An Ethical Will
August 5, 2022
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin z”l, once asked, “If you were told you could give one last message to your descendants, what would you tell them?”. This was the question the rabbi posed in reference to this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, often referred to as the “Second Telling [of the story of the Exodus from Egypt].”
Unlike the first four books of the Torah which are written in a more narrative style, this fifth Book of Deuteronomy is written almost entirely from Moses’ first-person perspective. It is because of this personal narrative that Rabbi Telushkin posed his question, what would be your last message to those you leave behind?
Before I share Rabbi Telushkin’s insight on this week’s Torah text, however, I believe this question is worthy of asking each of us to consider personally… what is the one message that we would share with our children, grandchildren, and their children after them? What is the value that we would want our community to embrace when we are no longer around to espouse it ourselves? What lesson and wise insight would we want to make sure is passed on from our generation to the next?
Today, it is not uncommon that while one considers the process of estate planning and the writing of a legal will, at the same time an ethical will is authored addressing a person’s moral message to their loved ones. This tradition was first attributed to Jacob who shared individual messages to each of his twelve sons as he approached the end of his life in the Book of Genesis, and it has continued throughout the generations, still practiced today.
For those who have already written their ethical wills, yashar kochachem (“kudos to each of you”). For those who have thought about it, but who have not yet acted on it, there is no better time than the present. And for those who are not familiar with this practice, or who would like more information, please feel free to reach out or start by reading this great resource, “Jewish Ethical Wills (Tzava’ot).”
Building and perpetuating the Jewish community requires the commitment to pass on our values and moral system established since biblical times, and as Telushkin identified, of all the things Moses could have shared with the people in his final message, he chose to highlight our codes of conduct. “You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no one, for judgment is Gd’s” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17).
How we treat one another is the basis for building a fair and just society. The treatment of others was intended to be an objective process, although we do it subjectively. We were all “made in the image of Gd” and we should therefore imagine we are interacting with Gd every time we interact with one another. The Jewish people have been an or l’goyim (“light unto the nations”) for generations. It is this dedication to a just, fair, and moral society that Moses wanted to make sure we perpetuate.
Over 150 years ago the first Jews of San Antonio came together to begin building the infrastructure of the Jewish community that we celebrate today. These ancestors, along with many members of our community since, have not only invested in building the physical spaces for our community to gather, but have also built the network of support, respect, and recognition that echoed the broader diversity of San Antonio. These elders taught us how to care for one another even if our ideologies conflicted, if our thoughts differed, or if our interests varied. We still came together to build community.
In honor of Moses’ message to our ancestors so many generations ago, and to our local leaders who brought us to where we are today, let us reach out to someone whom we haven’t talked to in a while and reengage that friendship, that relationship, that connection so that 150 years from today there will be others reflecting on this week’s Torah portion and thanking us for investing in the moral and ethical infrastructure of the Jewish San Antonio community. Because we are…