Ethical Wills

An Ethical Will Provides an Eternal Legacy   By Rabbi Barry Silver


An ethical will is a wonderful Jewish tradition that can help us sort through the values of our lives and create a legacy to our children and our descendants that outlives us.  In ancient times, Jews often took great pains to prepare such a legacy.  In addition to gems, real estate, stocks and bonds, we can bequeath to our loved ones precious pearls of wisdom we have acquired and spiritual gems and life lessons we would like to pass on to our heirs.  We can bequeath stocks and bonds, as we take stock of our lives and strengthen the bonds with our loved ones by sharing our hopes, thoughts and dreams for our descendants.

This custom of writing an ethical will is needed now more than ever in a world where communication is all too often fleeting and superficial.  Such crystallization of our thoughts, hopes and dreams for our lives can not only help our posterity, it is an excellent way to help us focus on what is important, and to examine the direction and priorities in our lives, while we are still among the living and while we still have a chance to alter the outcome of our lives.

Such a daunting task is not easy, but is well worth the effort.  Forcing us to place our priorities in perspective, and provide ethical standards by which to evaluate our lives, is a character building exercise if we take it seriously and if we are honest in our assessments, regrets and shortcomings.   Assessing the value of our legal estate is easy, as we calculate our net worth and our assets which can be reduced to dollars and cents, but evaluating our spiritual legacy, requires us to do some real soul searching and to candidly assess our lives without recourse to material criteria.  Rather than dollars and cents, we seek to make sense of our lives and to measure our net worth in good deeds and loving acts.

We must candidly ask ourselves, what values, ideals, philosophies, goals, and example have we developed over our lifetimes and what legacy are we leaving to our descendants.  If we are not happy with our spiritual estate, we can seek to invest our lives with more productive endeavors before it is too late, and give ourselves and our heirs a new and improved ethical will.

I suggest that we focus our ethical will on at least four aspirations.  When we grapple with the fact that we will not live forever, let us strive to imbue the living with these aspirations which will transcend our death.


What Do We Live For?

We hope that those we love, our family, friends, neighbors, and community will understand what we lived for beyond just satisfying our material needs and discern the meaning we strived to give to our lives.  Let them see us in a positive light, our faults and shortcomings appearing trivial compared to our accomplishments, triumphs and ideals.

We must ask ourselves, “Do we live our lives in a way that others would view in a positive manner, or do we hide our true values, dreams and priorities under a bushel, unable to be discerned by others?”  Is the meaning of our lives so shallow that it is unknown to all but ourselves? If so, we must reevaluate our priorities and what we share with others.

We must candidly ask ourselves what life lessons and virtues we are leaving to our children, not just in what we say but in our actions.   Do we focus on the minor and ignore what is truly important?  Do we attach ourselves to eternal, worthy goals, or just live for the moment?   What are we teaching our children?  We sometimes think that if we eat healthy foods, get exercise, and avoid noxious substances, we will live forever.  However, we know realistically that this is not true, and that no matter what we do, there will come a time when our legacy is all that our children will have to remember.  Let us ask ourselves if we are leaving a legacy of love, laughter and meaning for them to cherish.

While the body will one day give way, let our love, our smiles, our joys and our inspiration continue to live on in the lives of our loved ones.


Has My Life Made A Difference?

Our second aspiration in an ethical will should be to ask ourselves if our lives have made a difference in the world.  The lives of each Jew should be part of a long chain designed to bring closer a world of justice, harmony and peace.  We must ask ourselves if we have aligned ourselves with others to help speed the arrival of such a day.  Have we taken up the baton handed off to us by our forebears, or did we simply satisfy our own needs, that perish with us?

As Jews, we must ask ourselves if we supported charitable enterprises including the synagogue, the bastion of our heritage, which is essential to the preservation of Jewish ideals and beliefs, or did we find some excuse to stay away?   Among all the denominations in Judaism, could we not find one that reflects some of our values and beliefs, and if not, did we seek to use our influence to make such institutions more responsive to our beliefs and goals?   Did we give of our time and resources to other charitable endeavors, not just Jewish, to improve the world?

We must candidly ask ourselves “Is the world a better place because we were here?  Have the lives of others been improved due to our actions?  Have we left behind children and grandchildren who will continue our legacy and help advance lofty ideals so that others will say of us ‘his memory will be a blessing’, captured by the Hebrew phrase, ‘yehey, zichrono, livracha’?


Aspirations for our loved ones

Our third aspiration is for our loved ones.  Let us write an ethical will expressing our hopes and dreams for those we love while we are still very much alive, for them to cherish when we are no longer among them.  Let us share the joy and love we experienced with them so that they will not simply mourn our absence, but rejoice in the precious time we spent together.  Let us express our joy to our loved ones now and create memories that will live on in them.

The Kaddish never mentions the word “death” but rather speaks of “debt” and “depth”, the debt of gratitude that we feel when we consider how fortunate we are to enjoy the miraculous gift of life and to have shared this joy with loved ones, and the depth of our love and appreciation which time can never erase.

We need not wait until we are on our death bed to share this joy of life (joie de vivre) with our loved ones, and to live with such exuberance that the pleasures we share will continue as our legacy long after our physical departure.

Let ethical wills suggest that our departure should not make them bitter, but better, better for having loved us, and better because they have internalized the hopes, dreams and confidence we have in our children and loved ones to make the most of the unique gifts and talents they possess.

May any sadness they feel from our absence, be more than offset by the many smiles, laughter and precious moments we shared, and let us reassure them that their presence in our lives made every day a reason to rejoice.


Let us leave our children a GPS: a Guiding Parental Spirit

When our children are lost, in need of direction, and in search of their spiritual destination, let them always have firmly implanted within them a spiritual GPS, a Guiding Parental Spirit, that we leave behind to help them find their way.  We must ask ourselves, when we are no longer here to guide them, if they will be able to still hear our voice, and if so, what would they hear?  Would our voice be garbled and unintelligible, or would they hear a clear, clarion call to virtue, strength and wisdom, to help them in good and bad times?   Will we leave behind direction and guidance to help them achieve their dreams and their highest aspirations for life?  If so, what would we want them to hear?

Our GPS should also include another GPS, a goal, a plan and success.  Let us leave a legacy of commitment to worthwhile goals, towards which we never gave up, so that we can demonstrate success, not necessarily in material terms, but in successfully living a life of virtue, love and joy.


When should we write our ethical wills?

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be, and if I am only for myself alone what am I, and if not now, when?”  The time to write our ethical will is now, while we are alert, healthy and thinking clearly.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring?  While we do not like to think about it, let us consider that any day could be our last, and we should not wait until we are no longer able to set down in writing our most optimistic, joyous and realistic appraisal of our lives and our hopes for our loved ones.  Afflicted with disease or disability, we may no longer be able to accomplish this important task.  Let us write an ethical will at once, not only to inspire our loved ones, but also to provide ourselves the opportunity to assess and evaluate the quality of our life, our goals, and the legacy we will leave to posterity, and to make any changes needed to improve.