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The Ethical Will

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

Recently, I saw a collection of ethical wills in book form. The anthology covers a span of generations, some are almost contemporary and others are from quite long ago. They have one thing in common: They are amazing documents.

One person writes, "I sit here in the still of the night, with the lamp on my desk spilling a small island of light in the silent gloom, and I do not know what to write. I had decided to write a letter to my family to be read after my passing, but I realize now that we are really not much of a family. We do not talk much to each other, and we do not have very much in common. I think I will have to write one letter to my wife and separate letters to each of my children."

Awful, isn't it? This person thought everything was going along normally in his family. And then he sat down to write an ethical will and realized that he could not address them as a group because they were not a group. They were strangers to each other. How heartbreaking. How tragic.

Another of the writers, once having written his will, decided to call in his family and read it to them while he was still alive. And he comments in an addendum inserted afterward that the reading was a shock to his children. They had no idea that these things were important to their father. Consequently, it was also a shock to the writer to learn that throughout all these years he had failed to convey to his children his values and a sense of who he was.

Can you imagine such a thing -- that children should not even know what is important to their parents? What does that say? It says that perhaps the parents spent so little time with their children, they had so few meaningful conversations with them, that the children didn't even know them. Or perhaps the parents' values were so vague and unarticulated that the children never discovered what they were. Or perhaps the parents were constantly sending mixed messages and leaving their children confused about what they really valued. In any case, many years went by before they discovered their estrangement through the fortuitous reading of the ethical will.

In the Jewish community, we invest so much time and effort in our children, but we should still ask ourselves: Are we communicating? Are we guilty of vagueness? Are we guilty of mixed messages? Are we guilty of simple silence? Have we defined and articulated who we are and what we stand for?

Writing this ethical will should give us clarity. Write it to your children. Write it to your brother or sister. Write it to a friend. But one way or another, write it. Because you are really writing it to yourself.

Let us get back to this fascinating book of wills.

Actually, there is something else that all the wills in this anthology have in common. All of these people, from all walks of life and all form of societies spanning hundreds of years, all of them regret putting so much of their time, talent and energy into the pursuit of money and material things. This is the one common theme of all the ethical wills.

One writers admonishes his sons and sons-in-law, "I beg you not to devote yourselves to the vanities of the world. Do not try to do big business. Do not get involved in extensive commercial ventures, nor should you scatter your capital to the four corners of the earth. The Almighty provides wherever you are, and a small business can prosper just as much as a large one."

Even more striking are the words of an old doctor. "My dearest children, when I first graduated from medical school, my burning ambition was to go into medical research and discover a cure for a major disease. I felt I had the talents and the skills, and I wanted to do something great, something important that would improve the health of innumerable people and add years to their lives. I wanted to be a doctor in the fullest sense of the word. But I also wanted to be financially secure. I did not want to worry about bills and mortgage payments. I wanted to provide a comfortable standard of living for your mother. So I decided to open an office in an upscale neighborhood and practice medicine for ten or fifteen years. I would make a ton of money and retire. Then I would be free to devote the rest of my life to research.

"What should I say, my dear children? You know the rest of the story. My practice was extremely successful. I made a lot of money. And I kept delaying my retirement to make even more money. One year slipped by and then another and then another. Before I knew, I had spent the best years of my life amassing a large fortune. And my dream of finding a cure? I'm sorry to say that it remained just that, an unfulfilled dream. I squandered my best years. I squandered my great talents. I squandered my opportunity to achieve immortality. And for what? For a pot of gold.

"The worst of it is that in retrospect your mother would have stood by my decision to go into research. I told myself that I did it to give her the standard of living she deserved, but I know that she would have agreed to live more modestly, that she would have encouraged me to pursue my goals, if only I had asked her.

"My dear children, what can I say? The pot of gold I leave to you. It should be enough to free you from financial worry. Do not make my mistake. Do not spend your precious lives fattening that pot of gold."

How many times have we heard something like this?... People get caught up in the rat race. Making a living becomes a way of life. It becomes the end rather than the means. The accumulation of wealth and maintaining a high standard of living become a vicious cycle.

This is what our Sages said (Avot 4:2), "Don't say, 'I will learn when I have the opportunity,' because you may never have the opportunity."

Reprinted with permission from

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