Lev, my teacher, my guide to my Bat Mitzvah, is big on ethical wills. We talked about them years ago on Thursdays when a group of us met to study Torah, Torah in the broadest sense of Jewish learning. We were supposed to write one. We never did. Teaching a class at the University of New Hampshire, Lev asked his students to write ethical wills. A friend who teaches at the University told me, Lev’s students weren’t thrilled. The assignment seemed odd. Who would ask an eighteen year old to write an ethical will?
So just what is an ethical will? It’s not a living will, a document in which you communicate your wishes to medical personal and to your family when you are alive, but unable to express those wishes yourself. It is not a legal will, the document that distributes your material possessions and is read after your death.
In Jewish culture, ethical wills date back to the Hebrew bible, Jacob gathering his twelve sons (Where was Dina?) around his death bed, so that he can bless each, Moses blessing each of those twelve tribes after God tells him he will not enter the promised land. So ethical wills are blessings and moral pronouncements that began in our oral tradition. Overtime time a written tradition evolved, and ethical wills became known as Teachings of the Fathers. I will call them Teachings of the Mothers and the Fathers.
In his book, Ethical Wills, K. Baines, lists transitions that might inspire one to write an ethical will: a single woman or man not planning to have children, but wanting to bequeath values to nieces or nephews, an engaged couple articulating values they want to share, parents reflecting after the birth of a child, parents reflecting as they raise children, divorced parents, reaffirming values for themselves and their children, men and women of middle age and beyond, capturing and harvesting values. Ethical wills are about reflection. So when Lev asked his students to write ethical wills, he was teaching them to look at themselves, to consider, to be aware, to go deeper. How cool was that?
So as part of my journey to a Bat Mitzvah, I will write an ethical will, harvesting my values and gathering family stories. I will write and reflect, hoping that what I pass on will spark my children and my grandchildren to dive down into their own memories, their own reflections, and in this way we will link generations. For me an ethical will is about that linking. A way—not the only way—but a way to give meaning to our lives.