Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

A Testament to Ethics

So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them

By Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer
Jewish Lights Publishing (1991), 237 Pages, $16.95

By Miriam Schulman

To my beloved son, I open hand to those in need.

To my dearest daughter, I respect for learning.

Though these bequests are not what many people expect to find in a final testament, they are very much in keeping with an ancient tradition — the ethical will.

Instead of detailing who is to receive Mama's gold brooch, ethical wills are intended to transmit values that were important to the testator. The practice has its roots in the Bible, according to Nathaniel Stampfer, co-author with Jack Riemer of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them. Medieval models can be found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Today, such wills are still common among Jews and Muslims. And some people, says Rabbi Amy Eilberg, director of Kol Haneshamah, Jewish Hospice Care of San Francisco, "come upon this practice on their own as they anticipate death. They are living the process of dying with so much awareness they intuitively grasp that this is a moment to communicate with their family and community."

Not that a person must be dying to construct an ethical will. Rabbi Riemer writes in his introduction to So That Your Values Live On: "I have learned that ethical wills have the power to make people confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives. They can make people who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for."

The wills can address a variety of issues. Khalid Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Education and Information Center in San Jose and a Bay Area imam, has a will passed down to him from his grandfather. "It deals with Islamic burial etiquette, values, how to recite the Koran after his death, how to perform deeds of righteousness, how people should be united and morals protected — he touches on the important points of the whole system to maintain the goodness of the family."

Eilberg stresses that writing an ethical will does not require enormous learning or wisdom. "Whether it matches the great truths or not doesn't matter. It's what you have to give," she says. "What else can we give our children but who we are?"

For those who need guidance in writing such a document, Riemer and Stampfer's book provides a chapter with step-by-step instructions, including possible topics to address, how to organize a will, and various means for personalizing the moral concepts the testator wishes to pass on.

But the best guide for writing an ethical will is reading the extraordinary selection of 19th- and 20th century wills in So That Your Values Live On. The following excerpts give just a taste of that wise, moving, and finally humbling collection.

Benjamin M. Roth
This ethical letter was written in 1854 by Benjamin M. Roth to his son Solomon, just prior to the latter's leaving the family home in Germany for the United States.

It is doubtful whether we shall see each other again in life; and from afar I cannot warn you against such dangers as often threaten youth. Yet even from the furthermost distance, I shall think of you only with fatherly love and tenderness and will at all times do everything in my power to help you....

Always seek to keep your conscience clear, i.e., never commit an action which you will have to regret afterward. Think carefully about everything you contemplate doing before its execution, and consider its consequences, so that you will act only after due consideration. A sure test of a clear conscience is an unclouded temperament and a cheerful spirit. Since you have received both from nature, seek to preserve them....

Shulamit Rabinovitch
A devoted communal worker in the Kovno ghetto of Lithuania, Shulamit Rabinovitch wrote this letter to her sons in the United States on D-day, June 6, 1944.

We sense the end is near. It will not be long before they finish us off.... Actually it is not difficult for me to die, or for Papa either. What is very hard, infinitely hard, is the fact that your young brother Shmuel will die when we do. And he is such a wonderful boy. Even under the most brutal conditions, he developed into a fine human being; perhaps with less formal education, but with so much humane feeling and refinement, that it would be truly worthwhile for him to remain alive. How few of those who suffered this treatment retained the human image! The struggle for existence is hard and everyone wants to live, to save himself; the law of the jungle is dominant: "Save yourself if you can."

But you may be very proud of your father. He is among those who never took advantage of his public office, never put Shmuel or me ahead of the other sufferers for whom he was responsible....

For years we learned so much, suffered so much. We could teach others so very much, and it is too bad that it all comes to nothing, along with us. Were we to be rescued, we could dry up the oceans, and demonstrate with how little a person can get along! If I could only bequeath you the ability to get along with little and the ability to do everything for yourself, then you, being free, could never be unhappy....

Samuel Lipsitz
The following will of a New England businessman, handwritten on sheets of business stationery, is remarkable for its clarity and insight. It was composed over a period of several months between October 1950 and January 1951.

Somewhere among these papers is a will made out by a lawyer. Its purpose is to dispose of any material things which I may possess at the time of my departure from this world to the unknown adventure beyond.

I hope its terms will cause no ill will among you. It seemed sensible when I made it. After all, it refers only to material things which we enjoy only temporarily.

I am more concerned with having you inherit something that is vastly more important.

There must be a purpose in the creation of man. Because I believe that (as I hope you will some day, for without it life becomes meaningless), I hope you will live right.

Live together in harmony! Carry no ill will toward each other. Bethink of the family. Help each other in case of need. Honor and care for your mother. Make her old age happy, as far as in your power....

Reprint permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.

Sam Levenson
A well-known humorist who had his own TV show on CBS, Sam Levenson published this "Ethical Will and Testament to His Grandchildren and to Children Everywhere" in 1976.

I leave you my unpaid debts. They are my greatest assets. Everything I own -- I owe:

  1. To America I owe a debt for the opportunity it gave me to be free and to be me.

  2. To my parents I owe America. They gave it to me, and I leave it to you. Take good care of it.

  3. To the biblical tradition I owe the belief that man does not live by bread alone, nor does he live alone at all. This is also the democratic tradition. Preserve it.

  4. To the 6 million of my people and to the 30 million other humans who died because of man's inhumanity to man, I owe a vow that it must never happen again.

  5. I leave you not everything I never had, but everything I had in my lifetime: a good family, respect for learning, compassion for my fellow man, and some four-letter words for all occasions: words like help, give, care, feel, and love.

    Love, my dear grandchildren, is easier to recommend than to define. I can tell you only that like those who came before you, you will surely know when love ain't; you will also know when mercy ain't and brotherhood ain't.

    The millennium will come when all the ain'ts shall become ises and all the ises shall be for all, even for those you don't like.

    Finally, I leave you the years I should like to have lived so that I might possibly see whether your generation will bring more love and peace to the world than ours did. I not only hope that you will. I pray that you will.

Reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright (c) 1977 by Samuel Levenson.

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