Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22; Isaiah 1:1-27
Have you made your will? Perhaps you have made the will in which you dispose of your financial and physical estate.
But have you made your ethical will? Perhaps you have, or maybe you aren’t yet familiar with the idea. Let’s consider the Book of Deuteronomy as an example.
“These are the words/d’avarim that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” So begins Sefer D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy. This book is presented as a series of addresses by Moses to the Israelites shortly before his death.
But “Deuteronomy” is a Greek word, roughly translated as “second law.” That’s because much of it is a recapitulation of material we have read in the first four books of the Torah. It includes the history of the Israelites and many of the laws and regulations that we have already studied.
Deuteronomy is more than that, however. It includes Moses’ exhortations to our people. “This is how I hope you will behave,” he tells us. Follow God’s mitzvot, remember who you are and how you came to be this way, preserve and defend our heritage and our rituals, keep far away from sin.
An ethical will is a document left for one’s children and grandchildren. The writer sums up his/her experiences and the lessons learned, which the writer hopes will govern his descendants’ behavior. The assumption is that one’s most cherished possessions are not
material goods, but an ethical — and sacred — way of life. You may have read the most famous ethical will of our time, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”
Ethical wills were more common among us Jews during the Middle Ages, but there are many modern and contemporary examples, too. The comedian Sam Levenson wrote a notable ethical will. One of the most unusual, and best, came from Glueckel of Hameln in the 1690s. She not only wrote an ethical will, but a memoir of her very interesting life. Her work is unusual because there were very few Jewish women in her era who wrote much of anything.
The next Jewish month is Elul, traditionally the season of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time for taking stock of one’s life and coming to understand how to be a better person and a better Jew.
So I suggest that contemplating your ethical will would be a good exercise in the weeks ahead. What would you put into it?
You might include an account of your achievements and also your mistakes. You might pass along your wisdom and rules to guide behavior. You might express your hopes for the next generations of your family and even your visions for the future of our Jewish people and the human community.
Let Moses’ example guide us in the weeks ahead, as we think seriously about our lives and the legacy that we are creating for those who come after us.
Rabbi Paul Tuchman is rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.