An Ethical Will

An Ethical Will

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

During this month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, which begin on the first day of Tishrei, thus the New Year, we read from the fifth book of the Torah, in Deuteronomy. There we find Moses’s final words and instructions to the Israelites. They are about to enter the Promised Land without Moses, so his words are his final opportunity to tell them what they must do to avail themselves of God’s blessings and to enjoy the fruits of the Land. Some of Moses’s most important words are repeated for emphasis. Torah is written without punctuation, italicized letters, or bold fonts, so there’s no means to emphasize important points or lessons unless they’re repeated. For example, in Deuteronomy 18, we read, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” It’s likely that we remember this verse because repetition works.

Thousands of years later, we have the same privilege to tell our children and grandchildren what they must know for the sake of the future. Our children aren’t entering a Promised Land, but they are entering new phases of their lives that we told them will be filled with all their dreams. That’s what America is still about and what our ancestors who came here believed. Whether or not it’s completely true doesn’t change the fact that America is a remarkable land of opportunity, and we want the next generation to trust in it.

In Judaism, we have a tradition of writing Ethical Wills. Different than an Estate Will or a Living Will, an Ethical Will describes the moral teaching, lessons, and hopes that a family head wants to impress upon the next generation. There’s no limit to what it can contain. It might be ritual ethics, like keeping the holidays, and making Shabbat at home and the synagogue. It might be ethical duties, like giving tzedakah to feed the hungry and house the homeless. It might be a general wish that tikkun olam, to participate in improving the world, should be a priority. Similarly, Ethical Wills can include expectations for Jewish study, the children’s bar or bat mitzvahs, and devotion to the State of Israel.

There is no time when an Ethical Will must be prepared, and there’s nothing to say that one should be prepared, at all; but at this time of year, when we read Deuteronomy and prepare for the High Holy Days, the idea of one seems timely. If you were to prepare an Ethical Will for your children or grandchildren, what would you prioritize in your document for them? What Jewish lessons, wisdom, and hopes would you urge them to keep? What rituals would you like them to observe; would it include Shabbat, holidays, and yahrtzeit anniversaries? Is there a Jewish hero you would highlight as a role model to learn from, or a time in Jewish history they should always remember?

A Jewish Ethical Will doesn’t have to replace a general Ethical Will, but the point at this time of year is to prioritize our commitment to God, Torah, and our people. Use a computer to write and edit, or record a video of yourself speaking the words you want them to hear, or dictate your words as the computer writes them for you. There’s almost no reason not to do it. Rather than repeat yourself, as Moses had to do, use bold and italicized print, double-underline for emphasis, and use a few exclamation points to highlight your passion. 

In Deuteronomy we also read (6:4ff), “You shall impress them upon your children.” Like the mitzvot in Torah, an Ethical Will is a means of impressing upon our children all that we want them to do and be in the future. How will you begin?


An Ethical Will 3