My friend Peter recently sent me a talk he wrote on the subject of “Facing Our Mortality,” and among the many rich and valuable ideas there, I discovered the concept of “ethical wills.” Apparently this is a well-established part of Jewish tradition, but as one living outside that tradition, it was new to me. Peter described it this way:
In our tradition Jews are instructed to leave ethical wills as they would leave wills for the distribution of their property. Ethical wills grew out of the yearning of parents to consider, write and talk to their children directly about the values they wanted to bestow upon their offspring, the identity they would choose for their children and to make it clear what mattered in their, the parents’ lives.
Kim and I are familiar with the “distribution of property” kind of will. In addition to our formal documents dealing with house, savings, etc., I have a file on my computer titled “Who Gets What” where we make explicit who gets the dining room table that Kim’s dad made, who gets my swept-clean computer, who gets my faded t-shirts, my grandfather’s books, etc.
But what about values and identity?
My first response was to toss out some words – you know, “honor,” “integrity,” and the like. Somehow, that seems too easy. I looked up the Boy Scout Law that I memorized and forgot years ago: A Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Good stuff, but reciting a list of words does not go deep enough. (And I wonder what “clean” is doing on that list. And “thrifty” might not belong in the top twelve.) Looking over the Boy Scout list, I think I can narrow it down to two values: being kind and being reverent. Enough has been written lately about kindness, and I have little to add.
Reverence, to me, is more interesting, though not necessarily in a religious context. I think it’s important to feel reverence for something – the natural world, your spouse and family, humankind, artistic creation, whatever. Something. Something for which you feel awe and respect because it is more than you, beyond your ego and your little ego-world. But I will save this for exploration in a future blog post.
The hard part, for me, is not to come up with a list of the values I want to pass along to my children – or to anyone else who is interested. It’s the “talk to their children directly” that makes me pause. Nobody wants to hear that kind of lecture, especially when it can easily be taken as a criticism of what they are doing wrong. I’m not sure that direct talk is the most effective medium for values and identity transfer, especially that now, for many young people, texting counts as “talking.” I’d like to think that living by those values would be enough to do the job of transfer, but that’s a lazy way out, isn’t it? No, it will have to include talking directly, though the word “write” in Peter’s talk might give me a way out.
At this point, I’m not sure what to do. How do you create an effective ethical will? Suggestions? How do you do it?