What’s in your Ethical Will?

By Rabbi Greg Alexander

I am guessing that you have sorted out a will — who gets the Irma Stern print, the butterfly collection and the Fabergé egg. 

But have you written an Ethical Will? Instead of letting your heirs know who gets the stuff, an Ethical Will lets them know what you believe. What is important to you and what you want them to know after you are no longer around. What are your values, what wisdom have you learned in your life and what guidance would you want to give to the generations who come after you? In fact, even those who have nothing physical to bequeath to their survivors, may well have the richest Ethical Will to teach, guide and inspire them.

So where did this tradition come from? Well, you could say it goes back as far as our ancestor Jacob. When he was about to die, he gathered his children around him and gave each of them a blessing. But this was not a “may G#d bless you and keep you” kind of blessing. It was a poetic and hard-hitting summary of how he felt about each child and — spoiler warning if you are planning to read it (Genesis 49) — it was not all positive feedback. This Ethical Will inspired the artist Marc Chagall to visualise the 12 blessings in his famous stained-glass windows that were exhibited in the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, and then went on to their intended installation in the Hadassah Hospital in Israel where you can see them today.

Some famous Jews in the past wrote Ethical Wills — from Maimonides (Epistle to Yemen), the Vilna Gaon (Iggeret haGra) and Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (Or Yisrael). Sholom Aleichem wrote one (in Yiddish, of course) and included the wording for his own epitaph, which you can see on his gravestone today in the Yiddish Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Brooklyn. They wrote them — now what about you?

There is no fixed formula to what needs to go into your Ethical Will. Many people start from what they have learned and inherited. Jewishly, this could be verses from Torah or Jewish literature, a favourite quotation selected from a poem or book, or a prayer or song that was meaningful to you.

It often will tell some of the story of the family, and what you have learned from your parents or grandparents. And for sure it should include some of your own life experiences and what you have learned from them. What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome difficult situations?

The writing process might be more important even than the product that comes out of it. You will need to think deeply about your belief system. It is a chance for you to journey into your own life, your own self and to ask some difficult questions — where have I succeeded and where have I failed in life? What decisions did I make that changed the course of my path and which are the ones that, if I faced them again, I would have chosen differently? What are things that, looking back now, count most? It is also an opportunity for you to say what you most love about your family members and closest friends and to encourage them to develop those qualities in themselves. 

If you could write this all in one letter, what would it say? Who would you address it to? Would you, like Jacob in the Torah, rebuke and reprimand those people closest to you? Who would you want to thank for enriching your life or making it more meaningful? 

Just as you will want to make sure that your personal items are passed on to your loved ones, take time to make sure that your most treasured words, thoughts and prayers are passed on to them too. And there is no time better to do this than now.

Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

• Published in the June 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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