An ordinary will is about leaving money and property. But there is also a way to leave the legacy of who you are and your values, philosophy, religious beliefs, what you hold most dear — even your favorite recipe. This is called an ethical will. About 20 people gathered at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging on Aug. 11 to explore the why and how of writing an ethical will. The workshop was part of the Ethical Will Project conducted by Jewish Family & Children’s Services with a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim led the two-hour workshop, getting things started with inspirational thoughts and questions. Participants had time to write down answers in notebooks that were provided, which also contained questions and examples. The object of an ethical will is not only to pass down your thoughts and views to immediate heirs, but to create a document that becomes part of your family history.
“This is not a fairy tale about your life,” explained Aaron. “This is about who you tried to be and even what you could have done better.” People should think about the clarifying visions of their lives, she said, adding that you don’t need to be a poet to write in a simple, beautiful way.
Ethical wills are a part of Jewish heritage; some of the earliest examples can be found in the Torah. Aaron spoke about Jacob calling in his sons and grandchildren to give them blessings and also to discuss their faults. She likes the values exemplified by Abraham, who was known for his compassion and welcoming of guests. “This inspires me to welcome people not just into my home, but also into my life,” said Aaron. “The wisdom of our people represents the Torah of our lives.”
Questions posed during the workshop covered topics such as blessings in your life, dealing with anger, small things that bring happiness, experiences that require courage, regrets for actions or things left undone, importance of holidays or special family times and what brings wholeness.
Aaron emphasized that this workshop was designed to create a safe environment for sharing ideas, although participants were not required to share their stories or thoughts. She told a story of a woman who suddenly received an inspiration, and while waiting at the bank, began writing a message to her three daughters telling them to live a good life and to be good to one another. An ethical will can be this simple, Aaron said.
Happiness and blessings can be found in everyday things including sunshine and rain, knowing that your children are happy, focusing on positive thoughts, being grateful for life and good health and giving tzedakah (charity). One participant said it was good just to be grateful for waking up in the morning, and Aaron said this is one of the reasons Jews recite a prayer of thankfulness upon opening our eyes. Sharing recipes is another way of leaving a legacy. Aaron related that her mother made comments in her cookbooks, leaving behind a “mini-Talmud of cooking.” Acknowledging that anger is something everyone deals with, the group discussed peaceful ways to resolve anger such as counting to 10 (or 100), pausing and letting the emotionalism pass, cultivating an attitude of tolerance and even leaving the room to go sing to the dog.
Aaron cited Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary that if people gave as much of themselves as they can, even if only “kindly words, there would be much more love and justice in the world.” Several people talked about giving to others with donations and volunteering as one of the most important ideas to pass on. Aaron said that volunteering is considered sacred work; an act of loving kindness, which helps to uphold the world.
Lois and Les Waldman, sister and brother, who share one of Handmaker’s independent living apartments with their pug, Sam, were glad they attended this workshop. Les, who is 90, said he has written what he calls an “itinerary of his life” for his heirs, and that his late wife, Shirley, had left a note to their children. Lois, 80, who has not been married and has no children, said the workshop inspired her to think about writing an ethical will for her nieces, nephews and friends. She likes the idea of passing on memories and shared family times, along with her thoughts on generosity, kindness and compassion. Les said that the workshop gave him more ideas of what what he would like to pass on to his children and grandchildren. Both Lois and Les have volunteered at Friday night and Saturday morning services at Handmaker.
The workshop ended with Aaron blowing the shofar, reminding people that life is wholeness as well as brokenness and regret, and that smiles, laughter and joy can help life to begin and end in wholeness.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.