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A Testament to Ethics
So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them
By Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer
To my beloved son, I bequeath...an open hand to those in need.
To my dearest daughter, I leave...my 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
Reprint permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.
Reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright (c) 1977 by Samuel Levenson.
If you are inspired to write your own ethical will, please consider sharing a copy with us. Please fill out our feedback form.
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