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Do you have an Ethical Will?

Dr. H. David Burstein June 2007.

Several years ago while at a Bar Mitzvah my mind started to wander. I was curious about the origin of the word "religion". What was "ligion"? "Re", as far as I was concerned meant "pertaining to". "Ligion" I had no idea. I then quietly laughed at myself and said "Get a life and lighten up!"

Amazingly, two days later at a UJA conference in Washington D.C. , I actually got an answer. I attended a lecture on Jewish medical ethics (see how I listened to my own advice about lightening up!), given by Rabbi Elliot Dorff. Within the first two minutes of the talk he explained "The word religion has the same Latin root as ligament, "that which binds." I knew I was in the right place.

It was a great talk. Of the many ideas conveyed in the lecture, Dr. Dorff contrasted the difference between secular versus Jewish medical ethics. He asked the question "Who owns your body?" The Western secular mentality focuses on the autonomy of the individual. Jewish medical ethics say God owns our body. He then gave an example of this in comparing our rights and obligations when we own something as opposed to renting it.

Being born a Canadian Jew is one of the greatest blessings in the world. I love being a member of both nations that provides me with two solid bases for experiencing this life. I am comforted when the values are the same. I am challenged when they are different.

Over the years I have often asked people how they define themselves. Are they a Jewish Canadian, or Canadian Jew? I am a human being first. But then I am a Jew. If God forbid during the course of my lifetime Canada no longer existed, it would not change the value system that has shaped my "world view".

Core values define each of us. But how do we express this to our loved ones? Rabbi Marc Gafni wrote in the book "Soul Prints" that we all want our essence to be known in the world. Jewishly, our values are expressed through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Most of us want to live our lives knowing that the world is a better place for our having been here.

After we are gone, how do we get that essence known?

In the secular world, there is our written will. It focuses on the disposition of our physical assets. But do we define ourselves by the material we leave behind?

In Jewish tradition, there is a second type of will, an ethical will, known a Tzavaa. It is a way of leaving a legacy to our loved ones of our wisdom about life, about the ideals we strived for, lives and the life experiences that added joy, meaning and purpose to our existence.

The importance of the ethical will is now more obvious to me. My uncle Saul Freeman recently passed away. He was as kind and honorable a man as I have known.

Photography is a hobby of mine. My uncle was one of my favorite subjects.

After he died, I was asked to find some of the best pictures I had taken of him. Going through my albums it occurred to me, that even though his great grandchildren may see pictures of him smiling with family and friends, they would only be able to get to know him in the third person. They will literally see snapshots of his life, but probably not be able to grasp who he was. Dont you think theyd love to know the thoughts that inspired him to his understated greatness?

There are several books that have been written about ethical wills. They include:
 
"So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them" by Jack Riemer
"Legacy : A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History" by Linda Spence
"Ethical Wills: Putting your Values on Paper" by Barry Baines

There is a website www.ethicalwill.com.

Personal writing is a mirror of our soul. While making a specific ethical will may be difficult, Id like to suggest that we all keep a diary. Or start writing a letter to a child we love that we would want them to read when they are 30. Then see where it takes you.

We all have stories to tell about our lives. What are the important ones that you wish to relate that you would want your descendants to know about you. After all, if you think about it, regardless of who actually wrote the Torah, it can be read as the ethical will or love letter that Moses wrote to his descendants through the ages. It is the will that is our binder.

Thank you for reading this article. Any feedback would be appreciated. I can be reached at hdburstein@rogers.com

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