An ethical will passes down wisdom through the generations
The tradition of leaving words for our loved ones in the form of what Judaism calls an ethical will goes back a long time. Yet many people have never heard of this ancient tradition. An ethical will is a document that includes stories and reflections about your past. It can include joy and regrets, and ultimately becomes both a way to remember a loved one who is gone and a primer on how to live a better, happier life. My own ethical will takes the form of a letter to my two children.
Some believe the practice of ethical wills dates back to the time of the Bible. In Genesis, a dying Jacob gathers his sons to his deathbed to offer them his blessing. Other biblical examples of ethical wills include Moses instructing the Israelites to be a holy people and teach their children. Author Barry Baines has written about how the New Testament also contains descriptions of verbal ethical wills. He points to John 15–17, a recounting of Jesus’s parting advice and blessings to his followers, and Matthew 5, where Jesus blesses his disciples. The early rabbis urged fathers to verbally communicate the teachings and values of their tradition to their sons. Later they wrote letters.
The oldest still-preserved written ethical will is from the eleventh century and by Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms. When he was near death, Eleazar became more aware of his mistakes as a father and decided to make up for them in his ethical will. He wrote, “Think not of evil, for evil thinking leads to evil doing,” “Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul,” and “Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.” In his letter, he cites what his sons should do, from reciting the Shema, a Hebrew prayer, at the correct hour to keeping water at the bedside in order to wash their hands quickly in the morning. Eleazar’s will is also a good example of how a parent can be honest about his or her shortcomings in a way that may draw parent and child closer.
The term “ethical will” may have been coined by Professor Israel Abrahams, a leading scholar born in London in 1858, who wrote about Jews in the Middle Ages and published Hebrew Ethical Wills in 1926. He collected and studied ethical wills in part because he believed they “are among the richest sources of information that we have with respect to attitudes of medieval and early modern Jewish parents toward their children.”
How to Write an Ethical Will
Like me, my ethical will is a work in progress, unfolding as my life unfolds and I lose people I love. We are all made up of our stories—the stories of our wounds, hard-earned wisdom, laughter, joy, suffering, healing, failing, and loving. There is much for us to teach within our stories and much for our loved ones to learn and hold on to. After all, our stories are made up of words. Words are the most real and important things we can leave behind when we are gone.
One of the surprising things I’ve learned from asking people questions about their lives is not only that we often regret the things we didn’t do more than those we did, but also that there are remarkable commonalities among those things. Most of us regret the same kinds of missed opportunities. The chances we did not take and the dreams we did not pursue because we were consumed by meeting other people’s expectations. The times we chose to suffer alone for far too long before reaching out for help. The precious moments we missed forever because we failed to show up for the occasions and people that mattered most.
We start with the question “What do you regret?” for a reason. Beginning with regret demonstrates fearlessness and truth-telling. It shows vulnerability and honest reflection that adds credibility and depth to our answers to all of the questions that follow. Most of all, beginning by honestly acknowledging what we did not do but wish we had may well enable our loved ones—at least a little more than they otherwise would have— to follow their dreams, reach out for help, and take more opportunities to celebrate life and share love. Speak openly of your regrets with truth and vulnerability so that your loved ones might learn from you.
Then consider the following questions:
When was a time you led with your heart?
What makes you happy?
What was your biggest failure?
What got you through your greatest challenge?
What is a good person?
What is love?
Have you ever cut someone out of your life?
How do you want to be remembered?
What is good advice?
What will your epitaph say?
What will your final blessing be?
We do not like to think about it, but the truth is that none of us has forever, and none of us ever really knows for certain when death will come. As much as there is a time to deny death in order to fully live and cherish each moment, there is a time to share the deepest truths of our lives for our loved ones to know and to hold even when, especially when, we are gone.
My Ethical Will to My Children
Dear Aaron and Hannah,
The finest moments of my life have been with you and Mommy, sitting around our kitchen table, laughing. I never feel richer or more at peace with the world than in those moments. That kind of love is more important than anything. Spend your life with a person as good as Mommy and you will have many of those moments. And don’t worry, you will know in your heart when that person arrives. It is a powerful, healing, beautiful kind of love. Grasp it.
Have a healthy relationship with work. Do your best at it, but your work is not the same thing as your life. I often confused the two and hope you will less so. Spend time in nature. It will remind you of God, of true greatness; it will calm you, cause you to pause, breathe, stand still, listen. It will help you feel humble and small in profound and important ways. Think of me when you are out there; feel and know that my soul is with you.
Do not roll your eyes at religion. Celebrate what makes you different. There is much to learn—much— from our ancestors, from prayer, the Sabbath, candles, warm bread and wine, generosity, and faith while gathered around a table with people you love—much.
When you worry, remember that most things turn out better than we expect. When anxiety, sorrow, loss, and pain come, lean on the people you love. Do not suffer alone; it is much worse that way. This is another reason you should look for someone like Mommy to love. I would not have been able to breathe without her.
I used to love to dance, but when I became a more public person, I stopped dancing at weddings and parties. I allowed my fear of what others might think of me, fear of being a spectacle, to keep me from dancing. I regret that now. It was a bad example to you and robbed me of joy. Don’t let fear of what others might think keep you from dancing or singing or loving. Let nothing and no one suppress what your soul longs for. Live so that you do not die with a longing soul.
Count your blessings. When you are feeling less than, or want more, or are mired in self-pity, which happens to us all, look around and count your blessings again and again and again until you tally a hundred of them. Everything is easier when you are grateful.
Feel for others. People behave badly because they are damaged. Let your first impulse be one of empathy. That being said, there will be a handful of people in your life who demand too much—who are mean, narcissistic, negative—causing you to feel terrible about yourself. Cut those people out of your life. You cannot fix them.
Be good and the rest works out. See the world with the people you love. Cherish time; it matters so much more than things. Mine with you and Mommy has made my life worth living. I wish for you that kind of love now. I wish for you that kind of love when I am gone. Say the Mourner’s Prayer and light a candle for me when I am gone. Feel its warmth and know I love you still.
Reprinted from FOR YOU WHEN I AM GONE: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story by Steve Leder with permission from Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Steve Leder.
About the Contributor
Steve Leder is the senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He is the author of five books, including The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things and More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul, as well as the bestsellers More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us and The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. His newest release is For You When I Am Gone: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story.