Ethical Will: A Legacy of Values

WillsRabbi Jack Reimer, known as America’s rabbi, wisely advises parents that an ethical will, bequeathing your values, moral assets and life lessons, is just as valuable as a will that passes on your material possessions. He goes on to say in his book, Ethical Wills: A Jewish Modern Treasury, that if parents don’t take the time to share their life stories and the stories of those from whom they come then they will disappear and “our kids will be deprived”.

This custom of an ethical will dates back to Biblical times and existed until the nineteenth century, when people lived their last days in the familiar comforts of home and community. Believe it or not, end of life was a social affair. Philippe Aries, social historian and author of the Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present notes that this “will was a means for a person to express his deep thoughts; his religious faith; his attachment to his possessions, to the beings he loved, to God and the decisions he had made to assure the salvation of his soul and the repose of his body”. He goes on to point out that this will assured the dying person that his or her life’s wisdom would survive the physical death. The custom reached near extinction in the twentieth century when the place death moved from the come to the hospital, no longer a place that housed the social customs that once accompanied this final stage of life.

With more people edging toward the end of life at home again with the spread of hospice, this social custom is being unwittingly reawakened with the families recording life review videos and life stories that bring about a gathering around the dying person to share the intimate wisdom learned in his life, while expressing hopes and dreams for his children’s and grandchildren’s lives.

Ethical Will Inspiration

The ethical wills have evolved over time the ancient wills encompassed settling of accounts, directives and burial instructions. My favorite passage from ethical will written by Judah Ibn Tibbon to his son, Samuel, in the twelfth-century, is famously quoted in numerous sermons and other inspirational materials. He writes, “Let books be your companions; let bookcases and shelves be your pleasure ground and gardens. Bask in their

paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, enjoy their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be sated and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect.”

But, Rabbi Reimer also advises parents that literary excellence or elegant speeches aren’t important because “words that come from the heart enter the heart.” I think these words of wisdom are valuable to parents with terminal illnesses afraid to try their hand at a love letter or sit behind a video camera to speak. At the end of the book, So Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, Reimer provides a guide to preparing a modern ethical will to be written, audio or video recorded. Some of the topics suggested to inspire parents are:

  • “Formative life events and experiences
  • The era and world from which I came
  • Important life lessons
  • Influential people that shaped my life
  • Some of my favorite possessions and the stories they contain
  • Scriptural passages that guided and inspired me
  • The mistakes I’ve made that I hope you don’t repeat
  • A true definition of success
  • How I feel as I look back over my life
  • I ask for your forgiveness…
  • How grateful I am to you for…
  • And, finally I want you to know I love you.”

Dr. Barry Baines, author of the book Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper assembled a format that could help organize and inspire writing an ethical will. He suggested writing it in a letter to the family, to your children or your unborn child, or unborn grandchild. He suggested these topics with some excellent guidance on how to express your values with your own words beneath this headings in the will.

  • The importance of family and relationships
  • Religious/Spirituality
  • The Importance of Education, Learning, Knowledge
  • Respect For Life
  • Learning From Mistakes
  • Being Honest, Truthful, Sincere
  • Giving and Receiving
  • Importance of Humor
  • Lessons
  • Reflections
  • Hopes for the Future
  • Conclusions

Words of Poetic Wisdom from Morrie’s Ethical Will

Many Americans are familiar with the book Tuesdays With Morrie: A Young Man, An Old Man, and Life’s Greatest Lessons, but some don’t know the smaller book written by Morrie Schwartz titled Morrie: In His Own Words Life Wisdom From a Remarkable Man. Morrie was 78 years old when he recorded his aphorisms to live and die by in the final months of his life and Paul Solomon, a student of Morrie’s from Brandeis University, transcribed his words. The book is essentially Morrie’s ethical will.

“Let others’ affection, love, concern, interest, admiration, and respect be enough to keep you composed,” Morrie wrote in this book. I share this wisdom as a boost of confidence to those contemplating picking up a pen to write their ethical will or sitting in front of a video camera with family in the culminating hours of life. He goes on to say that on his deathbed visitors came with love and affection often saying “You look luminescent, angelic,” and he’d think to himself “Me, I’m a sick man.” Instead of casting

them away and disregarding how they perceived him, he reeled them in.  “You can’t avoid the bad things coming in physically because they’re inevitable, but you can chose to accept the good things whenever they come along. These loving moments help fortify you and keep you feeling more composed and at peace,” Morrie said. In other words, gather your family and friends, share the stories and exchange affection.

The Abbreviated Oral Ethical Will

I spoke to Dr. Diane Meier, Director of Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in an interview while researching my book Parting Ways: The New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing. She said when a person’s final weeks are apparent, she often sits by the bedside and asks some important questions such as “Are there things you feel you ought to accomplish but haven’t been able?” or “Are your affairs in order?” and “Are there people in your family or friends whom you haven’t seen for awhile and would like to see?” She often offers five expressions for patients to meditate on when thinking about important things to say to those they love. These passages are very much an abbreviation of the ethical will.

1. “Thank you for being my father or thank you for being my son.”

2. “Please forgive me for anything that I may have done that caused pain.”

3. “I forgive you for anything that you may have done that caused me pain.”

4. “I love you.”

5. “Good-bye.”

“It’s remarkable how many families take out a piece of paper and write that down when you tell it to them,” Dr. Meier said. “Pretty much every relationship has the components of these things, and it is very helpful for patients to focus on the things that are important while there is still time to address them. And not to have that regret of ‘I never said good-bye or I never told her that I loved her’.”

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