In this week’s portion – the final portion in the Book of Genesis – we read about the passing of our Patriarch Jacob, also known as Israel – the name by which our people have been known for many years. Just before his passing, he gathered his twelve sons around him. And then the Torah tells us: “…this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him. Then he instructed them, saying to them, ‘I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 49:28-29).’”
In effect, it was what we moderns would call an ethical will.
Many of us have wills to ensure that financial matters are handled in a certain manner and still others have purchased funeral plots to make life easier for surviving children. I suspect that a very small percentage of us have tried to sit down and write “a parting word appropriate” to those who will likely live on after us. It’s a daunting challenge.
The classic example of a guilt-inducing ethical will is the letter that Judah ibn Tibbon (c. 1120-1190CE) wrote to his son. He started off by writing, “But you, my son, did deceive my hopes. You did not choose to employ your abilities.” Then, he concluded with the following instructions: “I enjoin on your, my son, to read this, my testament, once daily, at morn or at eve. Apply your heart to the fulfillment of its behests, and to the performance of all therein written. Then wilt you make your ways prosperous, then shall you have good success.” (For a good chuckle, you can read the entire document here.)
Somewhere between the financial/funerary arrangement and the micromanagement of other people’s lives lies the opportunity to express what is really important to us in the hopes that those values will live on in our families after we are gone.
In their book, “The Second How To Handbook for Jewish Living,” Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Ronald Isaacs give step by step instructions for how to create an ethical will (click here). As we prepare to say goodbye to this year and welcome in a new year, maybe it’s an opportunity to think about what we’d like to say to the next generation.