Let’s start at the beginning. First, what is an ethical will and where did it come from? The ethical will is an ancient document from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The original template for its use came from Genesis 49:1-33. A dying Jacob gathered his sons to offer them his blessing and to request that they bury him not in Egypt, but instead in Canaan, in the cave at Machpelah with his ancestors.
Today, people identify Deuteronomy 32:46-47, where Moses instructs the Israelites to teach their children, and Matthew 5, where Jesus blesses his disciples, as examples of ethical wills. The early rabbis urged men to transmit the tradition’s ethical teachings and they communicated orally to their sons. Later they were written as letters. German and Spanish examples of these letters can be found today in the Fordham Library Archives. For example, Eleazar ben Samuel HaLevi of Mainz, Germany, who died in 1357, wrote to and instructed his sons to “Put me in the ground at the right hand of my father....” (www.fordham.edu).
So that’s the history lesson. But what makes the ethical will so powerful and popular today? I’ll start with my personal answer: I was introduced to the ethical will by a rabbi speaking to a women’s group. I was so entranced with the idea that I raced home to my computer to write to my son and daughter. Although historically the ethical will was for men, I set aside the patriarchal in our patriarchal tradition, saying to myself, “Well, I too—mother and ancient hippie feminist—have wisdom, values and love to express to my children and grandchildren.”
What I wrote that day is the most important message I have ever written. When I finished, I experienced a deep sense of well being. I’d told my children about our family history and values. I’d expressed my love for and pride in them. I’d blessed them with the hard-earned wisdom of my life experience and the lessons I’d learned from it. I’d shared my love of life, and my dreams and hopes for them. I’d asked their forgiveness for the wounds they bear from my imperfect parenting. I’d explained my rationale about the philanthropic and personal financial decisions I’d put in place. I’d shared stories about the meaningful “stuff” I wanted them and their children to have and pass down. I’d spelled out details about what I wanted and didn’t want, clarifying and personalizing my advance directive. I’d asked them to care for me if necessary as I neared death, and let them know my need for dignity, and the ways I wanted to be remembered. I felt relieved, at peace, unafraid, and felt great gratitude for the blessings of my life.
After my powerful personal experience I began—as a professional educator—to share my discovery with others, especially women. First, I wanted to empower women to free ourselves from the silence that has long held us hostage; to reverse our mistaken idea that we can’t write, or that if we could, we have nothing worthwhile to communicate and preserve.
Second, I wanted people of every circumstance and in every transition to realize that we are each unique and sacred beings. We all have both ordinary and extraordinary gifts, and we each have valuable experience and life-lessons to transmit to others. We can, together in what I call “legacy circles,” find the courage and the language to tell our loved ones and the world who we really are and what matters most deeply to us.
© 2009 Rachael Freed
Rachael Freed, LICSW, LMFT, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing. Her work empowering ordinary people to document their legacies and create spiritual-ethical wills can be accessed in her books, Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations and The Women's Legacies Workbook for the Busy Woman. More at www.life-legacies.com and 612-558-3331. A pioneer in family-centered care in life-threatening and chronic illness, she founded Minnesota's first hospital-based program for families of the dying, and is the author of Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient, providing resources for the emotional and spiritual recovery for families of heart patients.