Writing and Reading Ethical Wills

On the Jewish custom of leaving a written spiritual legacy for one's children.

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An ethical will is not an easy thing to receive. There is the temptation, an almost irresistible one, for parents to try to persuade after death what they were unable to persuade during life. There is the temptation to repeat once more, to plead once more, and to impose a burden of guilt from the grave.

The famous and much-quoted letter of Ibn Tibbon is an example of such a castrating and guilt-producing will. Over and over again in his will he berates his child and reminds him how much he has done for him, and then he ends with the instruction that the child should read this will regularly. One can only shudder to think of how much harm such a will can do. One must be able to accept a will as well meant, even if its instructions are sometimes burdensome. One must be able to take it as words that come from the heart and that hopefully enter the heart. One must be able to accept it as an adult receiving instruction from an adult, or else the ties that bind become ties that choke and cripple.

[The wills of our time] come from many countries and from many kinds of people. Some were written by scholars, some by simple men and women. Some were written in freedom and safety, from the comfort of a desk, and some were written in trenches and bunkers. Some were written in English, some in Hebrew, Yiddish, or German. All are precious spiritual documents--windows into the souls of those who wrote them.

[Our book reflects] the four worlds in which the Jewish people have lived in this century: the world of faith and piety; the world of agony and anguish; the world of return to power and state­hood; and the world of freedom. Each of these worlds has presented the Jewish people with a different challenge [reflected in the ethical wills each produced].

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Rabbi Jack Riemer

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the co-editor of So That Your Values Live On and the chair of the National Rabbinic Network, a support system for rabbis across all the denominational lines. He is a former consultant to President Bill Clinton.