Monday, March 14, 2011

Teach us to Count Our Days Rightly: An Account of the Sharing of an Ethical Will

"Teach us to count our days rightly,

That we may obtain a wise heart."

Psalm 90:12


Recently my extended family gathered for a Bar Mitzvah on the East Coast. About a month before the simchah I sat with my parents and suggested that they consider gathering with the family after Shabbat to have a conversation with family members about end of life issues. This had never been discussed by my parents in any organized way. I thought that this could be an occasion to bring the family closer and to also give them an opportunity to begin preparing an ethical will-Tzeva'ot.


An ethical will is a Jewish tradition that goes all the way back to the patriarch Jacob. In Egypt as he was approaching death, he gathered his children to pronounce his blessings over them and his final wishes. (Genesis 49:1-33). In the middle ages and into modern times, the ethical will has been a feature of Jewish life. In recent years there have appeared a number of books about the writing of ethical wills. In "Let Your Values Live On" by Reimer and Stampfer, we find the will of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, the translator and friend of Maimonides (about 1190). He writes to his children, "Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If thy soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will thy desire renew itself, and thy soul be satisfied with delight."


An ethical will is a very special gift a parent can give to children and grandchildren. To prepare one takes a certain degree of courage and a commitment to making time with family to discuss "end of life" issues. I know from rabbinical experience that families can have great difficulty focusing on this discussion. Like other families in America, our family members are widely dispersed and lead very busy lives. But my parents agreed to begin preparing an ethical will and to put their affairs in order to be able to share with all of us essential information. We decided that the family gathering at my nephew's Bar Mitzvah would be a good occasion to start a conversation.


We gathered on Sunday morning in my brother's living room. The three brothers were there with their spouses. Three grandchildren also joined the conversation. My parents began by sharing with us their medical directives, their wills, and other documents. They brought to the gathering a wonderful sense of humor and a certain fearlessness. Much laughter was heard and many tears were shed. The morning culminated with my mother's first draft of her ethical will. She briefly went over our family history including joyful milestones and sorrowful benchmarks. She offered a very moving narrative of her life and ended with these words.


"But the words I want to leave you with are those of gratefulness, appreciation and thankfulness for all that my boys, their wives and children have given me.  I am filled with awe at their accomplishments, their good deeds, their charitable natures to others in need, their awareness of the world around them and their concern for us. And to my love, I can only say there has never been a man to equal you in your tenderness, your thoughtfulness and your caring for me.  You have taught me so much, and for that, I am eternally grateful.  I am so lucky to have found you when I did.  


You all are a blessing in my life and a celebration in my heart."


It was such a special moment, a great gift was given to all of us and we hugged each other for what seemed an eternity. I would ask all my readers to consider doing this process with your family. To some this is very frightening, because it involves imagining the conclusion of our lives. But it is also a time in which to celebrate the enduring ties and legacies of families. During my parent's presentation I looked over at my son and saw the smile on his face and the tear in his eyes. I was so grateful to my parents for giving him this gift and to inspiring me to give this gift to my children at a future time.