Creating Ethical Wills:
A Letter to My Nieces and Nephews
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
The following letter, a version of which was shared with my own family, models an old Jewish tradition of Hebrew ethical wills:
When we are together, I am not always comfortable speaking to you about life and more directly your world. Indeed, if we have occasion to speak, I tend to ask you questions like “how is school going?” or “what’s new in your world?” These inquiries are asked with sincere interest in your wellbeing, in part drawn from my pride in seeing you grow in your respective life journeys. But often, the tough stuff of life never gets addressed, namely your relationship with friends, even parents, siblings and others, or your concerns about how you are handling the challenges before you, some out of your control and others, the result of your own actions. What keeps you up at night might be the best way to frame these often un-asked or unspoken questions?
Let me add a word about family; hopefully your biological family members will always be there for you. I urge you to cherish them! Should over time that not be the case, I would hope that you would create for yourself a core of folks that you define as your adopted “family,” comprised of people who remember your birthday, call to ask how you are doing, and take a personal interest in your welfare, yet are prepared to lovingly criticize and praise you as well. And you in turn take a deep and special interest in their wellbeing.
From my place in life, I will offer you relatively limited advice, as that ought to be yours to uncover or to glean from your parents, as well as from your friends.
- Figure out who and what is important to you.
- Take risks; a life lived without encountering new experiences represents a loss.
- Ask the tough questions, if you are to learn about yourself and the world, you will need to be an inquisitor.
- Never compromise on what you view as just and truthful.
Character is important. How you want to be seen in the world is defined by the values and behaviors that you project. For example, the practice of offering a “thank you,” to individuals who go out of their way to assist you, reflects who you are and what you represent. People take their queue from your behavior.
I would urge each of you to secure a mentor, someone you greatly admire, either because of what they have achieved in their lives or how they creatively and thoughtfully think out issues. These folks seem to have a way of putting everything about which you may be struggling into some type of order. The value of such a confidant who will challenge you and offer you sound advice and guidance is beyond measure. The younger ones among you may not as of now have occasion to come across such a person, but hopefully you will.
So, what is your Jewish journey-looking like? Hopefully, you have secured for yourself a teacher or rabbi to help you grapple with your own doubts, and with the possibilities that Judaism provides. Two questions to consider: where does Judaism fit into your world and what does Israel mean to you? I do hope that each of you has the opportunity to experience Israel and visit other Jewish communities across the globe, as you encounter the beauty and diversity of Jewish culture. Here, I would challenge you to find a Jewish cause or institution that holds special meaning and purpose for you. I do hope you find in your quest particular values and ideas that will continue to inspire and define your Jewish story.
We, you, are also living through a very challenging moment in American history. It will have profound implications for the future of our society and your world. You however cannot be a mere observer of these events; you will need to act on what you believe is essential for American democracy to thrive. You may not be particularly interested in politics or economics, but you are a part of the 21st century and by necessity, you need to understand the implications of what is happening. This is after all your legacy. First, I would suggest you study the issues. In what type of America do you want to live and to raise your own kids? This will be your motivation for action. I urge you to get involved, whether it is on behalf of a specific cause or the support of a political movement or party, your presence will be essential.
Beyond politics, I would hope that you take time to read, not only the contemporary writers but also classical literature. Take a look for example at how Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton saw the world, each from very different perspectives. Spend some time with Shakespeare and the writers of his time. Consider the poetry of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg, Robert Frost, Emma Lazarus, Emily Dickinson and the great novels of Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway among others. Enjoy the writings of such women authors as Toni Morrison, T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, JK Rowling, Harper Lee and Agatha Christie.
I invite you to explore Jewish writers as well, included amongst them Abraham Joshua Heschel and Eli Wiesel, and within the realm of fiction such authors as Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Bernard Malamud. The more contemporary ones include such folks as Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, and Rebecca Goldstein. I also encourage you to explore the great literature of the Jewish sources and writers from different periods of Jewish history.
With reference to our family, each of your aunts, uncles, cousins are in various ways making a difference through their work or as a result of their involvement in specific causes or projects. They would be thrilled to share their stories with you. Take some time, as well, to delve into our family history, as genealogy represents a fascinating way to learn about the impact of world events on a family’s journey, their lives and values.
This note may seem to some, maybe to all of you to be peculiar or out of place; actually, in medieval times it was customary to send “ethical wills” to one’s family with instructions, counsel, and advice. These writings have their origins among Biblical characters, as Jacob offers instructions to his sons, Moses prepares a farewell message to his people, and Jesus blesses his disciples. Well, this one is not nearly as significant or meaningful. I do have one request of you: I would ask that you possibly not delete this note but store it for a time in the future, when maybe it will have some importance, to you or to your own children or grandkids. Hopefully, one day you will have the honor and opportunity to share your wisdom with your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews!
Blessings and good wishes to each of you as you move forward experiencing all that life will offer you, enjoying the support of loved ones and good friends. I look forward to watching each of you blossom, hopefully touching the lives of others and contributing to humankind.
Sent with admiration and love,
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.