Scroll Top

Yom Kippur: Ethical Wills

View/Download PDF 

Ethical Wills

Yom Kippur, September 19, 2018
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

I would like to invite you to take a few moments to think about some ‘big’ life questions:  what values are most important to you?  Why?  How do you make those values manifest in your life?  What experiences have you learned the most from?  What life lessons do you hold dear?  How do they influence your daily life?  Who are the people closest to you?  How have they made an impact on you?  Do they know your answers to the other questions?

Questions like these and the answers that follow help us to distill what is deeply meaningful and important.  They ground us in the big picture of our lives.

When we reflect on what truly matters, we have the chance to rise above the day-to-day trivialities that tend to keep us mired in what is urgent but not necessarily important.  Asking ourselves questions like these and striving to answer them is part of the cheshbon nefesh, the soul-searching, we do on Yom Kippur.

And, these questions and their answers are also the beginning of an ethical will.  According to, an ethical will, or in Hebrew, a tz’a-va’ah is “a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community.  An ethical will is not a legal document; it does not distribute your material wealth. It is a heartfelt expression of what truly matters most in your life.

Ethical wills are not new. References to this tradition are found in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible (Genesis Ch. 49, John Ch. 15-18) and in other cultures. Today, ethical wills are being written by people at turning points and transitions in their lives and when facing challenging life situations. They are usually shared with family and community while the writer is still alive.”

An ethical will reflects the voice of the heart and the wisdom that comes from experience.  It can take any form – a letter, a poem, a simple note, or perhaps a video.  It is written from parent to child, from one spouse, partner, relative, or friend to another, and sometimes from a dying child to a parent or sibling.

When we think about writing a will, most often we think about who we will leave what to – a piece of jewelry, a seder plate, the estate, but clarifying our values for our loved ones helps us to leave a legacy beyond material possessions.

We have a long tradition of ethical wills. The original template comes from the end of the book of Genesis, when Jacob is dying and gathers his children to offer them his truth and his blessing and to request that they bury him not in Egypt, but in the cave at Machpelah with his ancestors – a value in and of itself.

Moses also leaves an ethical will, to the Children of Israel – in fact, one could argue that nearly the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ ethical will.

In the final book of the Torah, Moses sums up the people’s experience, from the time they were slaves in Egypt, to receiving the Ten Commandments, to building the Mishkan.  Moses describes the triumphs and travails of the Children of Israel, but more than that, Moses emphasizes the mitzvot – Moses reminds the people to be kind to one another, to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor.  Moses repeatedly tells them to worship God alone, and not to turn to false gods.

When Moses is about to die, as we read this past Shabbat, he says to the people “Chizku v’imtsu – be strong and resolute” – have courage, be brave, be bold, and remember your history because it will inform your future – this is the legacy that Moses leaves to the Children of Israel before his death, and Moses’s powerful words, have been passed down throughout the centuries, all the way to us.

The Talmud also contains what might be considered verbal ethical wills.  In Masechet Sanhedrin (68a), as Rabbi Eliezer, a formidable scholar, is about to die, he criticizes his students for not taking advantage of the opportunities they had to learn from him.

Much like Jacob’s exhortations to his sons, not all ethical wills are gentle – sometimes they contain harsh truths that the author believes must be heard.  In Rabbi Eliezer’s case, his goal is to motivate his students to learn from his teachings even after his death.  He seeks to leave a legacy of study and learning.

Throughout the Middle Ages, ethical wills were shared privately among families. One of the most famous ones from this era was written by the Spanish Jewish physician and scholar Judah ibn Tibbon to his son, Samuel when he died in France in the 12th century. It ran over 50 pages long and covered a wide range of topics.  I will not share all of it today, but here is an excerpt:

“My son, when I have left you, devote yourself to the study of Torah and the study of medicine. Chiefly occupy yourself with Torah, for you have a wise and understanding heart and all you need is ambition and application. Let your face shine on people: tend their sick and may your advice cure them. Take money from the rich but treat the poor without money. The Lord will repay you. In this way you will win the respect of people high and low and your good name will go forth far and wide…

My son, I command you to honour your wife as much as you can. She is intelligent and modest, a daughter of a distinguished and educated family. To act otherwise is the way of the contemptible…

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…”

Judah ibn Tibbon makes what is important to him clear.

Ethical wills have been created and bequeathed throughout our history – several have been recovered from the Holocaust.  Others were written by early Zionists, and still others by American Jews.  The following ethical will appears in Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer’s book, “So That Your Values Live On – Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.”  It was written by Eldad Pan who was killed in Israel’s War of Independence at the age of 20.

