|A 6th grade teacher posed the following problem to her class in arithmetic: “A wealthy man dies and leaves twenty million dollars. One-fourth is to go to his wife; one-fifth is to go to his daughter, one-sixth to his butler, and the rest to charity. Now,” she asked the class, “what does each get?” After a few moments of silence, Joey answers, “A lawyer?”
Eventually, everyone does need a lawyer at least to make sure we have clearly written down a “Last Will and Testament” telling exactly what we want to pass on to our loved ones. We make sure to list our assets and how they are to be dispersed – what goes to our spouse or partner, our children, relatives, friends, and hopefully to charitable causes as well. Of course wills are more than simply legal documents – they are statements of your values as well – they communicate now and from beyond the grave who you love and what your priorities really are.
While I’m at it, let me publicly thank all of you who have kindly included KI in your wills and estate planning. Doing so will help us insure that future generations will be able to experience a Jewish education and the richness of Jewish life regardless of their ability to pay. That is a great mitzvah and I am deeply grateful for your support.
And by the way – no matter how old you are – everybody should own a burial plot – everyone should make arrangements for their own death and funeral and burial or cremation or whatever you choose. EVERYONE. Didi and I bought our plots 15 years ago - a loving gift to Gable for her 10th birthday.
Because every single year, month after month I end up sitting with spouses and children of someone who has suddenly died with NO arrangements made and at the absolute worst possible moment, in the midst of a family’s most profound grief and loss and pain – confused, disoriented, going out of their minds, they suddenly have to spend unexpected thousands and thousands of dollars and make instant decisions they often later regret.
Give yourself the gift of peace of mind, give your loved ones one of the most thoughtful gifts you will ever give – this coming week make those difficult decisions and spare them untold pain and additional suffering in the future.
OK, so there are legal wills and “living wills,” which lay down the conditions of your death, detailing what extraordinary medical measures, if any, you want taken on your behalf when you are at death's door or are unable to make decisions for yourself.
But neither of these speaks to what really matters most about what you leave behind. For what matters most aren’t your possessions and how you distribute them – it isn’t the amount of money or the number of cars you leave behind- what matters most is the legacy of the living values that have inspired you to become who and what you are.
That is what you really bequeath to future generations. That is what you leave to your children, your friends, your community. The values you cherish, the lessons you have learned about life; the insights you have gained from the trials and tribulations, triumphs and successes of daily living.
For ultimately those lessons, those insights, those values you cherish will be more precious than all the money in the world to those you leave behind.
And yet, all of us know what a challenge it is at any time to communicate effectively with those we love. It’s like the story of the man who asked his wife what she’d like for her birthday. “I’d love to be six again,” she replied.
So, on the morning of her birthday, he got her up bright and early and off they went to the local theme park. What a day! He put her on every ride in the park. Five hours later she staggered out of the theme park, her head reeling, her stomach upside down. Right to a McDonald’s they went for a Big Kids Meal with extra fries and a chocolate shake. Then it was off to see the latest kid’s movie, complete with hot dogs and popcorn.
What a fabulous adventure. Finally she wobbled home with her husband and collapsed into bed. He leaned over and lovingly asked, “Well, dear, what was it like being six again?”
One eye opened; she looked up at him and said, “No dummy. I meant my dress size.”
If you think about how difficult it is to effectively communicate what is important to us right now while we are living, imagine the challenge of making sure our loved ones understand us when we are gone.
Believe it or not, Jewish civilization has had an answer to this challenge for the past 4,000 years – stretching back to our most ancient sacred texts – the Book of Genesis in the Torah.
When the patriarch Jacob was about to die, he called his twelve sons to his bedside, and one by one he spoke to them at length – sharing his vision for their future, the qualities he saw in them, the values that he cherished. In essence he created what has over time come to be known as an Ethical Will.
So tonight as we begin our New Year – the time of our most intense self reflection; what we call in Hebrew Heshbon hanefesh – a “spiritual life-review,” I am challenging each and every one of you to sit down and write your own Ethical Will – a sacred text of your own personal ethics and ideals that you want to pass on to the next generation.
Most of you know the famous story of Alfred Nobel. Everyone has heard of him – he was the inventor of nitroglycerin, and dynamite and another 355 patents during his lifetime. In fact, at the time of his death in 1897 he had become one of the wealthiest men in Europe. But the real turning point in the life of Alfred Nobel came years before his death not long after he had first invented nitroglycerine.
It so happened that his brother, Emil was working with him in Stockholm and was tragically killed in an explosion while preparing the nitro in their factory. The next day as Alfred opened the local newspaper to read his brothers obituary, he was shocked to discover that the paper had made a mistake and run an obituary about him instead.
As he sat and read this review of his own life, he was aghast to realize that the legacy he was leaving behind was as the inventor of the single most powerful source of destruction in history. When people thought of him, he realized, they would think of death, destruction and the ability to blow up and kill more people at one time than ever before which his genius had created.
