An ethical will is a third type of will. A regular will disposes of belongings. A medical will asserts your preferences regarding end-of-life care. The ethical will, however, is a vehicle by which you may transmit those values you hold most dear to the people in your life whom you've also held most dear.
Not that those people - if they are children of a Jewish mother - haven't heard those values before, over and over. Like a broken record.
It won't surprise my daughters to learn that I, too, have written an ethical will. I wrote it for my daughters, almost exactly ten years ago, in case, God forbid...
Chicago Hope, however, prompted me - I really hadn't thought about the will since I wrote it. Tonight it dawned on me that the ethical will was buried somewhere in my computer, and, God forbid, my daughters might never see it. So, I decided to memorialize it here. If anything happens to me, will someone please send my beautiful daughters the link to this blog post?
Dated July 19, 2001
28 Tammuz, 5761
To my dearest, most beloved daughters,
The idea of an ethical will, a will bequeathing you not the materialistic leavings of my life, but instead bestowing a final Torah lesson and the thoughts of my heart, is a custom of our people, perhaps built upon the idea of the parental blessing at the deathbed. Isn’t it like me to sneak in a final Torah lesson?
I feel blessed to have been your mother. Clearly you girls have been the greatest of all of God’s gifts to me. I have been blessed with the opportunity to care for you, to watch you grow from beautiful, open and curious children to become graceful, kind, capable, intelligent women. But even more, through you I have been given a second and third chance to see life freshly through your eyes, to rethink the purpose and value of life in the clarity of my love for you. And because you are so precious I learned with a special poignancy just how fragile and precious is each soul, and how great a gift is our time with one-another in this world.
As children we are turned inward, each toward her own needs, joys and fears. Others seem to exist simply to meet our physical and social needs. As we mature, how clear it becomes that the joy of any one person depends not upon the service of other souls, but upon reciprocal service, the intertwining of lives, the giving and getting of love, support, kind words and deeds. In short – joy is a communal experience, a treasure bestowed upon each soul through meaningful linkage with other souls.
I know each of you learned this lesson early, because you both have a strong love for your family, and valued and long-time friends in whom you have invested much of your hearts. How much greater will your joy be, I therefore ask you, when you extend these practices to your extended family, your community of friends and the larger community of humanity with whom we share the planet Earth. Each “reaching out” to another, whether friend or stranger, blesses your own life with many unforeseen riches. Judaism provides me with a beautiful set of instructions for this sort of human interaction, and I pray that you, too, will find meaning and purpose here.
Honor father and mother and teacher. Find the holy flame, the b’tzelem elohim in each person you meet. Look for and connect with the higher soul of each human-being, and you will find that people respond to you from that place in themselves. There is something to learn from every human being, even if it is only something about yourself.
Always take the opportunity to do gemilut chasadim. Doing a kindness means so much more to the recipient than is apparent. Visit the sick. Comfort the grieving. Rejoice with the bride and groom. Smile from your eyes, as well as with your mouth. Say the kind word that springs to your lips. Really listen. Really care. Go out of your way. Whatever these little acts cost in time, energy and even money, you will be repaid abundantly in love, friendship, kindness, and a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Take care of you - physically, emotionally and spiritually. Take care of your bodies. Take care of your hearts. Take care of your souls. You have an obligation to yourself and to those in your care to be healthy, so you can make the most of life. Do not neglect exercise, and get yourselves regularly into the fresh air and awe of God’s beautiful natural landscape. Allow yourself the time to rest. Forgive yourself your mistakes. You are strong women, to whom others will always turn for care, nurturing and assistance. Remember that you are also soft women, and let others nurture you when the need arises, or when others simply wish to give you that gift.
In the words of Hillel, “That which is disdainful to you, do not do to others.” Seek justice, but always temper justice with mercy. Be honest in your dealings with others. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try not to judge harshly. It is nearly impossible to know what happens in the hearts and homes of other people. Care even for the stranger, like your foremother Sara. You were once a stranger in the land of Egypt, and you may yet be a stranger again.
Remember, you are part of a larger, extended family. You are descended from strong, loving women on both sides of your family, and it is in their merit that I have raised you. If I made a major mistake in your up-bringing, it was in raising you so far from our own family. It is not too late to connect with your cousins and their children. Don’t let the fact that you’ve never met some of them discourage you. These are your people, and you share a common heritage.
Practice tikkun olam. Care for the Earth and its inhabitants. The Earth is your home, and the home of your grandchildren. Never stop learning. Be curious and keep your eyes and your minds open. Listen. Watch. Ask. Read. Books can widen your exposure immeasurably, and help you feel your membership in the community of planet Earth.
Lisa, as a last gift to me, light candles on Shabbat. Leave open your mind to the possibility of God. If God seems a distant idea, look inside at that which feels close. Remember that your most intense emotions, your deepest sense of awe, all feelings of enlightenment and connection to things bigger and beyond and outside of yourself, all these feelings have their origin deep inside your center – your soul. And while God is everywhere, inside is a good place to look first when looking for God.
Jody, you have been blessed with the strength of faith and dedication to your Jewish community. These blessing are not given without strings. You are obligated to act on your faith, to be an example and a leader, and to protect, nurture and cherish your faith, your heritage and your community. Continue to study Torah. Make the ve’ahavta your watchword. Let each and every act of your hands, your mouth and your heart speak of God and Torah. And light the Shabbas candles, please.
In closing, both of you, take care of your sister.
Love always, Mom
July 19, 2001