Written By Loretta Jaunzarins

An ordinary will is for your valuables;
an ethical will is for your values.
~ Judith Favor

Let’s Talk About Endings – Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters

What kind of wealth are you going to leave your children or family?

What is an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter?

Rabbi Jack Reimer writes on his blog My Jewish Learning, “There is a lovely Jewish custom, one that is unfortunately not sufficiently known in our time, of writing what is called an ethical will. Parents would write a letter to their children in which they would try to sum up all that they had learned in life, and in which they would try to express what they wanted most for and from their children. They would leave these letters behind because they believed that the wisdom they had acquired was just as much a part of the legacy they wanted to leave their children as were all the material possessions.”

Where did they come from?

We find the first ethical wills in the Bible. In Genesis 49, Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebecca and grandson of Abraham and Sarah, gathers his children around his bedside and says to them, “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to your in the days to come.” These blessings to each of his sons are one of the first known oral Ethical Wills. Also in the Bible, we read that Moses makes a farewell address to his people before he dies. David prepares Solomon before he dies by asking him to complete the task he had begun and was unable to complete and warning him whom to watch out for when he becomes king.

Around 1357 CE we find the ethical will written by Eleazar the Levite who wrote, “Judge every [person] charitably, and use your best efforts to find a kindly explanation of conduct, however suspicious . . . Give in charity an exact tithe of your property. Never turn a poor [person] away empty-handed . . . Be not as dumb cattle that utter no word of gratitude, but thank God for his bounties at the time at which they occur, and in your prayers let the memory of these personal favours warm your hearts . . . When the words of thanks occur in the liturgy, pause and silently reflect on the goodness of God to you that day.”

Writing an Ethical Will or Legacy Letter Today

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Ethical wills and legacy letters have been found written by many kinds of people in many different countries. They are all precious spiritual documents – a window into the soul of the person. They are heartfelt messages that maintain their relevance no matter who the person was or when they lived. An ethical will means passing on your spiritual legacy to your family. It’s your personal mission statement, the values and virtues that have made your life worth living.

As Michael Curry, current presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in America wrote after reading Rabbi Steve Leder’s book For You When I Am Gone, “I’ve changed my will because of this book. I don’t necessarily mean the will with instructions for the disposition of my earthly possession. I mean the will composed not by a lawyer but by my life, the legacy of the love, the values, the virtues that make life worth living. A life lived like that can create beauty even in the valley of the shadow of death. I cried, I laughed, and my heart sang – now, death, where is your sting?”

Ethical Will and Legacy Letter Webinar, Saturday, October 1 at 9:30 am

Join Pastor Loretta Jaunzarins and Dr. Ellen Ryan for a two-hour Zoom workshop on Saturday, October 1 from 9:30am – 11:30am. Learn more about writing your ethical will or legacy letter. I know you will enjoy writing your legacy to your family, and they will cherish your words in their hearts. What an amazing gift to give our loved ones! Extra writing sessions are being planned for the Fall.

Resources

Freed, R. (2013). Your legacy matters: A multi-generational guide for writing your ethical will. Minneapolis MN: Minerva Press.  

Leder, S. (2022). For You When I Am Gone: Twelve Essential Questions to Tell a Life Story. Avery.

Reimer, J., & Stampfer, D. N. (2013). So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them (1st edition). Jewish Lights.