Yom Kippur Yizkor - 2022/5783
An Ethical Will
Every yizkor service I think about my grandparents. I think about my grandmother Bobba Fran - my father’s mother - who passed away when I was only a toddler. I have no memories of her but I see her in the pictures we have of her around the house and I remember the stories my father would tell of her and her 10 siblings who all lived in the Philadelphia area. I think about her husband, my Zayda Al who owned a camera store in Philadelphia. He was a fun-loving guy and he loved to play catch with me and joke around with me. I especially remember him visiting us in Israel when I was in 5th grade there and visiting all the sites around the country. Tragically, he was murdered in his camera store in 1973 just 6 months after that visit. I think about my other grandfather - my mother’s father - Zayde Jule who loved his cigars. I loved watching him use a razor blade to cut his cigar in half and then blow smoke rings. I remember playing cards with him. He died of cancer six months after my Zayde Al - when I was 11 years old. My other grandmother Bobba Belle lived till she was 94. I remember driving her back and forth from our house for dinner every Sunday when I was in high school. She was my only grandparent to walk down the aisle at my wedding. She was blessed with a long enough life to be able to hold 2 great grandchildren in her lap.
Yizkor for all of us can be very difficult and challenging. We all remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. We recall many events and celebrations we enjoyed with them. We think about all the encounters and memories we made with them. And we think about the holidays we enjoyed celebrating with them. We may remember building a sukkah with our parents or making latkes with our family or finding the afikoman on Passover with our brothers and sisters. Instead of celebrating wholeheartedly with our children, grandchildren and friends, we may be sad today as we realize that another holiday has come without our loved ones by our side. Therefore, the rabbis in their wisdom, added memorial-yizkor prayers to the services on the three major holidays - Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot - and today. The rabbis knew that we would be thinking about our family members who have passed and they used that opportunity to help us focus on the lives our family members led and the values they embodied. By focusing on their life lessons we can then allow our sadness to lead us to action. Our grief, it is hoped, can move us to do acts of righteousness in their memory.
But yizkor doesn’t only remind us of our sadness and our loss of our loved ones, yizkor also forces us to focus on our own mortality. As we recall those who have died we can’t help but realize that we too will die some day. Maybe we are prepared, but I would imagine that none of us is truly ready to die. As psalm 90 says, “70 years our days may number, 80 if granted the vigor”. The older we get and the closer we get to those numbers we can’t help but fear and tremble. And the psalm says two sentences later “teach us to count our days so that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.” Though death is inevitable, we all want to be able to make every day count and ensure that our life has meaning. We can’t live forever, but we can make sure that every day is a blessing.
Memory and meaning are two main aspects of what we will ponder in a few minutes. As we recite the prayers naming our loved ones who have passed away, we will bring their memories to life. Yet, I wonder if instead of just relying on our memory, might it be even more powerful to have their words in our hands. If only we could bring a letter or a note with us to shul that they had written specifically to us. Such a letter would bring the memory of our loved one back to life. Such a letter would remind us not only of the type of personality he or she was, but would instill in us the values we should embody going forward. Though I can still recall the images of my grandparents in my mind’s eye, I know I would remember them more vividly if I had a piece of their writing to read.
One such type of a letter is known as an ethical will. We all know about the legal document we all have regarding guardianship of our children and disbursement of assets, but an ethical will is a document we may write which articulates our values and teaches our children what we hope they will carry forward. Such statements are found in the Torah. In the Torah portion Toldot in the book of Genesis, Isaac blessed Jacob before he died. Jacob gathered his children around him as recorded at the end of Genesis and blessed them. The last chapter of the Torah describes Moses blessing the entire community of Israel before he climbed Mt. Nebo to die. In the first chapter of the biblical Book of Kings, King David charged his son Solomon upon his death bed. Though all of these biblical figures shared their thoughts before they died, they weren’t necessarily in the form of a will. They were mostly prophecies, or commands for the future and even blessings. Yet they serve as a foundation for what we might want to share with our loved ones.
Using these biblical figures as guides, rabbis throughout history have written letters to their children. The most quoted example is what Judah Ibn Tibbon - a great Jewish sage from Muslim Spain - wrote to his child Samuel nearly 800 years ago. His 50-page ethical will included a reminder to follow Jewish law, to be more religious, to take care of his family and “whatever you have learned from me or from your teachers, impart it again regularly to worthy pupils.”
I’m sure most of us wouldn't write 50 pages like Judah Ibn Tibbon. No matter how many sentences or paragraphs we put down on paper, though, writing down the lessons and values that we want our children to learn from us, and then sharing them with our children, can be a very moving process. My memories of my grandparents are wonderful, but I wish I had a letter from each of them containing their words of wisdom to me. Such a letter would be cherished and would be something to which I could turn to help keep their memory alive.
Thirty years ago yesterday, my son Ilan was born, three days before Yom Kippur. Knowing that Lenore was due any minute, and with 2 ½ year old Elisheva to take care of, you can imagine how hectic our home was. I was the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Lowell, MA and services needed to be conducted. I took a chance, despite how tired and frazzled I was, on writing such an ethical will to my newborn son.
