“Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”
This quote from Bachya ibn Pakuda, an 11th century rabbi, captures one of the key philosophies of Judaism. We have the opportunity to create the lives that we want in the here and now, and we hope to have the ability to positively shape what we want people to remember about us.
We gather here on Kol Nidre, a night which is heavy with significance, trepidation, and a keen awareness of our mortality. It can feel as if we have been moving toward this one day for the whole past year, and we now stand in judgment of ourselves. We are encouraged to focus on our lives – who have we been? Who are we right now? Who do we want to be? And, even more profoundly, what do we write on the scrolls of our days, and what do we want to be remembered?
When a loved one dies, many tend to focus on the physical and financial inheritance that they may earn. Some wait eagerly for the Reading of the Will, hoping for the announcement of how much money, which antiques, or what property will be passed on to which relative. Too often, I’ve witnessed the way that this process can tear a family apart.
But what about the intangible parts of a loved one’s legacy? What about the lessons, ethics, stories, or ideals which he or she held most dear? How might those be passed along and inherited? How can we leave behind an ethical legacy which imparts our most cherished values onto the generations which follow ours?
For this, we can participate in a surprisingly ancient Jewish tradition – the creation of something known as an Ethical Will.
An Ethical Will, or what is sometimes called a Legacy Letter, is a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community. And what is a more appropriate starting place than Yom Kippur, a day on which we look back at the past and ponder who and what we truly want to be during this precious life?
An Ethical Will is not a legal document; rather, it is a heartfelt expression of what genuinely matters most in your life. It is a longstanding Jewish tradition which is now observed by many different faiths and cultures around the world. In fact, many lawyers recommend that their clients include an Ethical Will in their final paperwork, in addition to the traditional Last Will and Testament or Living Will.
The impulse to leave this verbal legacy goes back to the Torah. Jacob gathered each of his sons, one at a time, and gave them a personal blessing. At the same time, he conveyed some of the values which were most important to him, including a desire to be buried one day back in the land of Canaan. One might also read Moses’ final speeches in the Book of Deuteronomy as a form of Ethical Will, as he reminds the people of Israel of God’s laws and that they should pass the laws on to their children. Likewise, before King David dies, he prepares his son, Solomon, by warning him of whom to be cautious when he becomes king, and by asking him to complete the task he had begun and was unable to complete.
By the Middle Ages, these values were communicated in writing. One of the earliest known Ethical Wills was written by Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms (about 1050). “Think not of evil,” says Eleazar, “for evil thinking leads to evil doing…. Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul…. Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.”
Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, the translator, wrote his will around about 1190. It contains a frequently quoted passage: “Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds.”
Asher, the son of Yechiel, in the fourteenth century, called his will “Ways of Life,” and it includes 132 maxims, which are often printed in orthodox prayer-books. An example is: “Do not obey the Law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love.”
The elaborate “Letter of Advice” by Solomon Alami, written at the beginning of the fifteenth century, is composed in beautiful rhymed prose, and is an important historical record. Alami shared the sufferings of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula in 1391, and this gives context to his advice, which I’m sure is poignant to all refugees and asylum-seekers. He wrote: “Flee without hesitation when exile is the only means of securing religious freedom; have no regard to your worldly career or your property, but go at once.”
Rabbi Jack Riemer, wrote a book filled with examples of Ethical Wills throughout Jewish history, and he explained that:
An Ethical Will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider what are the things that really count. Thus an individual learns a great deal about himself or herself when writing an Ethical Will. If you had time to write just one letter, to whom would it be addressed? What would it say? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive, or seek to instruct?
Rabbi Reimer continues:
An Ethical Will is not an easy thing to read. There is a sense of being a voyeur, of eavesdropping on an intimate conversation, of reading a love letter from the beyond. Those who read these documents should do so with reverence and with gratitude. We tread carefully here, and we read with a sense of privilege.
Then, Rabbi Reimer reminds us:
An Ethical Will is not an easy thing to receive. There is the temptation, an almost irresistible one, for parents to try to persuade after death what they were unable to persuade during life. There is the temptation to repeat once more, to plead once more, and to impose a burden of guilt from the grave.
Some of us may shy away from creating an Ethical Will out of a fear of writing – will I be eloquent enough? Will I convey myself correctly? Luckily, the task of writing an Ethical Will is not really about being a “writer.” Instead, it is about being yourself, taking time to look deep into your soul, and into the souls of those you love. Additionally, thanks to all kinds of modern technology, you could also use video, voice recording, art, photography, music, or more to share your message. You take the time to say what matters to you most in words that reflect your own pattern of speech. Your children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends should be able to hear your presence echo in their hearts as they experience your Ethical Will.
Ethical Wills often reflect the time and place in which they were written, and can serve as a historical document within the family.
