Ethical wills hope to ensure that our values live on

I count myself among the most fortunate of 50-somethings because both of my parents are still alive.

Sometimes this weighs heavily on me, like when my mother leaves multiple messages on my answering machine because I haven’t called her back — within the hour. Or when I realize that its totally up to me now if I want to see them, because they can no longer travel by plane.

But I would take these “problems” any day of the week over the alternative and relish the simple pleasure of hearing Dad’s voice answer the phone when I call, knowing that he will predictably hand it over to Mom to do the talking.

Recently, I had one of the hardest conversations with my parents that I have ever had. I realized, as the lump in my throat refused to subside, that no matter what age or stage of life a child is in, talking to your parents about their deaths, especially when a parent is sick or dying, is truly difficult. But it is also very necessary, because it gives parents an opportunity to express and explain their requests and desires regarding death, and it gives children a chance to question, understand and honor the values of their parents.

The issue of whether a child is required to fulfill a dying parent’s request was first dealt with in Genesis, when Jacob instructed his sons from his deathbed, giving them both directives and advice on their future as well as prophetic wisdom about how the 12 tribes would settle in Israel. Jacob’s vision and hopes were fulfilled hundreds of years later, when the Jewish people wandered through the desert and entered the Promised Land.

Jewish tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah “to carry out the directions of the deceased.” This has been interpreted as creating a legal obligation when it comes to disposing of a parent’s assets and possessions, tantamount to a last will and testament. In addition, when a parent instructs a child as to matters of burial, these instructions are considered obligatory, unless the request requires a child to violate Jewish law.

But there are certain directives that, while not legally mandated under Jewish law, are morally expected because they are intended to enhance the well-being of the child. For example, when a dying parent instructs a child not to cut off relations with other family members or tells him to avoid drinking excessively, Jewish law intends for that child to honor his or her parent’s wishes, because they are intended for the benefit of the child. This is especially true when a parent’s wishes are to ensure shalom bayit, or peace in the home.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the latter type of instructions is that they generally encompass or express the values that parents hope will live on in their children and grandchildren. The idea that values should be passed on to future generations has been formally recognized in Judaism through a lovely tradition called an “ethical will.”

An ethical will is an informal, written document in which a parent bequests, not property or assets, but wisdom, values and spiritual understanding. It permits a parent to transmit a spiritual legacy to his or her children through stories, examples and meaningful life lessons in the hope that they will embrace those values in their own lives. It is meant to inspire, enlighten and encourage but never to punish, harass, blame or control a child “from the grave.”

There are no formal requirements for writing an ethical will. You only need the desire to share your values and some quiet time to record them. An ethical will can be written, typed or, if a person is no longer able to write, recorded on a tape recorder. It can be written all at once or in segments, using life-cycle events, such as bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings and the birth of a child, as a time of reflection and composition.

In some instances, it is appropriate to write a single ethical will for the entire family, but in others, it may be wiser to write separate wills for each child. And, since an ethical will can be given to a child at any time during his or her life, a parent can decide when it will be most meaningful for the child to receive it.

An ethical will is like a window to the soul: It provides a wonderful opportunity to share with our families the ideas, events, people and experiences that have shaped our lives and been important to us. It is a gift — both to ourselves and to our families — if we take the time to write one.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at