“Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”
This quote from Bachya ibn Pakuda, an 11th century rabbi, captures one of the key philosophies of Judaism. We have the opportunity to create the lives that we want in the here and now, and we also have the ability to write what we want people to remember about us.
Too often in our society, we focus on the material inheritance that we might earn when a loved one dies. Some wait eagerly for the reading of the will, hoping for the announcement of how much money, which antiques or what property will be passed on to which relative. I’ve even seen the way that this process can tear a family apart. While there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with specifying who inherits what in your family, there is so much more that we can pass on to those who come after us. For this purpose, we can compose an ethical will.
An ethical will, or what is sometimes called a legacy letter, is a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, love, forgiveness and dreams with your family, friends, and community. And what is a more appropriate starting place than the beginning of the Jewish year, a time when we’ve been looking back at the past and pondering who we truly want to be during this life.
An ethical will is not a legal document; rather, it is an expression of what matters most in your life. Nonetheless, many lawyers recommend that their clients include an ethical will in their final paperwork, in addition to the traditional last will and testament or living will.
The impulse to leave this ethical legacy goes all the way back to the Torah. Jacob gathered each of his sons, one at a time, and gave them a personal blessing. He also conveyed some of the values that were most important to him, including a desire to be buried one day back in the land of Canaan. One might also read Moses’ final speeches in the Book of Deuteronomy as a form of ethical will, as he reminds the people of Israel to follow God’s laws and to pass the laws on to their children.
Rabbi Jack Riemer, who wrote “So That Your Values Live On,” a wonderful book filled with examples of ethical wills throughout Jewish history, explains that:
An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider what are the things that really count. Thus an individual learns a great deal about himself or herself when writing an ethical will. If you had time to write just one letter, to whom would it be addressed? What would it say? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive, or seek to instruct?
Luckily, writing an ethical will is not about being a “writer.” Creating an ethical will is about being yourself, taking time to think about your own heart and soul, and into the souls of those you love. Writing an ethical will is about saying what matters to you most in words that sounds like you – not like anyone else. Your children, grandchildren, relatives and friends should be able to hear your voice in their hearts as they read your words.
Jane Catherine Lotter’s obituary, which has been disseminated widely over the Internet since her death on July 18, does this:
One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.) To wit:
Many thanks to Sylvia Farias, MSW, at Swedish Cancer Institute for encouraging me to be part of an incredibly wise gynecological cancer support group. Thanks as well to the kind-hearted nurses and doctors at Group Health Capitol Hill oncology. And thanks to my sister Barbara who left no stone unturned in helping me get life-extending treatment in my final months.
I met Bob Marts at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square on November 22, 1975, which was the luckiest night of my life. Bobby M, I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the laughter and the love, and for standing by me at the end. Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you. I wish you such good things. May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.
I believe we are each of us connected to every person and everything on this Earth, that we are in fact one divine organism having an infinite spiritual existence. Of course, we may not always comprehend that. And really, that’s a discussion for another time. So let’s cut to the chase:
My beloved Bob, Tessa, and Riley. My beloved friends and family. How precious you all have been to me. Knowing and loving each one of you was the success story of my life. Metaphorically speaking, we will meet again, joyfully, on the other side.
Beautiful day, happy to have been here.
And, thus, dear friends, I remind you of Bachya ibn Pakuda’s wise words:
“Days are scrolls. Write on them what you want to remembered.”
Rabbi Marci Bellows is a spiritual leader at Temple B’nai Torah community in Wantagh, Long Island. A native of Skokie, IL., she earned a B.A. in Psychology from Brandeis University and a Masters in Hebrew Literature in 2003 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She was ordained in 2004.