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub: Rabbinic Director at Jewish Board in New York, has used ethical wills professionally for many years. He reports that receiving his father’s Ethical Will deepened his understanding of the power of these documents. The following is condensed from a video interview Rabbi Weintraub gave to the Jewish Ethical Wills Project:
After my father died, my brother went to my father’s office, to the drawer we were supposed to go to when he died. There he found not only the financial files he kept so neatly, but also a letter addressed to the family. It was so wonderful to have an indication that we would have a message from my father to read and to learn from: not just then and there, but for times to come. It was really a Torah of his life, and to this day we get together to talk about it. On his birthday we read and discuss it, almost like giving commentary to his teaching and his life. The letter reflects my father’s personality both in its distinctive handwriting and tone. As my father did in life, the letter quotes liberally from the prayerbook and Jewish texts, and I can hear his voice as I read.
The tone of contemporary Ethical Wills is often more psychological and relaxed as in the following excerpt from an Ethical Will by Rosie Rosenzweig written to her family in 1979. “Rachel, my youngest, who has my name and my old place in the family, the youngest, I want to leave you only my best qualities and not my worst. Listen to the still, small voice of the best in yourself, regardless of what the people around you feel. Be swayed only by wisdom, and not the momentary emotions of others.”
Sam Levenson: A well-known humorist who had his own TV show on CBS, Sam Levenson published this “Ethical Will and Testament to His Grandchildren and to Children Everywhere” in 1976.
I leave you my unpaid debts. They are my greatest assets. Everything I own — I owe:
1. To America I owe a debt for the opportunity it gave me to be free and to be me.
2. To my parents I owe America. They gave it to me, and I leave it to you. Take good care of it.
3. To the biblical tradition I owe the belief that man does not live by bread alone, nor does he live alone at all. This is also the democratic tradition. Preserve it.
4. To the 6 million of my people and to the 30 million other humans who died because of man’s inhumanity to man, I owe a vow that it must never happen again.
5. I leave you not everything I never had, but everything I had in my lifetime: a good family, respect for learning, compassion for my fellow man, and some four-letter words for all occasions: words like help, give, care, feel, and love.
Love, my dear grandchildren, is easier to recommend than to define.
Finally, I leave you the years I should like to have lived so that I might possibly see whether your generation will bring more love and peace to the world than ours did. I not only hope that you will. I pray that you will.
As you might have anticipated, I stand here today to encourage you all to consider writing an Ethical Will. It can also be a letter that you present to your loved ones sooner rather than later, so that you see the joy that it brings them. An Ethical Will reflects the voice of your heart. Think of it as a love letter to your family. Every Ethical Will is as unique as the person writing it.
How might you begin? Start by jotting down notes about your beliefs, life lessons and hopes for the future. You might include details about your family history. You also may want to express gratitude toward family and friends or request forgiveness for past actions.
Record your thoughts and stories for a few weeks or months, and then use your notes to draft a letter or personal history. Then review and revise the document over time. You can also, of course, record an audio or video version of your Ethical Will, if that is more comfortable for you.
To conclude, I share with you excerpts from an obituary written by Jane Catherine Lotter, which went viral a few years back following her death:
One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.) To wit:
I was born in Seattle on August 10, 1952, at Northgate Hospital (since torn down) at Northgate Mall. Grew up in Shoreline, attended Shorecrest High, graduated from the University of Washington in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts in History. Aside from eight memorable months lived in New York City when I was nineteen (and where I worked happily and insouciantly on the telephone order board for B. Altman & Co.), I was a lifelong Seattle resident….
I (also) want to thank Mrs. Senour, my first grade teacher, for teaching me to read. I loved witty conversation, long walks, and good books. Among my favorite authors were Iris Murdoch (particularly The Sea, The Sea) and Charles Dickens…
I met Bob Marts at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square on November 22, 1975, which was the luckiest night of my life. Bobby M, I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the laughter and the love, and for standing by me at the end. Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you. I wish you such good things. May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.
I believe we are each of us connected to every person and everything on this Earth, that we are in fact one divine organism having an infinite spiritual existence. Of course, we may not always comprehend that. And really, that’s a discussion for another time. So let’s cut to the chase:
I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful. I first got sick in January 2010. When the cancer recurred last year and was terminal, I decided to be joyful about having had a full life, rather than sad about having to die. Amazingly, this outlook worked for me. (Well, you know, most of the time.) Meditation and the study of Buddhist philosophy also helped me accept what I could not change. At any rate, I am at peace. And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world-this sun, that moon, that walk around Green Lake, that stroll through the Pike Place Market, the memory of a child’s hand in mine.
My beloved Bob, Tessa, and Riley. My beloved friends and family. How precious you all have been to me. Knowing and loving each one of you was the success story of my life. Metaphorically speaking, we will meet again, joyfully, on the other side.
Beautiful day, happy to have been here.
And, thus, dear friends, I remind you of Bachya ibn Pakuda’s wise words:
“Days are scrolls. Write on them what you want to remembered.”
What will you write?
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
Reimer, Jack and Nathaniel Stampfer. So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991.