A 6th grade teacher posed the following problem to her class in arithmetic: “A wealthy man dies and leaves twenty million dollars. One-fifth is to go to his wife, one-fifth is to go to his daughter, one-sixth to his butler, and the rest to charity. Now,” she asked the class, “what does each get?” After a few moments of silence, Joey answers, “A lawyer!”
Indeed, most of us do meet with our lawyers at some point in our lives to make sure we have clearly written down in our “Last Will and Testament” exactly what we want to pass on to our loved ones. We make sure to list our assets and how they are to be dispersed – what does to our spouse or partner, our children, relatives, friends, and hopefully to charitable causes as well.
In fact let me publicly thank all of you who have kindly included KI in your wills and estate planning. Doing so will help us insure that future generations will be able to experience a Jewish education and the richness of Jewish life regardless of their ability to pay. That is a great mitzvah and I am deeply grateful for your support.
Along with your legal will, many of you also may have a living will, which lays down the conditions of your death, detailing what extraordinary medical measures, if any, you want taken on your behalf when you are at death’s door or are unable to make decisions for yourself. If you haven’t created such a document call me at the synagogue and I will gladly how to do so.
But neither of these speak to what really matters most about what you leave behind. What matters most isn’t your possessions and how you distribute them – what matters most isn’t the amount of money or the number of cars you leave behind- what matters most is the legacy of your living values that have inspired you to become who and what you are. That is what you want to bequeath to future generations. That is what you want to leave to your children. The values you cherish, the lessons you have learned about life; the insights you have gained from the trials and tribulations, triumphs and successes of your life.
And ultimately those lessons, those insights, those values you cherish will be more precious than all the money in the world to those you leave behind.
And yet, all of us know what a challenge it is at any time to communicate effectively with those we love. It’s like the story of the man who asked his wife what she’d like for her birthday. “I’d love to be six again,” she replied.
So, on the morning of her birthday, he got her up bright and early and off they went to the local theme park. What a day! He put her on every ride in the park. Five hours later she staggered out of the theme park, her head reeling, her stomach upside down. Right to a McDonald’s they went for a Big Kids Meal with extra fries and a chocolate shake. Then it was off to see the latest Star Wars epic, complete with hot dogs and popcorn.
What a fabulous adventure. Finally she wobbled home with her husband and collapsed into bed. He leaned over and lovingly asked, “Well, dear, what was it like being six again?”
One eye opened; she looked up at him and said, “You idiot. I meant my dress size.”
If you think about how difficult it is to effectively communicate what is important to us right now while we are living, imagine the challenge of making sure our loved ones understand us when we are gone.
Believe it or not, Jewish civilization has had an answer to this challenge for the past 4,000 years – stretching back to our most ancient sacred texts – the Book of Genesis in the Torah.
When the patriarch Jacob was about to die, he called his twelve sons to his bedside, and one by one he spoke to them at length – sharing his vision for their future, the qualities he saw in them, the values that he cherished. In essence he created what has over time come to be known as an Ethical Will.
Tonight as we begin our New Year – the time of our most intense self reflection; what he call in Hebrew Heshbon hanefesh – a spiritual life-review I am challenging each and every one of you to sit down and write your own Ethical Will – your own sacred text of your values and life – your own Torah of personal values that you want to pass on to the next generation, just as we literally hand the Torah scroll itself from generation to generation every single Shabbat at KI with every Bar and Bat Mitzvah we celebrate.
Most of you know the famous story of Alfred Nobel. Everyone has heard of him – he was the inventor of nitroglycerin, and dynamite and another 355 patents during his lifetime. In fact, at the time of his death in 1897 he had become one of the wealthiest men in Europe. But the real turning point in the life of Alfred Nobel came 33 years before his death not long after he had first invented nitroglycerine.
It so happened that his brother, Emil was working with him in Stockholm in 1864 as was tragically killed in an explosion while preparing the nitro in their factory. The next day as Alfred opened the local newspaper to read his brothers obituary, he was shocked to discover that the paper had made a mistake and run an obituary about him instead.
As he sat and read this review of his own life, he was aghast to realize that the legacy he was leaving behind was as the developer of the single most powerful source of destruction in history. When people thought of him, he realized, they would think of death, destruction and the ability to blow up and kill more people at one time than ever before which his genius had created.
At that moment he decided to use his wealth and success to help transform the world for good – and so he created the Nobel Foundation which every year gives out the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. And today when you hear the name “Nobel,” you think of the Nobel Prize – and that has become his legacy just as he had dreamed.
So what will you leave behind? To your kids, to your community, to your spouse or partner, to future generations? How will you be remembered? In a sense the entire point of these High Holy Days is to about planning our spiritual legacy.
Week after week I sit with 13 year olds as I help them prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I work with them on their speeches and we talk about their lives and the kind of people they want to be when they grow up. I ask them to imagine that ten years has passed and they are now adults. If they could eavesdrop on some of their friends as they are talking about them, what would they want them to say? How would they like to be described? What kind of people would they want their friends to think they are? What qualities would they want their friends to see in them?