“Lately I have been thinking about what the goal of life should be.  At best, man’s life is short.  His life may be kind of harsh, easy or difficult, but the time passes before he realizes it.  An old person wants to live no less than a young person.   The years of life do not satisfy the hunger for life.  What then shall we do during this time?

We can reach either of two conclusions.  The first is that since life is so short we should enjoy it as much as possible.  The second is that precisely because life is short and no one can completely enjoy it (for we die with half our desire unsatisfied – Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:2), therefore we should dedicate life to a sacred and worthy goal, to sacrifice it for something which will be valued above life.

At times the first feeling is stronger and at others the second one.  Of late, however, I think that the second feeling is dominant.  It seems that I am slowly coming to the conclusion that life by itself is worth little unless it serves something greater than itself.”

That wise sentiment was written by a 20-year-old.  Eldad Pan wrote this as a letter to his mother, and I believe he has something to teach all of us.

While I have been hearing and learning about ethical wills for years, it wasn’t until two years ago that I came to really understand their significance.  Exactly two years ago, a good friend of mine died.  The last time I saw him was just a few days before Rosh Hashanah, when I went to his house to say good-bye.

When Marcus found out that he had terminal cancer, he set about wrapping up his life – he spent time with his family and close friends, he saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, he closed credit card accounts to make it easier to settle his estate, and when I visited him, he was about to write his ethical will.

As we were talking, my friend asked me what I would do if I had just a couple of weeks to live.  Before Marcus asked me, I had always included plenty of fantasy in the answer to that question – I would finally travel to New Zealand.  I would eat vast quantities of chocolate and ice cream and brie.  I would take up skydiving.  But as I sat with my friend, I learned that facing one’s imminent mortality is not the time for daydreaming.  My friend’s last few weeks were not filled with lavish meals or trips around the world, they were filled with people, with reality, and with prayer.

I can only imagine what his prayers must have been like – O God, please take away my pain.  Dear God, please protect my family after I am gone.  Dear God, don’t let my friends forget me.  God, I am angry with you – I am not ready to die, there’s so much left for me to do here.  Thank You God, thank you for all of the gifts you have bestowed upon me.

This is real prayer.  These are profound yearnings of the heart.  This is openness to God without worrying about eloquence.   This is what we strive for when we open our mouths and hearts to pray, especially on the High Holidays, but hopefully without the threat of imminent death.

Marcus knew that he didn’t have much time, and so he coupled his prayer with action.  That morning at his house, he showed me teddy bears he had bought for his niece and nephew that allowed him to record his voice.  He was going to record himself singing his favorite Hebrew song and a message saying that he loved them.  This way, Marcus told me, his young niece and nephew would grow up knowing the sound of their uncle’s voice.

I think about my friend a lot – he had a beautiful soul.  His life, although cut short, was beautiful, and even his death was beautiful.  He died on Yom Kippur after arranging his affairs and saying the things he needed to say to his loved ones and to God.  He left those who knew him a meaningful and lasting gift.  I imagine that many of you have had a Marcus in your life – perhaps a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or friend.

Each of us has different life experience, and writing an ethical will gives us the opportunity to share what is really important to us with the ones closest to us.  What do you want for your children?  Your grandchildren?  What do you wish for your life partner?  What do you want for your brother? Your sister?  Your best friend?  It is not enough to assume that they know.

While you’re asking yourself the big questions, you might want to ask what you want for yourself?  Are you living your life to its maximum potential?  Are you living by your values?  Are you teaching your loved ones to live by their values?  By the values of our Jewish heritage?

Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space necessary to ask ourselves life questions.  We have a chance to focus on what really counts, and to do so through a Jewish lens.

The beauty of an ethical will is that it can be shared in life.  After you have written or recorded what matters to you, read it or watch it with your family.  Celebrate it.  Live it.  Time and again, our tradition teaches us to choose life, and to choose a life that is full of meaning.  This is an opportunity to share the fullness of the meaning you have discovered, and to leave it as a lasting legacy.

In a moment, we will recite the Yizkor prayers and we will remember the people we have lost – whether this year or last, or many years ago.  As we sit in this sanctuary, remembering our loved ones, feeling close to them once more, we recall their values and how they lived their lives.  And, we contemplate how their values continue to influence and shape our lives.

Y’hi zichronom livracha – May their memories be a blessing.