The Teaching of Writing an Ethical Will

By Raphael, Lawrence W. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Teaching of Writing an Ethical Will


Raphael, Lawrence W., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


THE CUSTOM OF WRITING AN ETHICAL WILL IS A PROFOUND experience. This habit of writing directions for the religious and secular guidance of children can be traced back to the twelfth century. [1] Until fairly recently it was long-overlooked by contemporary Jews.

My first encounter-an example of modem Judaism reclaiming a classic tradition--came in 1983. While preparing for my High Holyday pulpit (at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York) Tread an article describing the practice of writing Ethical Wills which referred to anew book by jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer. [2] This idea responded to several needs that I had. In the answer to the dilemma of what to preach my sermons about that year, I could begin to address important intellectual and emotional concerns; and I had also stumbled on an important experience for the congregants. I decided to experiment with the following: on Rosh Hashanah Evening I talked about the Jewish tradition of writing Ethical Wills at the time of the holydays and explained that I would be writing one and sharing it with the congregation on the evening of Yom Kippur. I explained further that anyone else who wrote such a document would have the opportunity to present it publicly between morning and afternoon service s on Yom Kippur day.

Riemer and Stampfer took me back to Abrahams, who notes that the practice of written counsel is fairly recent, but the habit of addressing verbal counsel is, of course, very much more ancient. There are numerous Biblical examples of such counsel. The first is in Genesis 18:19 with God speaking to Abraham: "For I have singled him [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right, in order that Adonai may bring about for Abraham what God has promised him." The Bible records several other instances, most prominently the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 27:27), the dying request of Jacob to Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 49:1-27), the address of Moses and Joshua to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 33), and the advice of David to his son Solomon (I Kings 2:1-9). We also find in Proverbs 1:8 the admonition, "My child, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother."

The Apocrypha, the Talmud, medieval and modern Hebrew literature all contain examples of ethical wills parents left their children. One well-known example is The Letter of Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1195-1270), written to his son. Ramban admonishes him to pursue self-control, the perfection of his character, and the purification of motives.

When your actions display genuine humility--when you stand meekly before man, and fearfully before God; when you stand wary of sin-then the spirit of God's presence will rest upon you, as will the splendor of God's Glory; you will live the life of the World to Come.

Let your words be spoken gently; let your head be bowed.

Cast your eyes downward, and your heart heavenward; and when speaking, do not stare at your listener. Let all men seem greater than you in your eyes.

Speak with reverence and awe, like a servant who stands in the presence of his master.

Read this letter once a week and neglect none of it. Fulfill it, and in so doing, walk with it forever in the ways of God, and God be Blessed, so that you may succeed in your ways. And merit the World to Come that lies hidden for the righteous. Every day that you shall read this letter, heaven shall answer your heart's desires. Amen.

To write an Ethical Will I looked inward. What essential truths had I learned up to that point in life? I realized that to read such a document is like eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. And I understood the temptation for parents to try to manage after death what they were unable to persuade their children to do during their lives.

I excerpted several other medieval and modern Ethical Wills in the presentation I made on Rosh Hashanah and was influenced by them in my own Ethical Will which I read on Yom Kippur. …

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