So tonight/today I thought I would ask you the same question – because you don’t have to wait ten years to find out what kind of adult you will turn out to be. You simply need look in the mirror to find the answer. If you could be a fly on the wall as your friends talk about you, what do you think they would say? How would they describe you? What kind of person would they think you are? What qualities of character do you think they would identify in you? What qualities do you think stand out in your friends minds about you? Would they talk about your business acumen? How tough you are in negotiations? How generous you are with those in need? How sweet? How loving? How Caring? That you are a good provider? or a loving parent? or perhaps someone they can always count on? That you are someone with integrity? or someone with lots of promises and grand ideas but no follow-through?
Look at your life the way Alfred Nobel liked at his. Imagine your children reading your obituary. Would you be proud of who you are and what you have become? If you were writing the story of your values and what matters most to you in life for your kids to read, what would those values be?
I want you to write that story. The story of the things that matter most to you -the values that you cherish, the ideas that inspire you, the ethics you embrace, the quality of life that you cherish, the real story of who you are – not the surface story of the job you do or the kids you have or the schools you attended or the vacations you have taken. The real story – who you really are. What you really stand for.
A colleague of mine was speaking at a Family Life Marriage Conference last year when a man came up and handed him a letter to read. This man’s lifelong desire was to hear his father say “I love you,” but his father had died in World War II, when the man was only 3 years old. His mother had often assured him of his father’s love as he was growing up, but somehow it didn’t fill the void he felt.
One day, this man, now 40 years old, was helping his mother move. She have him an old army picture of his father. The picture slipped out of his hands and the frame and glass shattered all over the floor. As he picked up the mess, he noticed a piece of paper wedged behind the photo. It was this letter, written from his father who had known he might die in the war and so had written a letter to his three-year-old son and hidden it behind the picture. In the letter the father shared his love for this son and the values that he cherished. Thirty-seven years later, the son finally discovered the loving legacy his father had left behind.
We write our living legacies every day of our lives by the words we say and the deeds we perform; the way we treat our family, friends and colleagues. It was James Baldwin who said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
The legacy we leave behind for our children, is the reflection of our own lives as we live them each day and the words and lessons we leave for them to read and study and hopefully emulate as well.
Here are two partial examples of “Ethical Wills” others have written. Joe Berman of Toronto wrote to his children:
“Make a commitment, and get thee a spouse – a lone person is nothing but lonely. With a spouse children can become a reality and family is formed. Family leads to being part of a community, and within a community you are a force and you have strength.
Make your family home an oasis of faith, tranquility, light and warmth so that it becomes an example worthy of emulation.
Share – your feelings, your joys, your sorrows, your blessings. Be alive. Learn to let yourself feel. Learn to savor each moment even if it does not last – in fact savor it because it does not last.”
Barry Baines, a family physician in Bloomington, Minn. wrote, “My hopes for you are that you find a vocation that adds value to the world. I hope you continue the traditions and faith of Judaism. He talked about the importance of humor, making mistakes as a way to learn, of having a balance in life and respecting other people.
Here is an anonymous mother’s will from the 1940 Ghetto Newspaper in Warsaw Poland: “Judaism, my child, is the struggle to bring down God upon the earth, the struggle for sanctification of the human heart. This struggle your people wages not with physical force with with spirit, with sincere heartfelt prayers, and by constant striving for truth and justice.”
29-year-old Betina Brickell wrote these words to her family and friends before she died as her ethical will:
“I have profoundly experienced that love is all that matters… I have learned that we carry within ourselves the abundant wisdom and love to heal our weary heart and judgmental mind… Loving and helping each other are all that is important… Life is not about how long we live, but about how we live… I have opened to the mystery of Spirit and feel that divinity is all around us every day and provides us with a path on which our spirit may take flight.”
When I sat down to write my own Ethical Will for my daughter, Gable. I ended up with a simple list of what I consider to be the Ten Most Important Values I Want to teach my child. So here they are:
- What you say, what you do, and who you are really matters.
- The most important word in the English language, is Attitude.
- Your most precious possession is your integrity.
- Faith can see you through the darkest hour.
- Perhaps the highest wisdom of all, is simple kindness.
- No challenge is so great that it can withstand relentless persistence.
- Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is feeling the fear and acting anyway.
- The most powerful force in the world, is Love.
- When in doubt ask, “If everyone acts as I am about to do, what kind of world will I be creating.”
- Pray as if everything depends upon God, and act as if everything depends upon you.
You can write your values as a list or a narrative story. The important part is to sit down and put your thoughts on paper. Hopefully you will be around living for many decades to come – but it is never too soon to articulate the values that you cherish. That is the work of the High Holy Days – and it is sacred work. I challenge you – every single one of you to do it during these next ten days – the traditional Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Use this time for personal reflection and to write the real story of who you are – for that is your true legacy to your children and the generations to come. One way or another you will leave a legacy for future generations – the only question is what will that legacy be.
So that’s your challenge – to use this sacred season to leave something lasting and of value for your kids – and if you don’t have kids, for your friends, and family and everyone else in the world whose life you touch.
I’m going to make a collection of KI ethical wills as part of next year’s 55th KI anniversary year – so those of you who are willing , I’d love for you to share them with me after you have written them. Together they will help to create a living legacy of values that our KI community cherishes – for more than bricks and mortar, than beautiful sanctuaries and pieces of art. More than all the programs and services and classes we teach, what KI ultimately is all about, is the life you live, the person you become, the values you cherish, the legacy you leave.
So imagine that you are like Alfred Nobel and tomorrow you pick up the paper and read the story of your life – and know that the story you will read tomorrow will be written by the choices that you make today.