At that moment he had a crisis of conscience – a profound confrontation with the ultimate question of what we really leave behind. So he decided to use his wealth and success to help transform the world for good – and he created the Nobel Foundation which every year gives out the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. And today when you hear the name “Nobel,” you think of the Nobel Prize – and that has become his legacy just as he had dreamed.
So what will you leave behind? To your kids, to your community, to your spouse or partner, to future generations? How will you be remembered? Ultimately that question is the entire point of these High Holy Days - they are about planning our spiritual legacy.
Week after week I sit with 13 year olds as I help them prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I work with them on their speeches and we talk about their lives and the kind of people they want to be when they grow up. I ask them to imagine that ten years has passed and they are now adults. If they could eavesdrop on some of their friends as they are talking about them, what would they want them to say? How would they like to be described? What kind of people would they want their friends to think they are? What qualities would they want their friends to see in them?
So tonight I ask you the same question - because you don't have to wait ten years to find out what kind of adult you will turn out to be. You simply need look in the mirror to find the answer. If you could be a fly on the wall as your friends talk about you, what do you think they would say? How would they describe you? What kind of person would they think you are? What qualities of character would they identify with you?
Would they talk about your business acumen? How tough you are in negotiations? How generous you are with those in need? How sweet? How loving? How Caring? That you are a good provider? Or a loving parent? Or perhaps someone they can always count on? That you are someone with integrity? Or someone with lots of promises and grand ideas but no follow-through?
Look at your life the way Alfred Nobel looked at his. Imagine your children reading your obituary. Would you be proud of who you are and what you have become? If you were writing the story of your values and what matters most to you in life for your kids to read, what would that story entail, and what would those values be?
This is not a rhetorical question, or merely a philosophical sermon. I really want you to write that story. The story of the things that matter most to you -the values that you cherish, the ideas that inspire you, that motivate you in your life - the ethics you embrace, the qualities of life that you cherish.
A colleague of mine was speaking at a Family Life Marriage Conference last year when a man came up and handed him a letter to read. This man’s lifelong desire had been to hear his father say “I love you,” but his father had died in World War II, when the man was only 3 years old. As he was growing up his mother had often assured him of his father’s love, but it never really filled the void he felt.
One day, this man, now 40 years old, was helping his mother move. She gave him an old army picture of his father. The picture slipped out of his hands and the frame and glass shattered all over the floor. As he picked up the mess, he noticed a piece of paper wedged behind the photo.
It was the letter he had brought to the conference to show my colleague – evidently his father thinking he might die in the war had written a letter to his three-year-old son and hidden it behind that picture. In the letter the father shared his love for this son and the values that he cherished. It took thirty-seven years to pass until by accident, the son finally discovered the loving legacy his father had left behind. Don’t let that happen to your child.
Of course we write our living legacies every day by the words we say and the deeds we perform; the way we treat our family, friends and colleagues. But committing to paper the ideas that inspire us and guide our own lives can be one of the most priceless gifts we can ever give to our loved ones.
Here are two examples of what I am talking about: First, Joe Berman of Toronto wrote to his children:
“Make a commitment, and get a spouse. With a spouse children can become a reality and family is formed. Family leads to being part of a community, and within a community you are a force and you have strength.
“Make your family home an oasis of faith, tranquility, light and warmth so that it becomes an example worthy of emulation.
“Share - your feelings, your joys, your sorrows, your blessings. Be alive. Learn to let yourself feel. Learn to savor each moment even if it does not last – in fact savor it because it does not last.”
And Barry Baines, a family physician wrote: “My hopes for you are that you find a vocation that adds value to the world. I hope you continue the traditions and faith of Judaism.”
And then he talked about the importance of humor, making mistakes as a way to learn, of having a balance in life and respecting other people.
And they aren’t only for people in the later years of their lives. We had a young mother die tragically, suddenly in her sleep this past year leaving two small children – how precious would it be to those kids to have her words to read when they grow up?
Didi and I sat down independently and wrote our own Ethical Wills for our daughter, Gable. We both ended up with a list of what we consider to be the ten most important values we want to teach our child and they were remarkably similar. First here are some of the points I’ve taken from Didi’s ethical will to Gable:
You can write your values as a list or a narrative story. The important part is to sit down and put your thoughts on paper. Hopefully you will be living for many decades to come – but it is never too soon to articulate the values that you cherish.
That is the work of the High Holy Days – and it is sacred work. I challenge you – every single one of you to do it during these next ten days – the traditional Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Use this time for personal reflection and to write the values you cherish most – for that really is your true legacy to your children and the generations to come.
There was a family, not very well off, who stayed overnight in a cheap motel on their way to a new town where the father hoped to find work. The next day, after they had driven 30 miles further on, they discovered that their young son had taken one of those small complimentary bars of soap from the motel.
They turned around and drove back. The father brought the son into the motel office and stood with him as the ashamed boy handed the soap to the clerk.
The clerk said, “That’s not necessary; those are free.”
And the father replied, “Yes, but he didn’t know that.”
What are your values? How do you live them? Think about your life, and like Alfred Nobel know that today, tonight, right now you too have the power to choose.
And remember, one way or another you will leave a legacy for future generations – the only question is what will that legacy be?