A few years back, after Leor was born, Shira and I knew that we needed to sit down with an attorney and have a will drafted on our behalf. At first, I admit, the thought of doing this was incredibly morbid. The idea of talking about the end of life, at the very beginning of my son’s life, was something that I did not want to think about. Facing questions regarding what happens to our children in our God forbid untimely passing were topics of conversation that I was not prepared to face, and yet I knew in my mind that it was the right and responsible thing to do.
With our and our children’s best interest in mind, we did it. We took stock of our legal standings and put down our behests to paper. We talked about everything, from advanced directives and power of attorney, to who, God forbid, should watch out for our children in our stead. These conversations left me emotionally and mentally drained. Yes, we took care of hopefully all eventualities. Yes, knowing who gets what set of china or what piece of jewelry is important, but at the end of the process I felt something missing, something I could not articulate until recently.
In high school I was introduced to the concept of an ethical will. “What would it mean,” I remember the teacher asking, “if we tried to live life backwards? If we put down on paper those experiences, beliefs, values, priorities that gave our lives direction and meaning?” As a high school student, I found a list of pithy quotes and put the document together, the idea was not lost on me, but was hard to relate. Today, the value of such a document is invaluable.
The concept of an ethical will, or “Zava’ah” in Hebrew, goes back to the time of Jacob. Ethical wills can be considered a 3,500-year-old tradition. In the Torah, Jacob gathers his twelve sons around him while on his deathbed and gives them an oral ethical will in which he articulates moral guidance and burial instructions. Jacob requests not to be buried in Egypt but in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah with his ancestors. He also offers his children a final blessing.
In the middle ages, The Rambam, Nachmanides, and other great scholars would leave a Zava’ah – and ethical will to their students. Detailing life lessons learned and their expectations of their students. In modern times, Ethical Wills have been written by men and women of every walk of life, detailing their moral understanding of the world, and their hope for future generations.
We have talked about priorities this holy day season, from how we prioritize both the world around us and our own lives, now we turn to focus on how we want to espouse those priorities to the next generation. While we must always live out the values we want to pass on, there is no greater gift both for yourself and for your family than being able to articulate those things you value most in your life.
In that vein, I would like to share some of my own ethical will that I wrote for my children, in the hopes that you might take the opportunity to create your own.
• Look everyone in the eye, no matter who they are, what they do or how much money they have. My grandfathers, Lee and Irv, were not professionals. They came home every night with dirt under their fingernails. Lee worked his entire life in a hardware store, and Irv worked in a liquor store. They spent their days on their feet, they worked incredibly hard to provide for their families. Never forget that no matter what profession you choose of how much money you have, we are all equal.
• Live a life that benefits others. Be generous with what you have, not for the sake of recognition, but because it is our responsibility in the world. Remember that Tzedakah is a form of justice and not simply charity. Lastly, no amount of money can be taken with you when you die, make a difference while you are alive, not just when you are gone.
• Believe in something bigger than yourself. You live in an era when believing in God is seen as a weakness, I disagree. Live a life that gives thanks for the opportunities you have been afforded. Judaism is a gift unlike any other you have or will ever receive. You have grown up in a family where Judaism was the rhythm to our lives. Give yourself the opportunity to experience all that Judaism has to offer, continue to grow as a Jew, always be proud of your heritage, your history and your religion.
• Love – The greatest gift I ever received was finding your mom. You have incredible role models in your grandparents and great grandparents. I pray that you find someone who will be your partner in life, in good times and in bad. I hope this person will be Jewish, if not, while it may be difficult for me at times, never question how much I love you.
• Surround yourself with books – know that the greatest wisdom in the world lies outside yourself.
• Travel. Understand that the more you see of the world, the less afraid you will be of those who do not look or act like you.
• Have passions outside of work and family.
• Imma and I have done our best to take you to Israel as much as possible. Remember that Israel is not a vacation spot, it is your second home. You are extremely lucky to have family as well as friends who will always welcome you with open arms. Please know that Israel has always been a complicated place, but it is our place.
Each of us has the opportunity to share those things in our life that we value most, with our family and friends.
As we enter into yizkor let us remember the values that our loved ones espoused, let us remember those guiding principles that drove them to be the people we admired. Let us remember that we have more than possessions to leave to our children and grandchildren, we have a legacy of love and devotion. What better way to transmit that love, than to take the time while we still can to write it down?