Ethical will: How to tell your tale to convey your ethical values

Events that shape our lives are not always apparent to those around us.

WE MAY have been blessed with abundance: In Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
WE MAY have been blessed with abundance: In Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Children are very innocent and say what they think, no holds barred. So when our daughter was small, maybe four or five, and she asked my father-in-law if, when he would die, she could have the green lamp on his desk, of course he said yes. Now that she is a grown woman with a family of her own, I see what he really left her: kindness, a good work ethic, and a love for her family and heritage among other wonderful traits.
More recently I attended a Zoom ceremony to honor my uncle’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. He was a successful businessman, known in the community for his business prowess. His wife and daughters, in addition to being savvy businesswomen themselves, were left very comfortable financially. But at the yahrzeit, which was attended virtually by a large circle of his extended family, no one talked about the successful entrepreneur. What people mentioned time and again, was the kind of man he was: generous, softly spoken, modest, intelligent, learned and caring. These were not assets left in his will, but they were his greatest assets and they were shared equally by his family and many others who had the privilege of knowing him over the years.
Life is complicated. We run and play, work, build families, homes and businesses, travel, worry and try to rest. One of the things that concerns many of us is the next generation. We worry about the world we are leaving them, and the moral values they will embrace.
We learn about the values of our parents, friends and colleagues, usually by osmosis, through their actions and the way they live their lives, yet not everything is obvious to the naked eye. Countless influences go unnoticed.
While we are generally confident, as in my father-in-law’s and uncle’s cases, that much of our beliefs and our identities are naturally passed down through role modeling, writing a life story or memoir may allow us to look back on our lives with new eyes and often, clarity. It also allows the next generation to know how we got to where we are, and what molded us into the person they know and love.
Thoughts, feelings, missed opportunities and events that shape our lives are not always apparent to those around us. By writing these things down we can express our innermost thoughts, dreams, beliefs and moral values; values that are important to us and that we believe should be important to the next generation. We may have been blessed with abundance, be it an abundance of love and family or an abundance of material possessions. Often, we learn about ourselves as a result of mistakes we have made, or missed opportunities. We may have wronged someone or learned lessons too late. Circumstances such as war or poverty affect who we are. These experiences, like all experiences, shape us and give us wisdom, a special kind of wisdom – the wisdom of hindsight. It is not for nothing that we say elderly people are graduates from the university of life.
JEWISH TRADITION, dating back centuries, attests to the value of an ethical will. Our forefather Jacob gathered his children around his death bed and gave them a lesson on values. Throughout history, famous Jewish thinkers such as Harav Avraham Isaac Kook left letters or stories to their followers and families on how to live a moral life. Jews who were sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps left letters to their children in the hope the children would survive and keep their families alive through tradition, morals and family values.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. You can write an “ethical will” or you can write your life story or memoir. While an ethical will is a document for the next generation that shares the writer’s ethical values, it is often based on the life experiences and beliefs of the writer. It can be written as a document in its own right, but many times it is accomplished through recounting the life story of the writer. Whereas a legal will distributes our material assets to those we deem worthy, with clearly stated beneficiaries, in an ethical will we voice what we want the next generation to acquire from our knowledge in order to better form their experience of a just, moral and worthy life. Unlike a testator will, this can and usually is given during one’s lifetime.
To write an ethical will or life story for your family, children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, you can start by asking yourself the following types of questions:
• What is important for me to tell the next generation?
• What major life events molded me to be the person I am today?
• How did my life touch other people?
• What did I offer the world to make it a better place?
• What could I have done differently?
• Who was my inspiration?
To reflect on your life with the aim of guiding others can be very satisfying. It might be the greatest gift you leave.
Older people often talk about a generation gap. Let’s be honest, every so often, we feel that the way the next generation lives means that they are not in sync with what we consider to be the “right values.” By writing an ethical will you may discover that this is erroneous. The next generation may be different, modern, less traditional, less religious or more, but that does not necessarily translate into them being devoid of ethics or morals. Look at how many people of the younger generation care about the planet or animal welfare or injustices due to racism or poverty. By documenting your life story and including the ideals you cherish, you may discover that you have done a respectable job imparting wisdom and principled values to your children and grandchildren.
Writing your memoir, letter or ethical will can be done by you alone or with the help of a friend of family member. There are, however, professionals who can help edit and format the story if so desired. Photos can be included to bring the pages to life. But one thing is sure: It can bring satisfaction to the writer as well as to the intended audience if written with love and insight.
So whether you want to tell your kids about hardships, joys, vulnerabilities or strengths, historical moments that you witnessed or what makes you happy, grab a pen or computer and get started. It is a window to your world that is probably worth opening.
The writer is a geriatric social worker based in Jerusalem. judyajoss@gmail.com