I thought about that letter because this year - as I shared with you last week - was filled with personal milestones and difficult challenges. Aside from the illnesses that my family had to endure, I also turned 60 last February. My son Ilan turned 30 yesterday. And my father, who is here today, turned 90 today. And as I shared, Ilan is about to become a father any day now - poo, poo poo! Such liminal moments - as psychologists refer to them - prompt us to think about the meaning of life and mortality. Perhaps reflecting on the letter I wrote 30 years ago could help me cope with these significant milestones and also prompt me to share thoughts with my future granddaughter.
I began that letter by telling Ilan that his then 2 ½ year old sister, Elisheva, “already loves you. From the moment she set eyes on you, just over an hour after you were born, she was taken with you. She hugged and kissed you and wanted to hold you all the time. The next morning she brushed your hair, helped wrap you in a blanket, and even bared her chest to try to nurse you!”
I transitioned from that family context to writing to Ilan that my ultimate wish for him was for him to grow up to be a mensch. I wrote that Lenore and I hoped that if Ilan “realize[s] how important family is, if you feel a need to serve the community, if you practice and study your Judaism, then you’ll be a mensch.”
Rereading that letter I noticed that aside from that paragraph about being a mensch, I focused more on who I was at the time and what kind of person I am, rather than focusing on what kind of person I was hoping Ilan to become. Though it is important to share of oneself in such an ethical will, I think it’s even more important to share what you want your child or grandchild to accomplish. The letter, I think, is best when it is directed both inward and outward.
In that vein I would like to share a few thoughts with you about what I hope for my future granddaughter. Perhaps these reflections can serve as motivation for you to write something to your child, grandchild or loved one.
“My dear granddaughter - I am sitting on pins and needles as I anticipate welcoming you to the family! It is remarkable that thank God you have 5 great grandparents who are thrilled that a new generation will be born into the Layman, Joseph, Fisher family. It is a family that has roots in Germany, Dutch Guiana in South America, Chile, Poland, Russia, the Ukraine and Romania. It is a family that escaped poverty and persecution in the shtetl and Nazi Germany. A family that has such a strong Jewish identity. A family that loves each other and loves you immensely.
“It is a chaotic time to be born. Mass shootings are becoming almost a daily occurrence in our country. The lack of respect for human life is mind numbing and we don’t know when this horrific cycle of violence will end. Our climate is changing and the results are devastating. Just last week Hurricane Ian cut a path of destruction over the state of Florida leaving countless homes destroyed and scores of lives lost. Sea levels are rising, forests are burning, temperatures are rising. You are also born at a time when the level of discourse in our country continues to sink to new lows. People can no longer talk respectfully to each other.
“But, nonetheless, your parents were determined to bring new life into the world. Despite the mess this world is in, your parents knew that you would bring light and hope. Your birth would bring blessing and joy. They were willing to take a chance on you and we only hope that you will always be a source of blessing and joy. That you will make a positive difference in the world.
“I can only hope that I’ll have many opportunities to play and learn with you. I hope I can share in birthdays and other family celebrations. I know I’ll be able to tell you I love you and I hope I’ll be able to share these words with you in person. But I also want to write these thoughts down in the hope that you may be moved to refer to them, to think about them and live up to them.
“My beautiful granddaughter I hope and pray these things for you:
“I pray that you find meaning in your Jewish heritage. Your parents met at Camp Ramah, a place where our Jewish tradition is lived and practiced every day. They went to Jewish Day School and they attended synagogue regularly. Their Jewish identity is very important to them and I pray that you too will find meaning and blessing in your Jewish heritage.
“I pray that you will always find strength and comfort from your family. Your parents come from very strong and close knit families. We rely on each other for support and strength. We gather together for holidays and life-cycle events and we know that family provides the foundation for everything we do. May you always know the blessing of family.
“I pray that you see the value of giving back to your community. Your parents have chosen professions that help others. As a special education teacher and a doctor your parents have chosen fields in which they can improve the lives of those they work with. It is a noble goal. I pray that you see the value of community and that you also dedicate at least some of your time to helping those in need. Our lives aren’t lived in a vacuum. By nature we as human beings thrive in community. We need the energy that comes from human contact. We need to recognize that we are all created in the image of God. I pray that you see the spark of holiness in every human being every day and that spark will lead you to act with holiness.
“In short, my dear granddaughter, I pray that you live every day trying to be a mensch. As the rabbis taught, ‘in a place where there isn’t a person, strive to be a person.’ I pray that you always stand up for what is right. I pray that you will always look to help others in need. I pray that you will always be a person who sees the crown of a good name, also as the rabbis taught, to be the crown to which you aspire.
“I wish you this my dear granddaughter with all my love.”
I took the liberty to share this personal letter with you in the hope that it could motivate you to do the same. At its essence, an ethical will addresses where we came from, who we are and where we hope the next generation will be going. It’s an opportunity to articulate the values by which we live and ensure that our family knows and understands what we stand for. It’s a vehicle to translate memory and meaning into action - to verbalize the lessons we learned and incorporated into our lives so that the next generation can know what is important.
As we are all about to recite the yizkor prayers let us be comforted by our memories. May we be able to picture our loved one’s embrace and their good humor. Let us be enveloped by their love. Even more, let us begin to put those memories into writing. Let our family know how much our loved ones meant to us. Let us consider writing such an ethical will and may that experience help bring memory to life. Amen.