People discuss the decisions they made, the regrets they have and how they might have done things differently. Sometimes, they attempt to reconcile with estranged family members. They want to settle matters and to feel at peace before they depart this world. They also want to leave a spiritual legacy.
One way to do this is to prepare an ethical will.
Just as a will passes along ownership of the person’s property to his (or her) family, an ethical will is a written document in which a parent would summarize what they wanted most for and from their children. The person passes along the life wisdom they had acquired to the next generation.
According to Rabbi Jack Riemer, to write an ethical will one must try to summarize “the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures and consider what are the things that really count.” Common motifs often include: faith in Hashem, commitment to mitzvot, concern for the family and for Jewish continuity.
The words of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion are seen as an ethical will.
At the end of his life, he called his children and his grandchildren together so that he could give them his final blessing.
He said “O G-d, before whom my ancestors walked, G-d who sustains me. … May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless these children, and may my name be declared on them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac.” (Genesis 48:15-16)
Jacob said that his children should always be aware of the great spiritual legacy left to them by his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. They should continue to be inspired by their family heritage.
Secondly, he said that his children’s achievements should always be a sanctification of G-d’s Holy Name. When people see the loving-kindness in their deeds, they will praise and bless the Name of Hashem.
We ought to constantly remember the deeds of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We are all Jacob’s children. We read his last words each year to remind ourselves that they apply to us as well.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)