For the past several weeks, I have been participating in a seminar at my synagogue, Kol Tzedek, about death and mourning rituals in Jewish tradition. The participants range in age from young 20’s through mid-70’s. During this workshop, we have talked about the practical things that need to be done when a person dies, burial customs, mourning rituals, how to create new ways to mark the death of those we have lost and what we might want for ourselves when we die.
During this past session, we learned about creating an Ethical Will. (also known as a Legacy Will). According to Celebrations of Life, an ethical will is not a legal document; it does not distribute your material wealth. It is a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community. Ethical wills are not new. References to this tradition are found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible (Genesis Ch. 49, John Ch. 15-18) as well as in other cultures.
The question was raised, who should write an ethical will and when should it be written? You might think that the writer would be a person who is dying and wants to impart wisdom and/or blessings to his or her children. However, many people in the final stages of life don’t have the strength or energy to write down their thoughts. If one waits until the end of life, it may be too late and the person may feel regret at not having had the ability to say what is in his or her heart.
In his article Ethical Wills, A Gift of the Heart, Robert Alexander states that they are written by people at turning points in their lives, when they are facing challenging life situations and at transitional stages of life. They are authored by people of all religious faiths as well individuals with no particular religious belief but who wish to pass on values to their loved ones.
Just as I believe that it is prudent to revisit and revise, if needed, your legal end-of-life paperwork, (wills, trusts, advance directives, powers of attorney) when life circumstances change or at a minimum of every 2 – 3 years, so too, it is with an ethical will. Since an ethical will is written to impart our values, hopes and guidance to those who come after us, what happens during our lives, changes as our life circumstances change which ultimately changes the legacy we wish to leave behind. Have you recently gotten married or divorced? Purchased a house? Opened a business? Been diagnosed with a life-threatening or chronic illness? Had a child? Experienced the death of a parent or spouse? These are times to review your ethical will as well as your legal paperwork to make sure it states what you want it to say at this point in your life.
Often, ethical wills are written to spouses or children. However, who is to be the recipient if you have no children or family? We all struggled with this question. Some had no children. Some had outlived their children. Each of us had to find for ourselves the recipient of our letters. One person decided to use the ethical will as an ongoing letter to her younger self, to be read when she needed guidance during difficult times. One person wrote a letter to her spiritual community as a way of expressing hopes and guidance for the future of that community. The answer is as varied as the number of people writing.
As we sat in a group and wrote our ethical wills, I searched the faces around me. One thing was clear. This was not just an “exercise” that we were doing in a workshop.
Each of us were digging deeply into our hearts to determine just what we believe, what are values were, what we wanted to pass on as our legacy and how we wanted to be remembered. Although my ethical will shall continue to be written during the various stages of my life, I was able to sum up in one sentence what is most important to me. That the world will have been a better place because I lived. This is my legacy. What is yours?