The legacies we leave behind – writing an ethical


Knowing that he will die before he is able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, Moses wants to remind the people of all the lessons they have learned in the desert and the values they will need to live by as they settle in the land of Canaan.

The Israelites are his beloved flock; Moses has shepherded them through huge challenges and difficulties. He has nurtured, scolded and loved them. He wants to make sure they remember these lessons, and so his teachings are recorded in the final book of the Torah.

At its essence, the whole Book of Deuteronomy, including this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is one long love letter from Moses to the Israelite people before he says goodbye; it is his ethical will.

As we read Moses’ farewells, we are reminded that each of us is mortal, and, at some point, we will die and leave our loved ones behind – our children, grandchildren, spouses, other relatives, friends.

With a lot of hard work and spiritual guidance, we find ways to deal with this harsh reality of life. We discover a way to say goodbye, let go of our most precious relationships, and bless our loved ones who go on living without us.

Like Moses, we want to leave behind all that we can to help our loved ones through the journey of their lives.

Traditionally, Jews have transmitted lessons like this through the writing of an ethical will.

We modern, liberal Jews focus on legal wills as a way to distribute property, possessions and money. But just stop and think of how much more you have to offer your loved ones. We have each learned lessons and values, in both joyful and painful ways. We want to enrich and enlighten those we love as much as we possibly can. So Judaism teaches us to compose an ethical will – a collection of our life lessons to share with our descendants.

The added value for us is that when we compose an ethical will, we remind ourselves to pay attention to the values that we strive to live by – but sometimes easily forget. We remember that we don’t always live up to our highest aspirations, and then we try again to do better (an especially good reminder at this time of year).

The very idea of composing an ethical will might seem daunting, but it’s actually quite straightforward. The following steps will help you get started.
Set aside some private time. Get quiet, focus and set your intention for the importance and the value of this loving gift you want to create. Formulate language for the lessons and values you hope will sustain and strengthen your loved ones in their lives. You might facilitate this process by meditating or looking at family photos of people whose stories have inspired you.
Know that composing an ethical will is a process; it won’t happen instantly. Be patient with yourself as you formulate your ideas.

Begin composing your thoughts by writing them, audio-recording them, or videotaping them – whichever method works best for you.

Here are some questions to help you get started: What are the important things that you have learned in your life? If you were to die suddenly, what would you want to make sure your loved ones know from your heart? What traits do you admire most in others? What important work have you begun that you hope your ancestors will carry on? How have you attempted to leave the world a bit better than you found it? What fills your heart with joy and meaning?

There is no need to finish your ethical will in one session. Even after you think it is complete, you may choose to revisit it and make changes from time to time. And when you review it, remember to acknowledge the challenges and good works of your life and let them remind you of how you want to spend your days.

When your ethical will is complete, place it with your most precious and important papers, perhaps even attaching it to your legal will.
Remember – your life and your experiences have immense worth. Every individual offers great value to this world. You have a lot to say; share your thoughts.

And, just like every important act in your daily life, remember to sanctify the writing of your ethical will with words of blessing. Come up with a blessing that resonates with you. Perhaps something like, “Blessed is the One who has given me the ability to understand and express the ideals that are my very life and soul.”

“And these words … shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

ANDREW KLEIN is the rabbi at Temple Habonim, in Barrington.