Sinai Temple’s class on ethical wills, “Passing on Your Heart’s Treasures,” will be taught this Wednesday, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at 10400 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, by the extraordinary Norm Pell. There is no charge, but registration is required (310-481-3243, or email at email@example.com).
Here is an excerpt from the ethical will of Abraham M. Ellis, written September 16, 1955, based on a life that began in Europe in a prior century, and ended in Philadelphia in a new world:
Why do I leave this will? This is a question that would not have had to be asked a hundred years ago or more when it was common for a Jew to leave not only a will of property but a will of advice, an ethical will. A man should provide for the next generation materially – this is the duty of every father, his undeniable responsibility – but he must provide for them spiritually as well; he must seek to make their way in life easier by showing them where the path is to be found which will guide them through the forest of daily living where it is so easy to lose both body and soul. In setting down this will, then, I am but doing what countless Jews have done before me in days gone by, and what I hope will again be taken up as a sacred mitzvah by our generation.
Rabbi Jack Riemer’s book on ethical wills recounts Harold Kushner’s interpretation of the comment Jacob makes when he sees his son Joseph again, whom he thought had died: Jacob says “Amuta hapa’am” – literally “I will die this one time.” (Gen. 46:30). Kushner explained that everyone owes life one death, but a person leaving no one to remember him dies a second one. Once Jacob knew that Joseph was alive and had children, who would remember their grandfather’s life, Jacob knew he would only die once.
At the end of Ian Frazier’s “Family,” a book that movingly records the small moments of his ancestors’ lives (such as the night his mother danced in college and wrote in her diary that “my heart danced with me”), he sits alone by his mother’s hospital bed, realizing that “sooner or later I would die too:”
And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us, perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and no one would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. And we would move from the nearer regions of the dead who are remembered into the farther regions of the forgotten, and on past those, into a space as white and big as the sky replicated forever. And all that would remain would be the love bravely expressed, and the moment when you danced and your heart danced with you.
Think of an ethical will as the love bravely expressed -- as a way to pass on the treasures of your heart, from the days your heart danced with you -- and as a sacred mitzvah, a way to die only once.