the on-air one, Yudin said, is its use of sources. In shul, he can ask congregants to read the words he quotes, so the learning can be text-based; he must assume that most radio listeners – who are driving, perhaps, or cleaning, or preparing Shabbat dinner – do not have either a text in front of them or their hands free to turn pages. “I see it” – the radio d’var Torah – “as an opportunity to create bonds, week in and week out, and also the opportunity for nourishment, not just of the body or of the soul.”
Ideally, he added, the d’var Torah can provide the seed for a Torah discussion at Shabbat dinner at tables where the will for such discussions are there but the confidence and knowledge to start them may not be.
The book is subtitled “Tomorrow we have the privilege.” Those are the words Yudin used to begin his first radio d’var Torah, and they are the words he still uses as an introduction every week. “Religion can become rote,” he said. “It can become stale. I hope and really believe that it is a privilege, that every week it is a new idea. A new privilege.”
Although it might seem to be difficult to come up with two new approaches to a Torah parashah that comes around every year without fail, Yudin finds it exhilarating. He does not worry about repeating himself, because he has learned that if he is excited by an idea, the odds are that it’s new to him.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, includes the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, the powerful story in which God at first demands that Abraham sacrifice his son, his “only son,” and then at the very last moment stays the patriarch’s hand. On Monday, Yudin was not sure how he would approach that story, either on Wednesday, when he prerecords his radio talk, or on Saturday. He already had two ideas, though.
“The Rambam says that we don’t have prophecy today, but one of the 13 principles of faith” – which Maimonides formulated – “is to believe that prophecy existed.
“These are my words for the Rambam’s thoughts,” Yudin continued. “The old commercial said that Ivory soap was 99.4 percent pure. If Abraham’s prophesy was 99.4 percent accurate, then he never would have taken the knife and be prepared to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. You see from Abraham’s ability to go through with it that his prophecy was 100 percent accurate.” If Abraham had thought that God would allow him to slaughter Isaac, he would have agonized over his decision.
The other idea, also new to him this year, was “that the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the Akedah happened on the third day. The rabbis point out that had he done it immediately, he could have been seen as acting out of a religious high. And had he more time to think about it, he wouldn’t have done it.”
On Sunday, Fair Lawn’s mayor, John Cosgrove, issued a proclamation honoring Yudin’s book, and presented it to him at a book signing and breakfast at the shul. More than 150 people were there, listening as Nachum Segal, JM in the AM’s host, and Shevi Yudin, the rabbi’s wife, talked with both respect and admiration about Benjamin Yudin. Shevi Yudin told stories about her encounters with people who wanted to know if she was married to “Rabbi Yudin from the radio show.”
And Rabbi Yudin from the radio show took a few minutes out from the celebration to think about the next week’s parashah.