Just as a person transfers ownership of his (or her) worldly possessions, an ethical will is a vehicle by which a person can set down some of the wisdom and life experience they have acquired, in writing, and pass it on.
When I look back at my grandparents and great-grandparents, I realize I know almost nothing about them. I have a few faded photographs, but little else. I wish I had an ethical will from them, which would describe what they found in their lives to be of utmost value.
Like a mission statement, it helps one to clarify what is important as well as leaving it behind in a written document for future generations.
The first ethical will in the Torah is the last words of Jacob, found in this week’s Torah portion of Vayechi. At the end of his life, Jacob called his children and grandchildren together, so that he could give them his final blessings and wisdom.
Jacob said: “O G-d, before Whom my ancestors walked — G-d who shepherds me … May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless these children, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers, Abraham and Isaac … (Genesis 48:15-16).
In these verses, some biblical commentators suggest that Jacob wanted to inspire his children and grandchildren to continue the family heritage of belief, courage and compassion. Others say that he was telling them that, if they were deserving, their actions would reflect well on them, and also be a kiddush hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name.
These two interpretations lead to a similar result — that of a younger generation that continues our people’s family name, deepens it and makes it known to others.
May we keep firmly in mind the importance of conveying the blessings of the older generation to the younger generation, and thereby ensure that they continue for a long time.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)